Harvard Students Go `On Line' In Area Campuses' Black Frats
"If you go to any Black college campus, [Black frats] are always the most visible organization on the campus because they're in uniform. What other group is walking around wearing the same colors and doing everything the same way? That's why they're powerful, even though they only make up, like, 10 percent of the student population," Spike Lee, director of School Daze, a movie partially about Black frats, told the Village Voice recently.
Harvard technically has no fraternities, but Black frats maintain a visible presence on campus, particularly during second semester, the traditional pledging period. This year 15 Harvard undergraduates went through the rigorous process and became members of Boston-area Black fraternities and sororities.
While pledging the Cambridge chapters of several of the four national Black fraternities and sororities, these students undergraduates joined undergraduates from Tufts and MIT in a process that is known as being `on line.' The pledges eat, sleep and move together during the period, which lasts as long "as necessary... for the bonding to take place," says one member. The lines can last between four and 10 weeks.
Dressed alike, the students `on line' march in caterpillar-like fashion to and from specific events and are not allowed to speak to or acknowledge people who are not members of their fraternity or sorority, says Jeff Schaeffer '91, who rooms with a Kappa Alpha Psi (KAP) member. The pledges' identical outfits change as the weeks pass. The uniform can include red sweatshirts, jean jackets, red berets and red satchels.
The fraternities and sororities are not formally recognized by the University, because Harvard does not permit student groups to be affiliated with national organizations. Nonetheless, the Black frats and sororities rotate their activities among the Harvard, Tufts and MIT campuses, in part because they do not have fraternity houses.
Bernard Fulton '91, who recently pledged KAP, described the period of being `on line' as a time when, "you only interact on a social level with the brothers."
"The fraternities stress being a good line brother. They stress the line brothers doing everything together. They alternate campuses, and places on campus, and they all sleep together. Every night [during part of the pledging period], they had to march back from the Quad on line" singing fraternity chants, Schaefer says.
Three Harvard women who pledged Delta Sigma Theta this year obeyed a series of strict rules when `on line.' According to a student at the University of Georgia who is considering pledging the sorority, "They are supposed to look alike. They can't wear fingernail polish or makeup.They're not supposed to be with their boyfriends.They have to greet other Black Greeks by saying,greeting most noble Greek.' They're not allowed tosmile," she says.
Most male Harvard pledges shave their headsduring the process and have the option of beingbranded with the fraternity's Greek letters. AlphaPhi Alpha member Alan R. Williams '91 would notsay whether Harvard students actually choose to bebranded, but he says, "When people join afraternity, they will do anything for it. Thebrand is seen as an everlasting mark."
Students at the University of Georgia say thatbranding is common practice among members of Blackfrats there.
The pledging process has led non-members toview the Black fraternities and sororities withsuspicion.
"There are a great deal of misconceptions heldby outsiders because by their general nature, thefraternities don't reveal their ways and pledgingtechniques. What people see they may notunderstand. There's a lot of mysticism behind itall," Williams says.
Administrators and non-members at both Harvardand MIT worry that the organizations may beviolating Massachusetts anti-hazing laws.
"We are concerned about the amount of time thatstudents are required to contribute to thesefraternities and also by some practices,particularly those that involve regimentation,"says Harvard Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III."Like all colleges, we have given assurance thatwe have informed our students of the hazingstatute in Massachusetts, and we want to insurethat fraternities [comply] with that statute inletter and in spirit."
About seven years ago, one of the Blackfraternities asked to be admitted to the MITIntrafraternity Council (IFC), but the petitionwas denied, says Tim Collins, IFC vice chairman.
There are two Black fraternities at MIT, but theyare not recognized by the University or the IFCbecause of their hazing policies. They don't denyhazing and they won't stop," he says.
But Black frat members say their organizationsdo not haze. Says Jay Grant '89, a Harvard memberof the MIT-based Kappa Alpha Psi, says "We're nota hazing fraternity. It's a lot of discipline.People get the wrong impression seeing themrunning through the Yard in formation."
"It is preposterous to think that we arehazing. We often hear accusations that we haze. Wedon't think it is our responsibility to explainourselves until people come and ask us about ourpractices," Williams says.
Members of the predominantly Blackorganizations say their groups are also oftenunfairly characterized as discriminatory. "Ourpolicy is to not allow groups who discriminate tobe members of the IFC" so Black frats are not partof it, says Jeff Hornstein, chairman of the MITIFC and president of the predominantly white ZetaPsi. He notes that the IFC does not prohibit sexdiscrimination because fraternities and sororitiesare by definition single-sex.
Although there are no non-Black members in theBoston area chapters of the Black frats, both theBrown and Dartmouth chapters have non-Blackmembers, frat members say.
"I wish people would put down these myths thatwe haze because we walk in lines and that wediscriminate because we are predominantly Black,"says Sean Cranston, an MIT student and vicepresident of KAP.
"If anyone is being closed-mindedit is thepeople who are judging us based on what they seerather than on the true realities," Fulton says.
People who are not involved with Blackfraternities or sororities "have this militaristicimage of us," Grant says. When people see pledgesupholding the vow of silence, they begin to makeassumptions, he says, adding that pledges chooseto take the vow and may break it if they want to.
Many students, both white and Black, say theyperceive the Black fraternities and sororities asmilitantly separatist, a charge that Black Greeksay they find laughable.
Eden William '91, whose mother and father stillbelong to a national Black sorority and fraternityrespectively, says she does not want to joinherself. "It is too bad [Black frats] still exist.It's more detrimental to race relations than it isbeneficial. I can understand the initial bondingwhich takes place, but when they get to be sostrict in terms of only associating with eachother, that's when you begin to question theirpurpose."
