So I’ve just left a wonderful sorority convention where over 11,000 mostly African American women made a huge impact on the local economy of a city. I believe the reported numbers are $15 million in hotel, food, and trade dollars. We also did a number of service projects that provided school supplies for children of incarcerated parents and food for hungry individuals. On the whole I am pleased with the service work we do. However, when my White colleagues realize that, at my age, I am still active in sorority life they seem amused.
I sometimes attempt to explain the fundamental differences between Black and White fraternal organizations. The primary difference is that White fraternities/sororities express their worth during the undergraduate years. Because of their wealth White organizations are capable of sponsoring houses their members live in. Thus, living in a choice house is an on-campus perk of Greek life for White students.
Most Black fraternities and sororities provide their tangible benefits in the post-graduate years. Listing a Divine 9 organization (the 9 historically Black Greek organizations) on one’s resume can open a professional door or smooth a transition. When I moved from the west coast to the Midwest I first contacted the local chapter members of my sorority in my new city to help me identify a realtor, a physician, a dentist, and an attorney…all of which they quickly did.
Some of the most notable African Americans in our society have Divine 9 affiliations…Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, and many, many more. All 9 of these organizations are built on a foundation of service and sisterhood/brotherhood. But there is another side to what happens on the ground in these organizations and it is this reality that makes “Black & Smart” ask about their relevance.
All of these organizations have battled the problem of hazing. Despite being illegal and against ALL the organizations’ policies, it still occurs. The depth of this behavior has resulted in physical and psychological harm even unto death and million dollar lawsuits. So, are these organizations still socially relevant? I believe they CAN be and clearly their programmatic initiatives in health, education, the economy, voter registration and political engagement, and culture are wonderful and positive forces in our communities. But, do they outweigh some of the tribalism that continues to this day? Do they outweigh some of the ways we pit ourselves against each other? Do they outweigh our representing ourselves as little more than gangs whose members have college degrees?
Our histories emerge from being excluded from White Greek life. They also emerge from being attentive to some of the specific needs of Black communities that were not being met by other organizations. They emerge from the need of the developing Black middle class to engage in racial uplift and “give back.”
Where is the place for these organizations in today’s Black society? How do we move beyond the cliquishness and foolishness? How do we do what we started out to do?
Stay Black & Smart!