When junior Jason Maher walked on Duke’s campus as a freshman, greek life was the last thing on his mind. He had a few black friends who had “crossed” and joined a historically black fraternity but had never considered the option himself. As he became more familiar with student life, however, his interest in community service led him to notice, to his surprise, that those most active in this vocation were also members of black fraternities.
After taking a semester off, Maher returned to Duke and began the process of initiating the rush process to join Phi Beta Sigma, a process which took him months to complete. This is typical of rushing a Black Greek Letter Organization—the technical term for the organizations, which are theoretically open to members of all ethnicities (not doing so would actually be illegal on both a federal and state level). And contrary to popular belief, the “black” in BGLO includes within its purview not just those of African descent, but those from the Caribbean and Pacific, as well.
Unlike the heavily structured and formal process of Panhellenic Association recruitment or the equally structured but less formal process of Interfraternity Council rush, aspirants of a BGLO must seek out members of their organization of choice. Only when they have demonstrated acceptance and receptivity toward the lifelong ties and principles of their organization are they accepted into the fold of brother- or sisterhood. Because of the difficulty of joining and the smaller presence of BGLOs on Duke’s campus, most Duke BGLO memberships number in the single digits.
Throughout the entire business of membership intake—as the process is frequently termed—new members must keep their participation secret from even their closest friends until they are “unveiled” in front of the community-at-large during a probate, which to uneducated eyes can seem overwhelmingly chaotic and primitive.
Due to a variety of mutually reinforcing factors—their numerically small presence, the secretive and selective process of intake, the weightier, lifetime commitment when joining—Duke’s black fraternities and sororities have continued to be dogged by a sense of mystery that has cemented the social boundaries between BGLOs and other social groups on campus.
Those that participate in black greek life and those that do not settle into socially separate, parallel tracks, which few individuals bridge. Has what first began as a means for advancing black leadership, academic excellence and lobbying for civil rights become irrelevant in today’s more progressive, integrated college atmosphere? Have BGLOs become as exclusive and self-segregating as the predominately white fraternities to which they founded themselves in opposition?
Fighting Fire with Fire
The answers to these questions trace their roots back to 1906, when the first black fraternity was founded. The founders, a group of seven black men, thought that by forming a close-knit literary and social group, they could combat significantly higher dropout rates of their black peers and offer a support system for the beleaguered, colored minority then immersed in a largely white campus. Importantly, the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, as this fraternity came to be known, was at first constituted to be open to all male minorities but later reconfigured itself as limited to black males only. There was a strong impulse to use fire to fight fire.
“If we are not permitted to join other fraternities, we must form a fraternity of our own,” an Alpha Phi Alpha chapter president responded in 1949 when asked about the need for exclusive minority fraternal organizations. “We have no other choice.”
But perhaps the story goes even further back (as most stories do when we really start to unravel the tangled web of cause and effect) to 1703, when the first ever fraternal organization was founded at the College of William and Mary. To a large extent, fraternities have always been instruments for solidifying existing power structures. The first successful greek organization was founded in 1776 and mirrored the social status quo of its constituents: white, Christian males. As students of other religious and ethnic backgrounds began trickling into American college campuses, these organizations didn’t respond by opening their membership to all persons, but instead began identifying themselves in contrast.
This us-versus-them, zero sum game mentality that dominated early BGLOs has definitive, traceable historical roots. The five fraternities and four sororities that now make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council were formed from the overt discrimination they faced among predominantly white institutions (or PWIs as they are more commonly referred to—BGLOs have codified historically antagonistic elements just as they have been categorized by an acronym). The first black fraternities and sororities formed on PWIs directly because they were excluded from the predominantly white social scene. Hispanic and Asian American Greek letter organizations soon followed suit a few decades later, often under the guidance of older BGLOs.
Born out of racism and strengthened by unity in the face of discrimination, BGLOs consequently entrust members to support each other in maintaining the black community, achieving academic excellence and instilling the principles of leadership in their members. The ultimate goal was, and still has been, even more long-term: facing institutionalized forms of racism, BGLOs hoped that by picking elite black students they might one day train the next generation of community leaders who, as lawyers, professors and other esteemed community leaders, would forward the cause of civil rights on behalf of the black community. W.E.B. Du Bois gave a name to this theory: “The Talented Tenth,” which would lead the other nine-tenths of their peers out of the ignominy of inequality.
“We want strong powerful men to lead. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of our honorary members—that’s who we’re looking for [in new members],” explained Kyle Jones, a member of Duke’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Joining a BGLO is akin to committing oneself to a way of life that transcends one’s four years in college. The term for pledging a BGLO is “to cross,” a term rife with metaphysical transformations. A new member is figuratively reborn, distinguishing themselves from their past selves by demonstrating they are ready to fully come into one’s own as a brother or sister.
