My expectations of life as a Black, college student in the 1990s were largely shaped by a TV show called “A Different World.” The show was set on the campus of the fictional Hillman College in Virginia. For the first time I saw a group of students on television who looked like me and whose background mirrored my own. There were first-generation students who felt they shouldered the expectations of their entire community. Students from working class backgrounds who relied on scholarships and grants to squeak by and still worried whether they’d be able to afford the next semester. There were legacy students whose family names were etched onto plaques of libraries or attached to endowed chairs. Students who grew up in racially segregated towns that denied the fullness of Black experiences learned alongside the children of immigrants who spoke Patwah with ease yet struggled to decipher Southern accents.
The children of high school dropouts, police officers and judges watched “A Different World” religiously and devoured every episode that addressed issues like divestment, sexual assault, colorism, HIV/AIDS, violence and classism. I knew that even if I couldn’t attend Hillman, I was drawn to some of the show’s ubiquitous elements: Intellectual Awakenings. Great parties. Community Service. Renowned Professors. Strong alumni networks. And Greek life.
I came of age when Spike Lee’s blockbuster hit “School Daze” exploded on the cultural scene. I watched “The Fellas” battle it out with the brothers of “GPhiG” during the homecoming step show. I listened with disgust as the “Wannabes” and the “Jigaboos” played out every horrible stereotype that has long divided communities of color under the framework of white supremacy. It prompted me and many others to reflect on how efforts to build community may replicate the same types of constraints present in mainstream culture. In spite of “School Daze”’s popularity, it was “A Different World” that stuck with me. If you ask me what I had for lunch yesterday I probably can’t remember. But ask me about the “It’s Greek to Me” episode where Dwayne Wayne and Ron Johnson entertained kids from the community center and I’ll likely launch into an off-key rendition of “We stand fast. We stand tall. We stand together. We can never fall … Zoom Zoom!” Ask me about the “Sister to Sister, Sister” episode and I will remember how proud I was of Kimberly Reese for exhibiting the power of intellect in “knocking down the door.” More than just a show and movie, these two cultural products highlighted the unique history and continuing significance of historically Black fraternities and sororities.
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated was founded on the campus of Cornell University on December 4, 1906 as the first intercollegiate fraternity formed for African-American men. At the time of its creation, African-American students were largely barred from attending public colleges and universities and their numbers on private campuses remained small. Those students who did attend found themselves shut out from participating in existing organizations and often created their own networks, affiliations, and institutions to promote civic engagement, cultural awareness and scholastic excellence. Long before the Nineteenth Amendment recognized women as voters, a small group of women gathered at Howard University to create the first service Sorority founded by and for African-American women. On January 15, 1908, these pioneering women founded Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated to promote the principles of service, sisterhood and scholarship. In so doing, they challenged the erasure that often equates race leadership with Black men and women’s leadership with white women. For example, although Howard has long been a premiere institution for educating Black students, less than 25 women earned Howard degrees from 1908-1911. Sixteen of those graduates were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
Seven other fraternities and sororities have been created by, but not exclusive to, Black students: Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. Together with Alpha Kappa Alpha and Alpha Phi Alpha, these organizations known as the “Divine Nine” have produced members engaged in nearly every facet of public life. From leading movements for social justice (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph), to pioneering space exploration (Dr. Mae Jemison and Dr. Katherine Johnson), to politics (Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Bobby Rush), to sports and culture (Colin Kaepernick and MC Lyte), members of these organizations are bound by a collective commitment to community uplift that transcends historic firsts and notable achievements. Their commitment is an active resistance against limiting stereotypes, racial aggressions and institutional failings.
I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated at the University of Virginia on April 20, 1997. I had friends, family members and teachers who were members and I was fascinated that the young women at UVA with the highest GPA’s, substantial leadership positions and intricate step routines were all in sororities. They were leading student government, presiding over the powerful Judiciary Committee and working with the Admissions Office to increase the number of underrepresented students on campus. Together, these women were directly responsible for UVA having one of the highest rates of Black student retention and graduation of any university in the country. They did so as Peer Advisers, — who provided direct academic assistance while providing invaluable advice on avoiding the pitfalls of being away from one’s parents for the first time — as academic deans and coaches; financial aid officers and physicians. They were confident and competent; beautiful and brave. I saw in all of them the kind of woman I wanted to become. And when things got difficult or I questioned my place on Grounds, they were there to remind me of the power of perseverance. These women of various sororities proved that the benefits of sisterhood transcend the boundaries of label and affiliation.
Twenty years after graduation and they are still the women I seek to emulate. They have gone on to be judges, teachers, entrepreneurs, journalists and tastemakers. It makes me proud to know my sisters are winning on Shark Tank, defending the innocent, shaping public policy and building community one child at a time. When I speak to students navigating racial contestations on their campuses, I am reminded of the need for coethnic networks, structures and resources that provide a space of refuge and inspiration for underrepresented students. Over time, other groups have created their own fraternal organizations designed to address the unique needs and interests of their constituents. Some of those affinity-based organizations include American Indian Sorority Alpha Pi Omega, Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, the oldest Hispanic fraternity in existence Phi Iota Alpha fraternity, and Delta Phi Kappa the oldest Asian American interest sorority. Theta Omega Phi was founded as the first LGBT-centered fraternity in 1956. Other fraternal organizations have also been formed to support the interests of Muslim, Christian, and Multicultural students on campuses across the country. These groups are historically but not exclusively populated by students with shared demographic profiles. Just as groups like Knights of Columbus and Hadassah were created to build community, so too do these newer fraternal groups who deepen collegiate and alumni investment in diversity and inclusion.
For most people, affiliating with fraternities and sororities ends at graduation. But for African-Americans once denied entry into American colleges, membership in these historic organizations lasts a lifetime. Last week the Twitterati rapidly responded to a post from Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes who seemed baffled by the sea of women in pink and green supporting U.S. Senator Kamala Harris during a recent book talk. Jones didn’t understand why these women “screeched” when Harris mentioned her time at Howard or her sorority membership. Although Janes later apologized for her ignorance, it was a sign that for many people, multicultural culture remains invisible. And so on this 111th anniversary of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s founding and the continued need to advance the needs of girls and women, I proudly say, “Skee-Wee.”
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.