My Thoughts on the Black Greek System
Email address: Chuck Smoot
An Introduction to Greekdom:
I was first introduced to the black greek system by my cousins, both of whom are members of my fraternity. I remember being about 7 or 8 years old and one of my cousins had just finished pledging. He had a paddle in the corner of his room with all of his information on it (date and time of initiation, name of his line, his number, etc.) and I thought it looked like a cool toy so I picked it up and started swinging it around like a baseball bat. My cousin walked into the room and immediately snatched the paddle out of my hand and threw me on the bed and very sternly told me that I could not touch that paddle until I earned the right to touch it.
I went crying to my mother and she had no sympathy for me. She only said, "You shouldn't have touched it." She understood. I didn't. She was greek. I wasn't.
It's over 20 years later. Now I understand. I began to understand on a rainy Sunday night in April when I became a Sphinxman, when I became a pledge. That process altered my life forever. The process of pledging a fraternity.
The idea of a fraternity is neither a recent nor a unique idea. The motivation behind what is modernly called fraternity has been around for thousands of years. Derived from the French word for "brotherhood," it is a concept that can be traced to as far back to the building of the pyramids of Giza, when the ancient stone masons formed their own groups to provide a system of support among their own groups.
In the early 1700's, the notion of a fraternity took on a different turn, with the re-emergence of the Freemasons. The Freemason's were on the verge of extinction when four lodges from the area around London, England helped to revitalize Masonry into what it is now. Ever since then, Mason's have played an important (if not sometimes negative) role in both the American and British societies.
In the late 1700's, the first greek letter organization arose, Phi Beta Kappa, and started a trend that has lasted to this very day. Even though it would eventually abandon it's secretive nature, other greek-letter organizations began popping up like wildfire.
Hence, in 1904, Sigma Pi Phi became the first black fraternity. However, it was not created for black college students. The purpose of this fraternity was geared more towards the mature students. But the fact remains that contrary to what others may say, it is the first black fraternity.
However, on December 4, 1906, seven young men laid the foundation for what would eventually be called the "grandfather of all black greek organizations." Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. was born at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for the express purpose of catering to and providing support for black college students who had no actual support system of their own at their institution. The fact that this organization was founded at an Ivy League institution should not be overlooked, rather emphasized.
Within the next 18 years, seven other black greek organizations would begin, forming what is now known as the "Elite Eight." They are (in order of founding date):
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1908;
Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 1911;
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1911;
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1913;
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1914;
Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Howard University, Washington, D.C. 1920;
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1922
( In November of 1996, Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc., a fraternity founded at Morgan State University in 1963, was admitted into the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Therefore, what was once referred to as the "Elite Eight" is now kindly referred to as the "Divine Nine". There is a very impressive site called Brothers and Sisters , a site devoted totally to Black Greek Organizations where you can learn more about this fraternity and other black greek lettered organizations.)
Since the inception of these organizations, they have been called everything from elitist to barbarians to preppie snobs. It should be noted, however, that these same words have been used to describe almost every other black organization that has ever existed in America, from the NAACP, to Operation P.U.S.H., to the Congressional Black Caucus, to the many other civic oriented organizations that seek to assist Black America.
In the last 10-15 years or so, the public image of the black greek organizations has taken a nose dive. With the increased publicity of the activities of our organizations, we have been overly criticized and in some cases, convicted without benefit of judge or jury, just the media as the executioners.
Teenagers are creating clubs in their high schools and calling them fraternities in an attempt to get to that point all the sooner. Even when I was in high school, I was in a club called the Nasty Boys, and we had a mock pledge process. I even remember during that process I was willing to go through with what we did because I knew I would do the same thing in college when I pledged a college fraternity. What we did then was nothing like what some of these kids are doing today. It has all gotten out of hand. These high school clubs are using paddles, doing real brutal things that either they heard about on the news, or heard from someone who was in a fraternity or sorority.
To give you an idea of just how out of hand it has gotten and how these high school kids are looking at it, I relay the following example: A few years ago I was talking with a young man who was in the youth group through my Masonic lodge. He was a junior in high school and in a club called "Crunch Bunch" and group that almost anyone who went to public high school on the south side of Chicago within the last 20 years or so should be familiar with. It was during one of our talks about what goes on in college greek life that he told me about a story he had heard. His friends sister goes to college somewhere in the south. She told them that there was a pledge in one of her classes and one day some of the brothers in that fraternity came to his class and waited for him outside. When he came out, they just started beating him in front of everyone there. No one tried to stop them and when it was over, they told him to come with them, which he did.
