Investigating the controversy surrounding black fraternities and sororities.
Many black Greek societies face growing pressure to reform or shut their doors in the face of charges of hazing around the country. Natasha Alford ’08 brought attention to the controversy in a Crimson editorial published last fall.
The troubling incident described by Alford, a social studies concentrator in Dunster House, was not an isolated one. In 2006, Marcus Jones, a 19-year-old student at Florida A&M University, was beaten with wooden canes while pledging Kappa Alpha Psi and suffered a ruptured ear drum, along with other injuries. Two of the perpetrators in this incident now face prison sentences, and the chapter has been banned from campus until 2013.
Last year, three members of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority at Southeast State University were charged with assault and hazing for striking a prospective member and forcing her to eat garbage. Their chapter was subsequently suspended.
In response to a string of costly lawsuits involving hazing in the late 80s, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a group that represents the most prominent Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs), withdrew support from the traditional pledging process in 1990, replacing it with the tamer “membership intake process.”
However, some argue that mandating the membership intake process has simply driven hazing underground.
“The same way that Harvard washed their hands of the activities of finals clubs, they [the national BLGOs] have, in essence, done the same thing,” said Alford.
In fact, the abolition of pledging may have made hazing more brutal. “It’s gotten worse,” said Alford, “because while it may not be as widespread, it’s now harder to monitor what happens. Who is going to be held accountable now? We can’t just pay attention when people die, or dismiss these cases as outliers. We have to understand that the entire underground system sets the stage for bad incidents to occur.”
While the national organizations contend that prospective members can join BGLOs simply by meeting the national criteria, Alford spoke about a feeling of coercion within fraternities and sororities, where prospective Greeks feel like they needed to go through the underground pledging process.
“If you don’t pledge, there will always be a segment of the Greek community that may ostracize you. Many prospective members don’t want to have letters but not be considered a ‘real’ Greek,” said Alford.
Evan Rose ’09, an anthropology concentrator in Quincy House, currently serves as president of the Boston chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which was reborn in 2004 after its deactivation in 1998.
Rose, who declined to discuss the details of the deactivation, said that he joined the fraternity during his freshman year of college. He stated that there was no hazing involved in joining. Once a prospective member expresses interest, “there is a membership intake process which involves learning about the fraternity and then taking a written test.”
“As far as I know,” continued Rose, “all of the organizations abolished hazing a long time ago. It’s counter-productive to the organizations, to be quite frank.”
Alford believes the prospect of being part of a larger black community draws people to Greek life. “I think that the appeal of black Greek organizations is being connected to bigger things,” she said. “There is a very strong black community at Harvard, but it is just the Harvard black community. When you become a Greek, you have instant connections across the nation.”
Rose expressed similar sentiments, saying that his chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi “provides an outlet into Boston that you don’t get from just a Harvard-based organization.”
Rose also emphasized the service focus of the Kappa Alpha Psi chapter: “I think a lot of groups on campus are more discussion-based, which is great and which serves a great purpose, but they’re just different organizations with different aims.”
Rose said that his chapter performs weekly community service in tutoring and mentoring and conducts education programs.
Recently, black Greek life at Harvard and in Boston has had something of a resurgence, with five Harvard women joining the Cambridge chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. “There’s a lot of interest,” said Rose. “It certainly will be growing, and once you get the ball rolling, it grows even more.”
Despite Rose’s optimism, the number of students at Harvard involved in BGLOs remains small, with only six or seven black Greeks currently on campus.
“[BGLOs] flourished especially in the 90s, but slowly chapters got shut down because of hazing,” said Alford. “Logically, you would expect that membership dwindle because it is harder to do an illegal process with larger groups of people.”
Alford does say she understands the reasoning behind pledging. “I think a lot of African Americans distinguish between hazing and pledging,” said Alford. “They see hazing as stupid stuff like making you put underwear on your head, but pledging is all about a journey and this feeling of accomplishment and pushing through difficulty. … This is what you must come to believe or you will never make it through the process. And when you see that others did it, you say, ‘Hey, it can’t be completely wrong.’”
Rose said he partially understood why the hazing process had come about. “Theoretically it is supposed to be a symbol of the oppression that African Americans felt … and it is supposed to be representative of the struggle that African Americans went through to achieve the rights that we have today,” Rose stated. “To build brotherhood through hazing is a widespread practice, and everyone from finals clubs to a cappella groups do it.”
For Alford, the problem is that “anything can be justified in the name of teaching you a lesson”: “At the end of this process you are supposed to have this revelation about why you went through all these things, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of those things were abuse.”
“Hazing is widespread,” she added. “BGLOs should not be stigmatized as the only community which does this. But it’s not enough to excuse our own actions by pointing to others. And the hazing-slash-pledging in our community is different because of the degree to which we internalize our membership as an identity.”
Rose said that he had heard about the benefits of the pledging process from his family members. “Back in the days when [pledging] was regulated, it was certainly useful,” said Rose. “My aunt was a member of the AKAs [Alpha Kappa Alpha] here at Harvard back in the 80s, and there was some sisterhood stuff going on, but it wasn’t the stuff that you see in the news. There weren’t any people dying or anything.”
Rose said that he was “shocked” when he read Alford’s Crimson editorial in November. “I didn’t know anything like that was going on in the Boston area,” he said. “It’s eye-opening, really. It’s unfortunate that something like that happened and I’m glad she was able to come to terms with it.”
Alford said she felt obligated to share her experiences with others: “If someone had died accidentally doing what I did, I would have carried that with me every day.”
Furthermore, publishing the editorial helped her gain closure. Looking back, Alford does wish she had been better able to address the complexity of the pledging process in her editorial.
“There are definitely valuable lessons that were attempted to be taught from the process; it was not entirely the ‘brutal’ experience others interpreted it to be. Some people misunderstood my intentions in writing the article as Greek bashing or a generalization of all Greeks,” said Alford.
“But the point is, those lessons never should be taught at the risk of someone’s education, mental health, and physical health,” she added. “I’m challenging people, whether they are Greek or not, to completely stand for the values these organizations were meant to embody when they were created.”