Black Fraternities at 100: Are They Fulfilling Their Legacy?
As the men of Alpha Phi Alpha were concluding their centennial celebration in 2006, thousands of men in crimson and cream and purple and gold were gearing up for theirs in 2011. By the end of July 2011, two other historically black fraternities, Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, would have hosted their centennial conclaves celebrating 100 years of achievement, manhood, scholarship and uplift.
While turning 100 is a significant milestone for any organization, it is particularly sweet for these two fraternities born out of a climate of racism, resistance and ostracism. And while the accomplishments of Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, along with Alpha Phi Alpha and Phi Beta Sigma, have been undeniably profound much of its recent history associated with hazing, abuse, misogyny and buffoonery, has threatened to taint their rich histories and legacies.
What has happened in black Greekdom in recent decades propelling them into quasi-gangs?
During the centennial conclaves you will witness a host of celebratory activities including elaborate public programs, step shows, galas, boat rides, comedy shows and displays. But, what you will not see is an agenda of round tables, lectures or presentations pertaining to “what next.” 00 years of pounding our chest about the great men and programs we have produced, little is being discussed about the dire situation of young black men in America.
These are the young black men that are entering Kappa, Omega, Alpha and Sigma every day. Many argue that, outside of the national organization, grand chapters and some graduate chapters, the image of black fraternities has become the complete antithesis of what their founders and early members were seeking to create. Born out of adversity, these organizations were created to fight against injustice, racism and ostracism.
Alpha Phi Alpha‘s inception took place on an Ivy League campus (Cornell University) not long after the seminal work of W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and the creation of the Niagara Movement (1905).
When one of the founders of Kappa Alpha Psi discovered that some bigoted whites referred to the Kappas as the Kappa Alpha “Nigs” the fraternity took a bold move in 1914 to officially change its name from Kappa Alpha Nu to Kappa Alpha Psi in 1915.
The early inception of Omega was unique in that it would be the first black fraternity actually founded on a black college campus. This unique trend would help open the doors for other organizations at black colleges that were perceived as antithetical to the social order at black colleges usually overseen by predominately white administrators. This bold move of perseverance and uplift laid a foundation for future Omega men to follow.
Early in their development, these frat men were interested in seeking out the best talent possible to build a brotherhood and serve the race. Alpha Phi Alpha led the charge by establishing nine (9) chapters from 1907 through 1910, at Howard, Virginia Union, Toronto, Michigan, Yale, Columbia, U. Chicago, Syracuse and Ohio State. Following the establishment of Kappa Alpha Nu and Omega Psi Phi, they too, followed a pattern of identifying the best of the best and established chapters early on at Meharry, Columbia, Illinois, Lincoln, Northwestern and Penn State.
One hundred years later, these black fraternities have established over 3,000 chapters and initiated close to one million men. Today’s agenda appears to be quite different from that of 1906, 1911 or 1914.
Or is it?
The issue today is not the “man” or the “system” it is us. At the turn of the century, W.E.B. DuBois professed that the problem of the twentieth century would be that of the ‘color line.’ I profess that the problem of the twenty first century will be “the problem of the cultural line.”
One of the biggest problems associated with black fraternities today is that of culture.
In the first half century of these organizations, they were noted for providing cultured events in the community and on college campuses alike. The also provided a sense of manly preparation and guidance for the future leaders of the race. In fact, in one of the fraternity’s early mantras it states that in addition to providing a brotherhood, it is also intended to “preserve the sanctity of the home” and protect the “chastity of woman.”
With the onslaught of popular culture that has high jacked the black community, it has been a challenge for these national organizations to restore the rich cultural legacy of these groups. Any Google or YouTube search will reveal images that would be repulsive to the likes of Martin Luther King, Ernest Everett Just or Elder Watson Diggs and others who represented the long line of fraternal dignity and manhood.
So what has happened? Prior to the release of the book, The Divine Nine (2000), very little was done outside of individual fraternal histories and dissertations on the collective history, legacy, traditions and expectations of black fraternities or sororities. Since, an onslaught of notable publications such as Black Greek 101; Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities; African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision and Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun; have shed a scholastic light on some of the many ills which plague our organizations.