But Black frat members say that people whopledge Black frats are not attempting to isolatethemselves. Instead, they say, Black fratscontribute to campus diversity.
"This is part of the Black experience. I don'tsee it as promoting separation," Grant says. "IfHarvard wants to talk about diversity they have torealize that by mixing us together at some pointwe will go back to our own. It is a unique part ofthe Black experience, no different than going tothe Hillel or the Phoenix."
"I would not have come to Harvard if I wereseparatist," Fulton says. "If anyone is beingclose-minded it is the people who are judging usbased on what they see rather than on the truerealities."
Harvard administrators say the number of BlackGreeks on campus is too small to create separatistattitudes on the campus as a whole. "I don't thinkthe numbers are that large as to create[separatism], although if they were we would beconcerned," Epps says.
Furthermore, Black Greeks say that people wholevel charges of separatism at the fraternitiesand sororities are overlooking what theorganizations do.
"We're closed off for a period of time," saysGrant. "But then we become some of the most activestudents on campus," Fulton adds.
"The organizations do service projects in theircommunities. They work in soup kitchens, at homesfor the elderly, in orphanages, as well asperforming such services as helping with voterregistration," says Alan Williams.
The groups also stress academic achievement.Students must have "B" averages in order, pledge,members say.
Although Black Greeks agree that the 'on line'period causes most non-members' misconceptions,they say they would never consider changing theirpledging practices because the rituals areintegral to the frats' purposes.
According to Grant, onlookers "peg an elitisttitle on us. Unfortunately you have to have thesepledging rituals to create the bond. It's a veryunique experience. To say we're separatist reallydoesn't fit because we're concerned with theUniversity," he said.
The purpose of initiation, Grant says, is tobuild unity between the members who are pledging."Being isolated from the Harvard community allowsthem to understand the fraternity better andunderstand themselves more. We take over theirsocial life for a few weeks. It's an intensebonding period for them."
"We're not trying to limit them with thisexperience. We merely need that time to isolatethem," Grant says. "They get the best of bothworlds by having the benefits of a Blackfraternity and living in a diverse community. It'smore of a support group than anything else."
The Black Greek system developed in partbecause Black students felt they needed such agroup, members say. Kappa Alpha Psi was founded atIndiana University in 1911 by the only 10 Blackmen then attending the school, Grant says. "Thepurpose was to unite Black men in an alienenvironment."
Traditional support groups were not availableto Black students at that time. The Blackfraternity system "developed because there was atime when [Black students] couldn't get into otherfraternities and sororities. So they created theirown system," says Eden Williams.
While Eden Williams says she understands whyBlack students chose to form their own separategroups, she adds that she is concerned that theBlack Greek system could have a negative effect onrace relations.
Members of Black sororities and fraternities"feel as though when they bond together they willbe overcoming racism. This is their way offighting it. Really, that only serves tosegregate, not bring together," Eden Williamssays. "I think interracial contact is the way toovercome racism."
"The real world is not all Black, so you haveto deal with and coexist with other races. Theblack fraternities don't represent reality. Theydo not help you deal with reality. It has becomemore of an escape," Eden Williams says.
But current Black Greeks say that many of thesame factors that prompted the original creationof the national fraternity system still applytoday.
They point to Boston's perennial racial tensionand say it is particularly difficult to be a Blackperson in the city. "I don't see the situation aschanged since 1911. Being Black, it can be roughsocially. There is a need of brotherhood. Theobject is not to alienate ourselves from thecommunity," Grant says.
Joining a Black fraternity or sorority is oneway Black students deal with what they call "astrong push to assimilate from the whites," saysTeddy Bosey, a Black student at MIT who does notbelong to a fraternity but who lives in apredominately Black dorm.
"In terms of Blacks' attitudes toward whites,it's not resentment. It's resistance. We want tomaintain a cultural identity," Bosey says.
Black Americans, Bosey says, run the risk ofentirely losing touch with their heritage, andBlack frats are one way Black students try topreserve their identity. "The question really isnot whether to integrate, because you have tointegrate. The question is whether integrationinvolves assimilation," Bosey says.
"It's all about one word: brotherhood," saysIvy Webb, a student at MIT who first joined thepredominately white Zeta Psi and then switched tothe Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi.
"I made a rash decision [by joining Zeta Psi]and realized when the other fraternity memberswere preaching brotherhood, brotherhood,brotherhood, and I wasn't seeing any of it. I wasliving with some people who had never met a Blackbefore," Webb says.
"I can't really see anything positive comingout of Blacks joining white fraternities," Boseysays. "The result is usually assimilation into thewhite culture and to the whites in thefraternity."
Participants in the Black Greek system say theyview their membership as a way of reaffirmingtheir commitment to helping the Black community.
Easier to Relate
"By being in a Black fraternity, it's easierfor the members of the community to relate to you,if you are dealing with a primarily Blackcommunity," says Alan Williams. He says hisinterest in the fraternity stems from hisinvolvement with a youth group at home.
"It is not just a fraternity; it's a lifelongcommitment. As businessmen, there is a lot ofstress placed on setting role models, on loyalty,and on continuing the frat," says Schaeffer.
According to Cranston, "The focus in the whitefraternities is to stay for four years. With theBlack fraternities, the emphasis is on a lifetimecommitment." The fraternity also serves as anetwork for jobs, he says.
"By interacting with such dynamic people,"explained Fulton, "I will be able to be moresuccessful myself. That is why I decided topledge."