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The Black Greek Mystique

By Natasha S. Alford

Ican still recall the pain in my legs as I was forced to kneel on rice, while a girl much heavier than me stood on my back. At the time I was on crutches—but that mattered little to the women in the room who made me put them aside. As the tears rolled down my face, I was told to shut up and stop being so dramatic.

This was not a torture scene out of some fictional story, but rather a real moment in the saga of underground pledging to become a member of a Black Greek Letter organization. For far too long, men and women across the country, and yes, even at Harvard, have been participants in illegal or “underground” pledging activities that have subjected them to physical, emotional, and mental abuse, all in the name of black solidarity. The silence of these victims is simultaneously coerced and demanded by current and former allegiances, fear of punishment, embarrassment, and even self-justification for what they went through—yet empowerment of the African-American community demands that someone speak.

As I look back on the weeks of intense sleep deprivation, physical challenges, mental games and manipulation, I marvel at the vibrant, active, and happy college student that was utterly destroyed by the process. For many people who go through this process, the depth of cumulative practical sacrifice (social isolation from their community; loss of time for schoolwork) and emotional investment (enduring verbal abuse, emotional attachment to other pledges, fear of failure) hinders their ability to stop, as it did mine. While many boldly proclaim what they would or would not let happen to them if they ever “pledged,” they incorrectly assume that they would be free from any emotional or physical trauma that would impair their judgment. In the midst of such an experience, one does not always see themselves or their situation so clearly—hence the word “hazing.”

I, like so many other students, had read numerous articles on hazing and was given plenty authoritative warnings about illegal pledging. Despite these admonitions, I was certain nothing “bad” would happen to me. After all, being Greek is a socially acceptable aspect of the African-American community. Elevated and popularized by movies like “Stomp the Yard” and by respectable members of the black community and historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. who have donned Greek letters, being a member of black fraternity of sorority retains positive connotations in spite of the “challenge” of becoming one.

Somehow at the end of every spring, when the chosen few emerge victorious with Greek letters on their jackets, the ugly elements of the journey are casually disregarded and often remain publicly unconfirmed. It’s the hand signs that get thrown up and the fly strolling or the stepping that seem so appealing. The appearance of unconditional love, strong bonds and even community service elevate these members and the organizations they represent.

Yet it is this limited perception which helps build the mystique around these organizations and the very pledging practices they officially denounce. The significant peer consensus that people who are “paper” (meaning they do not participate in the underground process) are lacking, and that “real” Greeks pledge, make becoming a Greek in minority communities a do or die situation for those who want it badly enough. But very few are informed about how dangerous and damaging the process can be—the fact that every pledging experience doesn’t end in death does not mean that the conditions for it fail to exist.

As difficult as the revelation is to face, underground pledging almost cost me my life, and the lives of others involved—literally and figuratively. It induced academic failure, social isolation from my friends and my community, emotional scarring, and ultimately a chronic illness, which went undiagnosed until its discovery and potential fatality forced the process all to end—for me at least. It was ultimately the same “be strong” philosophy that pledging is meant to embody that allowed visible signs of my physical deterioration to go unnoticed by the very people who I entrusted with my life.

The “banality of evil” was a term coined by Hannah Arendt in her work on the Holocaust to describe how the great atrocities in history are generally not committed by sociopaths or crazy people. Instead, it is the ordinary people who accept the premise of their state and therefore participate in evil while perceiving it as normal. Ultimately, the people who ran my pledging process were not monsters. They were regular college students. Most were nice, accomplished, educated, socially-conscious, and even proclaimed Christians. We all knew each other, and in some cases had developed intimate bonds of sisterhood. They, like the women before them, only did to me what was done to them. It is strange how a cycle of violence is perpetuated through intimacy.

Yet this does not absolve them of responsibility, or give license to the community at large to ignore the truth. Harvard must recognize that hazing happens here, and individuals must learn to stop subjecting themselves to processes that were made illegal for a reason. It’s time that we call violence by its name, no matter how intimate it is to us, our history, our community, or our race. Through redefinition of the terms, we empower ourselves to break free from the silence.

Natasha S. Alford ’08 is a Social Studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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