It’s been twenty years since Spike Lee took us on the yard of Mission College and gave us a crash course in Black college life and the inner workings of Black fraternities and sororities. For many, “School Daze” was not only our first look at life at an HBCU, but also the first time we saw Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) portrayed on the big screen.
With its satire, impromptu dance numbers, and exaggerated portrayals (think: the “Good or Bad Hair” dance-off), “School Daze” simultaneously mocked and celebrated Black Greek Life. I can’t tell you how many people confessed that they swore off joining a Black fraternity or sorority based on the depictions in the film. On the other hand, “School Daze” has served as an unlikely and unofficial marketing tool for others who viewed (and continue to view) the film, and fell in love with the idea of joining an organization with strong cultural ties, an unparalleled network, and a legendary brother/sisterhood.
Fast-forward 20 years. Despite great gains in the number of African-Americans attending college, and the popularity of HBCUs—films about the Black college experience, let alone the Black student/BGLO experience at a predominately White university, are still a rarity. Only a few, “Drumline” and “Stomp The Yard,” have continued to share these stories.
“Stomp the Yard” ignited mainstream America’s superficial interest in BGLOs, focusing mainly on the tradition and excitement of stepping. The feature spawned corporate sponsored Step Shows, an MTV reality show, and a sequel. Although it showcased little of the history of Black Greek organizations, it captured all of the enthusiasm, and further served to shine a light BGLOs.
Somewhere between the overdramatized portrayal of the glammed up and turned out “Gamma Rays” in “School Daze” and the stripped-down, pop-culture version of the “Thetas” presented in “Stomp the Yard,” lies the truth about Black Greek organizations.
Born out of the need to organize and serve their communities at a time when Black people were denied the most basic rights, Black Greek letter organizations filled a void. Founded between 1906 and 1963, the “Divine 9”—Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho*, and Iota Phi Theta—were created to uplift their respective communities through service and a focus on education. Members of these organizations have been instrumental in civil rights movements, business, education and the arts. BGLOs have turned out some of the most influential Black people, such as Martin Luther King Jr., C. Phillip Randolph, Hattie McDaniel, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCloud Bethune, and a myriad of others, who have shaped our world.
Although Black Greek organizations began with noble aims and continue to serve their communities, some of its members have not acted with their sisters’ and brothers’ best interest in mind.
Recently, the NY Times ran a story about the hazing allegations leveled against Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. The article discussed a lawsuit brought against the sorority by Courtney Howard, a former interest, and student at Cal State University San Jose. In her lawsuit, Ms. Howard alleges that she was hit with wooden paddles and spoons and subjected to threats and intimidation. The Times article goes on to discuss numerous incidences of hazing leveled against several Black Greek organizations.
From the drowning deaths of Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir, two AKA pledges in 2002, to the $1.4 million settlement Kappa Alpha Psi paid to the family of Michael Davis, Black Greek organizations have paid dearly. Not only were their organizations forced to pay large sums in settlements for senseless deaths (and almost forced into bankruptcy), but their legacies also took a big hit.
Recently, as I watched “School Daze” for the fifty-leventh time, something jumped out at me.
In the film, Cedar Cloud (the chairman of the board) and Mission College’s president, McPherson, discuss the relevancy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Cloud argues,
“This is a new day. There is a feeling that the predominately Black college, for all intents and purposes, has outlived its usefulness. Over the years, it has been vital to our elevation in this great country, but the need no longer exists in an integrated society.
President McPherson retorts, “That’s absurd. It exists at Notre Dame, at Yeshiva, at Brandeis, Brigham Young. Now you tell me, what’s the difference?”
This conversation made me think not of historically Black colleges, but of Black Greek letter organizations.
In a supposed post-racial, Obama America, have Black fraternities and sororities “outlived their usefulness?”
In a completely unscientific survey, I posed this question on twitter. Many said that while they felt that Greek organizations weren’t exactly “necessary,” their aims–to provide service and support to Black communities around the world–are still valuable and relevant. Journalist Kenisha Rhone pushed back against those who purport BGLOs are no longer necessary. She cautioned that as long as Black people, and specifically Black women, are marginalized, these organizations are definitely essential.
If you took your cues about BGLOs strictly from films or mainstream news outlets, the picture would be pretty bleak. You’d think they were all about stepping or whoopin’ a pledge’s ass (which is outlawed by all BGLOs). However, it’s deeper than that. Each organization participates in joint programs which aim to tackle everything from obesity to debt management and prevention in the Black community.
Although they are by no means perfect, Black Greek organizations can be an invaluable and potent force for change. If they continue to work together to serve their communities, while dealing with the very difficult and complicated tradition of hazing, perhaps they will live up to the ambitious and revolutionary aims of their founders.
*Note: Britni Danielle is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.