The guy who told me this story was impressed by this. He thought that it was one of the coolest things he had heard. He liked the idea of just walking up to someone and just start beating them for no reason at all. Now during his initiation process for Crunch Bunch, he claimed he had been hit with a paddle at least 500 or so times in one sitting. Honestly, I think he is exaggerating, but that is besides the point (even at the height of my pledge process, I never took that many strokes in one sitting). The point is that he thinks is and was a good thing and I deplore that type of attitude. Ass kicking for ass kicking sakes' never helped anyone. There has to be a reason and a method to everything, and that's what he, and others like him, do not understand. (It should be noted that this young man is now a member of my Masonic lodge and has yet to join a greek-letter fraternity).
I have never understood how people can pass judgment on something that they really don't know about. To me it is like a white man saying he knows what it is like to be a black woman. Unless you've lived it, you can't understand it. Which is why Spike Lee and the like have really annoyed me. They are passing judgment on our organizations based on the outer appearances, not what actually goes on inside the individual organizations. If they really knew, they would be shocked.
The other thing that annoys me is that there has only been one side of the story presented. With any other group of people, particularly blacks, we would be up in arms, calling everyone racists or bigots or any other name we could think of, if other aspects of our community had taken the beating that the black greeks have. But it seems that because the black population at large does not know what goes on behind closed doors, and they feel they have a right to know (which they don't), that they allow us, the greeks, to be hanged in the media. The media doesn't show the reality of the situation. There is more to this story. much, much, more.
On Saturday, May 16, 1987, at 5:37am, I became a new person. I became a different person. I became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. When I walked out of the Alpha House on that Saturday morning, it seemed to me that everything was right with the world. The grass was greener, the trees were taller, the birds sang sweeter, and I was an Alpha.
I had just finished being a pledge. Seven and a half weeks of hell. I went through things I never thought I could. There were times during my pledge period when I never thought I would make it. Sometimes, when riding in the car with my pledge brothers (hereinafter referred to as Ships), I would think of just jumping out of the car while it was moving, not thinking of what harm would come to myself, only thinking about ending this tortuous process that I was going through.
Now those thoughts seem silly to me. Very few things can equate the joy I feel in being a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. There is an intense feeling of pride I get whenever I look at the tattoo on my arm, when I see those letters scrawled on a car or see an Alpha Phi Alpha web page here in cyberspace. I am an Alpha. And damn proud of it.
I know that there are a lot of people who do not, cannot and will not understand why people pledge fraternities and sororities. To be honest, neither do I. The reasons I gave for wanting to be an Alpha I can barely remember.
Sometimes I wonder why I wanted to be an Alpha, aside from the fact that my cousins, two of the men I respect most in this world, are Alpha's. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my mother is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the sister organization to Alpha Phi Alpha. Maybe it had something to do with seeing those Alpha pledges in the spring of 1985 at Morehouse College, watching them as they walked across campus, looking proud and tall, ashamed of nothing. Or maybe it was my destiny. Maybe God, just as he had pre-ordained it for me to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, wanted me to be a member of what I think is one of the best black organizations that has ever been created. Whatever the reason, I am, and will always be an Alpha.
Being an Alpha does not define me, rather it compliments my personality. It has opened doors for me, both personally and professionally that I do not believe I would have been exposed to otherwise. It is these opportunities that made those seven and a half weeks of hell worthwhile.
One of the questions that comes up a lot is the subject of hazing. The dreaded H-word. Yes, I was hazed. And yes, I did haze. And when I learned to haze, I became very good at it. But while that is not the end all to end all to the black greek system, I feel I must devote sometime and words to the effect that hazing has had not only on my organization, but on all of the greek organizations.
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines hazing as: "1. to harass by exacting unnecessary or disagreeable work; b. to harass by banter, ridicule or criticism; 2. to haze by way of initiation (~the fraternity pledges)." As you can see, by this definition, everyone who has ever had a parent that cared, or met a bully on the schoolyard, or ever encountered an evil person has been hazed. The definition of hazing is so broad, yet has been defined in terms of greek culture as physical abuse.
There are many who would say that hazing did not begin until the 60's. Others would point to the 40's. Some would say that each time this nation went to war, the incidents of hazing increased. But in reading the history of our organization, and in keeping with the definition stated above, hazing has been around since the inception of our fraternity. But that is no excuse. Hazing is here. And the sad part is that it is here to stay.
In 1990, a young man on the campus of Morehouse College died as a result of what was thought to be pledge related activities. Despite the fact that the coroners report said something different, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Morehouse College were both accused and convicted not only in regular court, but in the court of public opinion as well, regarding the death of this young man. I will not go into the details, but those who know of that incident (I mean REALLY know), know that the fraternity was held FULLY responsible for something that it did not do. Not to say that the brothers at Morehouse (a college I attended), were not at fault, they were. But they became scapegoats. They became the embodiment of all that was evil and wrong with black fraternities. So pledging as we knew it, ended. And it ended in secret, not out in the open, with debate and discussion. No, it ended at the hands of no more than 20 people, who bowing to public pressure, decided they had enough. And worse part was that not all of these people had the best interest of the organizations in mind. They were looking at the dollar signs.
