UPDATE 7.30.09: NEW Discussion Piece – Freedom of Speech in the BGLOs, but with Omega Psi Phi in the center of the discussion. Click HERE
Let Mo’Kelly say right off the top…this is NOT going to be a popular piece. But Mo’Kelly never writes according to what might be “popular” only what needs to be said. Let the hate-mail flow, but this needs to be said.
By now you’ve heard the news that historically Black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma has had a slew of high-profile honorary members inducted into the fraternity.
President Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Stevie Wonder, Martin Lawrence and other notables have been ushered into the ranks of the Phi Beta Sigma brotherhood. All obvious jokes aside, the continuing discussion surrounding the complex and arguably controversial nature of honorary/celebrity “members” is part in parcel of the larger debate about the contemporary relevance of historically Black Greek-Letter Organizations (BGLOs).
There is a common blood line which runs through all of the “Divine Nine” BGLOs. All of their respective roots, traceable back to a time and place in which African-Americans could neither attend the same schools nor join the same collegiate organizations as Whites. Their “need” and relevance were inarguable at the turn of the 20th century and their direct impact on American history is unparalleled. Most of the civil rights leaders and Black historical figures we know and celebrate today are/were members of these organizations.
In many ways, America “is,” because BGLOs “are.”
BGLO members are/were our teachers, our pastors, our soldiers, our mothers, our caregivers our doctors, lawyers et. al. You likely can not meet anyone who hasn’t been positively influenced by a member of a BGLO. It’s just not possible.
Yet somehow, some way, somewhere…the world of BGLOs was turned upside down on its way to the 21st century. There used to be a time in which the organizations developed future leaders and way-makers, their future success and achievements serving as a perpetual advertisement of their importance and influence. In 2009, it is standard operating procedure for many of the organizations to simply seek out the already successful, already famous and of course considerably wealthy in the hopes of pinning their respective letters on them.
In lay vernacular, it’s become ass backwards.
There used to be a time in which the bond of brotherhood and sisterhood would have bound all members together, irrespective of era. The rivalries between the organizations were intense but invariably respectful. Yet ever since 1990 when most of the organizations first abolished officially sanctioned pledge programs, the strength of brotherhood and sisterhood largely devolved into “pledged vs. intake,” “real/made vs. paper,” “undergrad vs. graduate (initiated)” The inter-organization rivalries were then supplanted by the intra-organizational elitism. If there was one seminal moment in which we can point to the organizations having begun losing their collective way…it was in 1989 with the death of Morehouse student and Sphinxman (Alpha Phi Alpha pledge) Joel Harris. The National Pan-Hellenic Council (the collective governing body for the BGLOs) abolished pledging across the board in response in 1990.
Of course, something needed to be done to address the spiraling costs of lawsuits and the financial havoc they wrought. To some, the complete eradication of sanctioned pledging was an overreaction and knee-jerk response. Unfortunately though, it signaled a separation and segregation arguably little different than the Jim Crow segregation which the most prominent members of the civil rights era fought against. It’s doubtful that there was any more compelling example of the BGLOs earning the “elitist” criticism. The same classism they collectively fought against; had in effect become the norm and status quo. “Separate but equal” moved out of the deep south and into the Black supposed aristocracy.
In lay vernacular, it became ass backwards.
In the 21st century, honorary members have become both the norm and for many the notoriously ridiculous for BGLOs. If you are a famous singer, actor, politician or just a regular business person with ungodly amounts of money…it is quite likely that your name has been submitted for induction into one or more of the Divine Nine. Gone were the days of the individual first seeking this fraternity or that sorority. Gone were the days of the fledgling youth hitching his/her wagon to the star of the sorority or fraternity, hoping one day to become one of the “greats” listed in the annals of its history. The 21st century is the age in which the organizations have “sold out,” trading in their legacies to ride the coattails of the rich and famous.
The organizations want big names, big checks and instant status upgrades, calling into question where our collective priorities lie.
Yes, “our” collective priorities.…even my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
This isn’t a critique of any particular organization, but the recent high-profile inductions by Phi Beta Sigma fraternity offer the
perfect entry point into the discussion of the direction of the nine members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. All of our organizations are intertwined, and the future of one invariably affects all, as history has shown us.