“It’s the sisterhood,” emphasizes Najerie Danns, who is the chapter president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest black sorority.
This means that alumni networks, especially given the smaller sizes of BGLO chapters, are incredibly tight; Duke chapters can “count on other state chapters to attend our events every week,” Jones informed me. Rushing can take months if an aspiring new member does not fit the expectations of their desired BGLO. Unlike today’s current IFC fraternities, as many a disillusioned critic will point out, BGLOs have largely remained true to their founding principles.
“The social aspect is there, but it isn’t the focus,” remarks Jones. More important seems to be the focus on community service. Duke BGLOs each have several causes, often directly related to improving the black community (think STI testing, male mentorship programs, tutoring in the black community) for which they host regular service events. This isn’t a once a semester, let’s-all-wear-our-letters-and-look-pretty charity event for the sake of having a charity event. It’s a huge undertaking, especially because there are only a handful of members in each chapter, which in a circular is probably one of the reasons why so few people join.
Responding to Criticism
But as with any large social phenomenon, BGLOs have displayed behavior seemingly inconsistent with their founding principles. Hazing has historically been even more of a problem for black fraternities than it has for their non-multicultural counterparts, though the severity of several instances has produced significant reform. Then there are the subtler, more insidious critiques. Some purport that BGLOs are now irrelevant given that black students no longer face explicit racism at America’s generally more liberal colleges and universities, and that they instead promote elitism, arrogance and insularity among the black community.
These traits prompted one especially polemical essay written by some Internet commenter named “Morpheus,” who claims BGLOs have degenerated into nothing more than “haughty, color-struck, violent, politically unaware, culturally inept...organized gangs.” Morpheus is on the far end of the spectrum, but behind a few of the polarized accusations he puts out are some legitimate concerns.
Are they “haughty?” The “Talented Tenth” mentality is still arguably pervasive. Alpha Phi Alpha, both Duke’s oldest historically black fraternity and as well as the nation’s, was accused in 2006 of considering its members to be “better than everyone” before being temporarily suspended from their national chapter that year. Duke’s undergraduate population nears 6,700 students, with at least 10 percent considered “black.” Of this rough estimate of 670 students who traditionally make up the membership of BGLOs, a tiny fraction actually join one of the nine Duke BGLO chapters, each of which averages around five to seven members. More likely than elitism, however, the probable explanation is that the small numbers attest to the level of ideological rigor that Duke chapters have maintained among their members.
And what about being “culturally inept?” More relevant are the accusations that multicultural organizations—and since the inception of the new house model, multicultural living groups—promote self-segregation. Supposedly, these encourage Duke students to cluster into closed sub-communities comprised of those with similar cultural or ethnic backgrounds at the expense of an inclusive, holistic community of students.
How about BGLOs being “color-struck”? The term originated from a play written by Zora Neale Hurston and refers to “colorism,” the act of judging blacks by the relative hue of their skin, or as Jason puts it, “black people discriminating amongst themselves.” Although BGLOs are technically open to students of all ethnicities, is there an implicitly exclusionary culture that favors those who possess this ambiguous quality of “being black,” as exemplified by their skin tone?
“[The Sigmas] are founded on the principles of the inclusive ‘we,’ not exclusive ‘we,’” Maher firmly states when I ask, haltingly, about the presence of colorism. And I would have reason to believe him, because Maher, devoted Sigma that he is, is not actually black. He is a Panamanian who speaks Hindi who also happens to be in a historically black fraternity.
Again, the answer is not as straight forward as it may seem.
An “Us” Versus “Them” Mentality—still?
Finding answers is especially difficult given that those in and outside of BGLOs have a less than ideal amount of interaction. It’s as if there are those that participate in “black” greek life and those that don’t—a subsection that also includes those who participate in “regular” greek life—live in two parallel worlds here at Duke, two multiverses that occur simultaneously but never overlap with one another. But this self-segregation is a two-way street; the traditionally “white” fraternities and sororities we think of necessarily have a share in the stratification with BGLOs.
Distinguishing “black greek life” from “greek life” by adding the modifier ‘black” insinuates that black greek life is a variation on the mainstream, a minor offshoot of some major group. Implicitly, the way we describe multicultural greek life solidifies the status of these organizations as not only the social minority, but an aberrant one at that—one that insists on being different from “normal” greek life.
However, just as self-segregation is multidirectional, so are its causes.
