Pledging vs. Hazing
When I initially wrote the introduction, it was not meant to be an in depth analysis of the black greek system. Rather, it was intended to be the introduction to the book I was writing at the time. Since I have decided to put that introduction on my web page, the response I have gotten has been even greater than I expected.
But even with that response, I still get a lot of questions and a lot of assumptions that I am for hazing, or that I told "everything" about the pledge process. Neither assumptions are correct, and that is what I will address here.
First of all, let me state for the record that I am not for physical hazing. Well, maybe that is not entirely true. I am in favor of hazing in a very moderated form. I do not believe in excessive physical violence, but I do believe in mind games, and strenuous exercise (and I mean that literally!). I do believe that the pledging process could exist without hazing. I just think that in recent years we have been taught that pledging cannot exist without hazing.
Let me also state here that I do not believe, as one young lady wrote, that pledging is the total purpose of being in a Black Greek Organization. In fact, it is a very small part. I pledged for seven and a half weeks, but I have been an Alpha for over 11 years. You do the math.
Unfortunately, pledging has been so closely associated with the Black Greek Organizations, that it seems that is all people want to hear about and all they want to discuss. People do not want to hear about the service projects that are done, the countless homeless shelters that are built, the innumerable literacy programs that have been started. They don't want to hear about how members do little things like paint churches, visit the ill and shut-in, provide needed scholarships, establish mentor programs or anything like that. All they want to do is discuss hazing. So, I am going to indulge that particular fascination, only because there are so many misconceptions about the Black Greek Organizations, and more often than not, through our own carelessness and arrogance, we have added the logs to the fire.
I noticed that the older I got, the less my inclinations were to haze. I saw myself growing into more a teaching mode, although sometimes I would slip into my old role as a "kick-ass brother." But even when I was in that mode, I saw that the people who I was pledging were not really getting much from me except some bruises here and there. Rather, when I sat down with the pledges and actually talked to them, like men, not boys, that was when they started learning. Then I remembered that it was those times when I learned the most as well when I was a pledge.
I remember one night while I was pledging that my Dean of Pledges kept us up until 6 o'clock in the morning. And he never touched us. He talked to us. Not once during that night were we touched. Instead, he explained to us what the fraternity was really about, why he pledged, why Alpha Phi Alpha was important to him, and what, as he thought, made Alpha unique among all organizations. We understood. We sat there, sometimes bored, sometimes intrigued and sometimes amused, but we got what he was saying.
I think one major problem with greeks and non-greeks alike is that they cannot distinguish between pledging and hazing. They are not one and the same. In fact, they are almost separate entities, but have grown to be interdependent. Pledging can exist without hazing, but hazing cannot exist without pledging.
Hazing will not make you a better member. Hazing will not make you a stronger member. It will not make you pay your dues, it will not make you learn your history, it will not make you relate to the members of your organization better. Hazing will not make you go to your chapter meetings or conventions. In fact, hazing will not make you do anything, except get prepared for more hazing.
Pledging will not make you do any of these things either. But as I said, pledging is a different entity. Pledging is a commitment that you are making, not necessarily to the organization, but to yourself. You are committing yourself to a process that is stressful, sometimes dangerous, often times nerve-wracking. But it is a commitment between you and the organization.
If the pledge process is done correctly, the "pledge" comes away with a greater understanding of one's self than they could have gotten anywhere else. Your limits are tested. You are forced to think in a different manner, talk in a different manner, act and react in a manner which one would have never thought possible. If you are arrogant (which I was and am), it will force you to learn humility. If you are insecure, then it will bring out facets of your personality that you did not know was there. Pledging, for some people, does make them stronger. Notice I said pledging, not hazing.
But, having said that, why does hazing have to come into play? And why, one may ask, is hazing even necessary? I don't have a concrete answer to the first question, but I think I can answer the second one.
Our society has often based the worth of it's men based on their physical prowess. How much can you lift? How fast can you run? How tough are you? How much pain can you endure? Are you man enough not to give up? Are you man enough to take pain and not cry? All of these things are a part of the male ego and the male society. And naturally, they drifted over to the women.
That is the general male society. But the black male society is almost a different animal. While all of those above criteria are present in the black culture, we take it a step further.
Since the slave days, black men have always been viewed by the majority culture as having brawn and no brains. When slaves were sold on the auction, the best slave was the one that had the most muscles, who could take the most beatings, who was the most subservient. The dark "nigger" who was imposing to all but the person with the whip.
But slavery is over. And it has been for several generations. But pledging, when hazing is involved, is the closest thing to slavery that anyone will experience. I thought that then and think it now. With all of our "yes, big brother" or "no, big sister" we allowed ourselves to be transported back in time when we as black people were considered less than human. And the pledge who is actively being hazed is not viewed as a full human either.