Of all our black organizations, fraternities arguably seem to raise the eyebrows. The fraternity’s official mottos, aims and principles, like scholarship, manhood, achievement and culture seem to be a bit of an oxymoron when coupled with the overriding image and practice of these frats.
On one hand, we have the Omegas who state that their fraternity’s principles are “manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift” but we see the constant reference to the use of the ‘dog’ moniker as a form of identity. The Alphas once known by their tagline, “the men of distinction” have recently embraced an ‘ape’ moniker.
These terms, once relegated to the final stages of pledging before one became an “Alpha Man” or “Omega Man”, have now become a reality for fraternal identity.
Each of the five fraternities of the Divine Nine is victims of this degradation. None are immune to the ill effects of the societal norms that have afflicted positive images of black manhood. In the name of gaining respect, garnering favor and representing, what was once a harmless acts during pledging or stepping has now come to identify black fraternities. So much so, that we now see frat men in their 30s and 40s acting out the antics of brothers 20 years their junior.
One hundred years later, there is a hue and cry in many circles to take back the fraternities and reclaim the respectable position this frats once held in our communities. Fraternal officers and representatives usually argue, when under attack, “black fraternities do a lot of work and service in the community.” There is no denying that. In fact on the national level, all aspects of Alpha, Kappa, Omega, Sigma and Iota are of a positive nature: the countless amount of philanthropic donations, the countless amount of hours spent mentoring and the number of scholarships distributed to young people.
However, when we look at what the new civil rights issue is for black America, it points not to race or racism but to the development of young black men. With the number of black boys continuing to lag behind academically, with high school dropout rates ranging in the 70% range, our focus has to revert back to these fraternity’s legacy, “the school for the better making of men” period.
C.C. Poindexter, one of the early members of the Alpha Phi Alpha society before it became a fraternity, decided not to continue with the group if it was to become a “fraternity” for he believed that after observing the actions of fraternities, black folk needed something much different. Maybe Poindexter was prophetic, the fraternal idea has now morphed into more frivolity and buffoonery by and large than exercises of intellect, high cultural and respect for women.
In the ‘Age of Obama’ what will it mean to be a Man of Sigma, Omega, Kappa or Alpha?
Have black fraternities lost their cultural luster and become a victim of the street creed? Will they be able to persevere, transcend the ills of pop-culture and follow the legacy of W.E.B. DuBois (Alpha), Kwame Nkrumah (Sigma), Langston Hughes (Omega) and Arthur Ashe (Kappa)?
I am not convinced that we will be able to really turn the corner. It is time for all frat brothers (financial and non-financial) to stop turning a blind eye and a deaf ear and realize that the black frat has gone the way of the black male. Young boys are raising themselves, creating a culture instead of learning one, it was once said that, “the youngster looks to the father for guidance, now the father is looking to the youngster.”
We must restore eldership in our community and teach young initiates the true spirit of fraternity. Do not continue to blame or expect your national President, Polemarch or Basileus to solve the problem. Black men in these frats will have to buck the trend, similar to that of your founders in 1906 and 1911 and take a different route.
If not, black frats will definitely go the way of the dinosaur and we will buffoon our way out of business.
In the religious world, Christians often ask WWJD, “what would Jesus do?” It is now time for black fraternities to ask WWFD “what would the founders do?”
By some accounts, the second 100 years is arguably more critical than the first 100, so as Kappa Alpha Psi concludes their centennial season and the Omegas gear up for theirs (July 27-31) this should be a serious time of reflection regarding the “real” future of black fraternities.
Now is the time to put down the ignorance and start a new tradition of excellence, onward and upward.
Rodney T. Cohen is an Assistant Dean at Yale and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale University. He frequently lectures on the history, culture and traditions of blacks in higher education and HBCUs. He is the author of The Black Colleges of Atlanta and Fisk University. He is a 2nd-generation graduate of Clark College in Atlanta.