Update: Upon some careful consideration, I realize that this last paragraph may seem harsh and insensitive, and that was not my intention I felt then and I feel now for the family of that young man. He died too young. Anytime a life is lost so young, that is a sincere tragedy. And I do not want to make it seem like the brothers of Morehouse were not to blame in this, because had they done what they were supposed to do, things would have been different. My problem with the whole situation is that the truth was never completely revealed. Many inaccurate statements were made regarding the actions of the Alpha's at Morehouse, Morehouse College, Alpha Phi Alpha and all black greek organizations, and I did not and do not think that is fair. However, let me state for the record that this was a senseless death, and nothing can equal that families loss. I just wish the WHOLE truth was made known. For fear of seeming hypocritical, I will not reveal that here, because this is not the time nor the place for it. I just wanted to clear up any misunderstandings that may have been created by the above statement.
Now granted, as I have gotten older, the necessity of hazing (I am talking about hard, brutal hazing -- being hit with bricks, beaten until one is unconscious, etc.) has become lost to me. My mother once told be that the best hazing was when you messed with someone's mind, in order to make them think. And now, years later, I agree with her.
But pledging is something different. It is now easier to become a member of a greek organization than it is to join a church! Pledging was the heart and soul of our organizations. It was where you made it or didn't. Hazing did not make a someone a better member. Neither did pledging. But it did signify a commitment to the organization. A commitment that you were making, mind, body and soul.
Another problem with pledging is that it is linked directly (if not inaccurately) to the college members. One of the most intense pledge sessions I have ever seen was conducted by a graduate pledge line back in the late 80's. But the college members get all the blame.
There are two reasons this perception exists: 1) a large number of people in power of our organizations DID NOT pledge at the undergraduate level; and 2) an ever larger number of those who did pledge undergrad, forgot what it is like to be in college.
Jewel Henry Arthur Callis, one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, said once that (and I am paraphrasing) he foresaw the day when the fraternity would be run by graduate members and college brothers should take caution, lest they be forgotten in the shuffle. This prediction Jewel Callis made has come true. The college members are often disrespected, envied, despised and even used as scapegoats. The are sometimes pawns in an effort to legitimize our organizations in the eyes of white America.
It is my opinion that this should be the least of our worries. There are alternative solutions, which some of the organizations are now investigating. But we have let public sentiment to divert us from the path that our founders originally intended for us to follow. We now are more concerned about the money that membership brings in, instead of creating a prosperous organization where the word "brotherhood" is not an oxymoron. There are friends of mine who seem to think that someone who is financial in an organization is more of a member than someone who is not.
The majority of my friends who are in greek organizations are not active for a myriad of reasons. Most of the reasons stem from the way the pledge process was removed, since it was in no way democratic. Other reasons range from people doing post graduate work, to simply losing an interest in being greek. But no none has the right to judge another person for their reasons of being active in an organization or not being active.
I have one friend who joined Alpha Kappa Alpha on the graduate level a few years ago, yet she seems to think that she is more of a member than others in her sorority based solely on the fact that she pays her dues every year and is active with a particular chapter. In reality, paying dues means nothing. What counts when it comes to the greek world is whether you feel it in your heart. Whether you have sacrificed for "the cause." While I respect anyone who becomes a member of our organizations at any time, the attitudes like those of my friends are exactly what is wrong with our collective organizations.
(Note: The soror in question became inactive (non-dues paying) for a number of years, giving me a number of excuses as to why she was not active. When I recently challenged her on her views as espoused on the paragraph above, she fell silent, and acknowledged my point that her not lack of paying dues did not make her less of an AKA.)
Maybe none of this makes sense. Maybe it is just the ramblings of a frustrated fraternity member with a Web Page. Maybe it is the views of someone who has been through the system, but is now jaded. But beyond everything else, there is something to this.
The college members are the lifeblood of any greek organization. We are they key. And I say we, because I am, and will always be first and foremost, a member of Theta Chapter, a notion that some of the younger brothers in my chapter, other chapters and other organizations seem to have lost. The greek system is not perfect. Nor has it ever been. Well, maybe on December 4, 1906 it was perfect, but that is possibly the only time it was. College brothers have not lived up to their responsibility. We don't go to conventions, we allow ourselves to be silenced by the graduate members, we do not assert out voting in the sheer numbers that we have.
Instead, we have allowed our organizations to be run by those who are more corporate minded than civic and fraternal oriented. We are called a fraternity for a reason. One of our beloved poems, To Be An Alpha Man, quotes: "It more than just a grip of hands, it's an idea to conceive." The conception of that idea has been lost. And until we get it back, our organizations, not just Alpha Phi Alpha, but all black greek organizations, will be lost and remain lost.
September 7, 1993
revised May 8, 1996
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(Charles E. Smoot © 2000-2009, all rights reserved)