I cannot say for sure when hazing began in the black greek organizations. I can say that a certain amount of hazing was written into almost all of the black greek organizations rituals. Non-ritual hazing probably began as early as 1920. There is an account in the history of Alpha Phi Alpha about how the Jewels (founders) were called to a convention to address the subject of rampant hazing in the fraternity. This was around 1921 or 1922. So, if we use Alpha Phi Alpha as a ruler, hazing has been around for at least 60 years.
I have talked to many members of greek organizations who pledged prior to 1960 who told me of long pledge periods (6 months or longer) where they were not hazed, my mother being one of them. She pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha at Fisk University in the mid 1950's and was (according to her) never physically hazed. This was confirmed to me by some of her line sisters and other sorority members from her chapter of that time. They were not hazed, yet, they, for the most part, are still members in good standing with their sorority and are proud of their pins. I have talked to members of my own chapter who pledged in the 40's and 50's and they have reports of limited physical hazing in their pledge programs to no physical hazing at all. I make the distinction of physical hazing because according to the laws of this country and the definitions in dictionaries, if a pledge is being forced to even read this essay, that is hazing.
So with the talks I have had with fraternity and sorority members, it is possible to be a good member of a black greek organization and not be physically hazed. So why don't we do it? Why does hazing still exist?
Hazing exists because people have not been strong enough to forget what was done to them, and realize that hazing is really a non-productive process. If someone was hit with a paddle, in order to exact some sort of vengeance, they in turn hit someone else with a paddle, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Hazing, in fact, is a cycle. Just like domestic abuse or child abuse, it is a cycle of destructive behavior that can be seen by going back through the generations. The greek system is no different. If someone had not hazed me, I would not have hazed someone else. This is does absolve me nor excuse me (or anyone else for that matter), yet it is the reality of the hazing situation.
The bottom line here that greeks and non-greeks alike need to learn is that hazing is a virus on our organizations. It is something that probably started off innocently enough, but then grew out of control. Then, instead of trying to confront the problem head on, a variety of excuses were given, blame was placed, and people made out to be scapegoats.
But the time for making scapegoats and the time for complaining about it has come to an end. Our organizations are in real trouble. The spirit is down. I am sure, although I have no facts to back this up, that membership has suffered. There has been a big jump of college age men and women into the Masonic organization, directly as a result of the bad press and bad images that are perceived of the greek organizations.
But what is worse, that because of the actions of a few unthinking and uncaring people, a lot more people are suffering as a result. Our organizations are forced to look elsewhere to recapture the spirit that we had just 10 or 15 short years ago. It is through the actions of certain individuals, and a total lack of communication on all levels of the collective organizations, that we are forced to take a hard look at the way that things were done. We must evaluate our need to continue the ways of the "old school" versus the need for our organization to survive.
So what is the answer? What can be done to help ease the problems?
The answer I believe, can be found in a 3 step process that myself, along with about 10 other members of Alpha Phi Alpha introduced on the convention floor in 1988. It went something like this:
Step Two: A standard 4 to 6 pledge program, where all of the tools developed and taught in Step One are carried out to the letter.
I know this seems a bit simple on one hand and a bit repetitive on the other hand, but I have seen programs like this work, particularly in Masonic circles.
Another suggestion I would make (which I know would never go through) is that only someone who joined the organization on the college level can serve as graduate advisor, preferably someone who was a member of that chapter (if possible). I say this because someone who has never been greek on the college level does not understand all the nuances of a college chapter, even though it is the same organization. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but one the whole, it has been my experience that you can not tell someone where to go, if you have not been where they have been. I know some people who will read this will strongly disagree, but that is okay.
In closing, let me add this. I was suspended for hazing when I was a neophyte. Mainly because I was not taught what to do and what not to do. When I became an Alpha, it was almost like, "Here's your dues card, now go out and haze." Thankfully, my Dean tried to show us what to do and not to do, but it was not stressed to us what was proper and what was not. As a result, I and my ships were suspended for one year. Despite that, I went on to become president of my chapter, but I always remembered that pledging was nothing to be taken lightly.
Because in the long and short of it, life is a pledge process. Life is about learning humility, learning what to do and what not to do, learning what is necessary to advance, and what the consequences of our actions are. But life, like pledging, does not have to be full of unnecessary risks. For far too long, we have taken too many risks.
So we can have a safe, litigation free pledge program, without hazing, but only if the members realize that the love of our organizations must outweigh the need to exact revenge on other people for what was done to us. I don't think it will be easy. I don't think it will happen overnight. Nor do I think that everyone would be in favor of the program I outlined here. My own fraternity turned it down. But it does work. I have seen it work. We just have to make sure it can work.
This Experience created by: Chuck Smoot
(Charles E. Smoot © 2000-2009, all rights reserved)