The college sophomore with a 2.5 GPA with his heart set on Phi Beta Sigma and dreams of changing the world dancing in his head may not be selected for induction into the fraternity, but the actor Terrence Howard who attended the Pratt Institute (an art school), zero notable contributions to society and a questionable disposition towards women is freely given membership? Martin Lawrence who has never seen the inside of a college classroom as a student is the
educational example Phi Beta Sigma fraternity wants young African-American men to emulate? Alpha Kappa Alpha is somehow elevated by inducting Alicia Keys who dropped out of Columbia to pursue to her music career?
That’s ass backwards and it sends a troubling message, one that’s loud and clear. Young people hear very well and recognize hypocrisy in all of its forms.
Beyond the manner in which members are chosen, selected or “pledged;” there has been a sliding scale in terms of the leadership. It is illogical to think a person, the likes of vulgar comedienne Sheryl Underwood would have ever
become the face and voice of Zeta Phi Beta sorority twenty or more years ago. It would have been simply unacceptable and surely the organization wouldn’t have sent out a press release “celebrating” her election. Zeta would have had the good sense and home training to be too embarrassed to do so. “Finer womanhood” and “Sheryl Underwood” simply could not and would not co-exist in the public space in previous generations.
If the 80s were the age of the hazing lawsuit, then the first decade of the 21st century will undoubtedly be remembered as the age of embezzlement. Although Zeta Phi Beta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities have most recently publicly battled its own leadership with lawsuits alleging all types of financial malfeasance and mismanagement, the same types of issues are bubbling under with most if not all of the other seven.
All…yes, all. YOUR BLGO too. Mine, yours, errrbody’s.
The argument can be made that as we collectively move further and further away from the principles of brotherhood and sisterhood and closer to big business, these are the inevitabilities. The deficiencies in our brotherhood and sisterhood quotients have borne themselves out from the top down.
On the undergraduate level you hear more and more how it becomes harder for the lay person to distinguish the fraternities from the gangs, for often times the behavior is just that, indistinguishable. Having nothing to do with our “hand signs,” the stepshow altercations between organizations have increasingly become the rule, not the exception. Maybe the caliber of membership has decreased relative to the sheer numbers of African-Americans in college, which have also dropped. Maybe the talent pool is just too shallow or maybe…just maybe, our organizations have become too shallow in and of themselves. I will say without a doubt that there is a measurable and despicable criminal element within my very own Omega Psi Phi; an element in direct contradiction
to everything my founders Oscar James Cooper, Frank Coleman, Edgar Amos Love and Dr. Ernest Everett Just championed.
Yup, I said it and I meant it.
It’s not the popular thing to say, but it needed to be said.
To be clear, there are many chapters of many BGLOs which are doing wonderful work in the community and around the country. To allege otherwise would be simply untrue. At the same time, there seems to be a growing trend of community inactivity. This may be a function of the multi-cultural evolution of this country and the changing landscape of universities.
The all/majority Black Greek-letter organization doesn’t necessarily hold the same appeal to a college freshman in 2009 that it did in 1989 or even 1969. Kids can “step” in high school (which aggravates Mo’Kelly to no end). They don’t need to go to college and definitely don’t need to join an organization to reach the dangling carrot of stepping anymore. Membership used to have its privileges, now people can get the privileges without the “inconvenience” of membership. For instance…
Not only that, the big business of college athletics has also short-circuited the recruitment of members on the undergraduate level as many prized college athletes are forbidden from joining BGLOs.
It’s not lost on Mo’Kelly the need for our organizations to evolve as business entities. But the foundations in which we all are built have noticeable cracks. The solution is though NOT found in President Bill or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama or whoever is the next unaffiliated star comedian or actress. The solution is simply going back to the original intentions of our respective founders and highlighting educational and community service achievement, not fame and celebrity.
What does it say when in the latest round of Phi Beta Sigma honorary inductees, only the White man above has a degree from an accredited 4-year college or university? Just ‘what’ does it say is being ‘honored’ with these ‘honorary’ inductions?
It says, it won’t be long before all of us are irrelevant and then extinct.