“Before I became a Sigma, I just wasn’t seen by the black community,” Maher recalls, “I had a few close freshmen friends who were involved in the black community and that’s how I knew some people.” Even today, he recounts how his chapter president jokes that he isn’t “really black,” a quality which I gather means something along the lines of partaking in the standard smorgasbord of activities (Mary Lou Center, black community volunteer) and again, the coloristic assumption that there exists this cultural characteristic of “blackness” that is often predicated on skin color. Circumstances soon changed, however: “As soon as I crossed, there must have been something like 200 friend requests. People who used to pass me by say ‘hi’ now.”
Ehizele Osehobo (moniker, Z), the president of the Duke Phi Beta Sigma chapter explained that before joining the organization, Maher “wasn’t really involved in the black community. When he joined, that validated him to other people [in the black community].” The incident attests to the strength of the black community but has the unfortunate consequence of hardening the social boundaries drawn around such communities. To cross, one has the burden of proving one’s authenticity.
When collaboration or overlap between these multicultural greek organizations does occur, it frequently still happens within the same zero-sum framework that characterized the early rise of BGLOs. At Duke, black fraternities and sororities have tightened ties with one another and reached out to other multicultural greek organizations—especially Lambda Upsilon Lambda, a hispanic fraternity, and Lambda Phi Chi, its female equivalent—to host joint events and fundraisers.
“That sounds an awful lot like all the minority organizations just linking up with one another against some hegemonic majority,” I commented wryly.
Jones shrugs and smiles apologetically. “Yeah, there’s less a feeling of judgment, but that’s kinda just the way things work.”
Some of how the “way things work” is structural: there is little incentive for larger greek organizations to understand or partner with a BGLO since their small memberships mean that they often cannot contribute much in manpower to fraternities or sororities that can number more than a hundred. Although NPHC has joint meetings with IFC and Panhel, its concerns regarding membership intake and service are often completely different from the more socially or recruitment oriented concerns of their greek counterparts.
Nor have there been genuine, concerted efforts to understand the traditions of the BGLOs. Maher reflects on a Chronicle article that he says was rife with misquotes and shallow reporting: “it felt like”—here, he makes a face as if he has tasted something bitter—“it just felt half-hearted, a light touch, like we should be satisfied with this kind of coverage.”
More importantly, psychology also works in strange ways. “We immediately and more easily associate with the people who look like us. Skin is your first form of identification,” Jones explains. “You walk into a classroom on the first day of class, and who do you sit next to? Most likely those we perceive to be similar to us.”
Maher continues this thought: “I’ve seen it happen over and over again. I’ve done experiments before, where I wore a tie for a week straight. Suddenly, people who previously had not noticed me were sitting next to me in class, all because I changed the way I looked.”
Not everyone has docilely followed suit. “I’m friends with all sorts of people—that’s just the kind of person I am,” exclaimed Osehobo. He’s loud and full of energy, and within the half hour span that I talk to him, he probably waves ‘hello’ to a good third of the people who pass by. “I walk both sides. I hate playing the race card.” Osehobo’s eternal friendliness means that he forged lasting connections with all sorts of people freshman year, and he balances his fraternity’s social scene with other friends.
But in the nervous frenzy of friend-making during the first weeks of a Duke freshman’s year, too many of us exhibit the more comfortable routine of associating with people similar to ourselves. Suddenly, Marketplace tables begin to fill with monochrome groups of people—Danns was so confused by this phenomenon that she wrote a sociology paper entitled “Why I don’t know any white people.” Once these groups solidify within the complex web of social relationships, it becomes hard to bridge different groups.
Misunderstanding ensues. “People see the black community as insular and close-knit. They’re afraid to come to our events because they might be the only white person,” Osehobo explains. “People have a perception of black parties, like we’re gonna call them out for dancing with someone’s girlfriend or something.” More insidiously, some people, ever afraid of making a racial gaffe in today’s politically sanitized atmosphere, avoid going to BGLO parties altogether.
Perhaps the division is culturally informed, with people of different social groups simply possessing different social codes and enjoying different things. “Honestly, what keeps [black people] from going to white parties is they’re simply not fun,” Osehobo says. “What happens at a frat party? You stand around and drink, talk, play beer pong—which is drinking—and talk some more.”
But that does not mean that these social dynamics cannot change. Tacitly accepting the inevitability and immutability of these observations only perpetuates the status quo. And in my discussions, each interviewee exhibited a willingness and history of engaging people of all backgrounds and social groups.
Maher, realizing the mantle of responsibility that he had inadvertently accepted as a non-black member of a black fraternity, is enthusiastic about his role as cross-cultural liaison, but would like to see more people translate individual resolution into action. We end our long conversation on an optimistic note: “I wasn’t afraid to go up and sit with a group of all black people in the Marketplace. I’d be like, ‘Hey, sup?’ I’m a bridge, a gateway.”
Implying, of course: So can you.
Editors' Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Lambda Upsilon Lambda, not Lambda Phi Epsilon, is a hispanic fraternity.>