Black Greek organizations play a key role in the college experience of many students, but their history and role are not well understood by many white educators. A new book, Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun (University Press of Kentucky), is a collection of essays that mix history, pride and frank criticism. Gregory S. Parks, a lawyer and the editor, responded to questions about the book's themes.
Q: Black fraternities were created as an alternative to an exclusionary (white) Greek system and a largely segregated higher education system. How do you see their role as different today?
A: You get your analysis right, in a sense. Black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) really are a synthesis of a number of elements. They are the community uplift of the early Black church and Black secret societies. They are the mutual self-help of the early Black benevolent societies. They are the fictive-kinship bonding throughout adulthood of Black secret societies and during college years of white college fraternities and sororities. And they are the high scholasticism of collegiate literary societies. Their identity is largely born out of racial isolation and discrimination on predominantly White college campuses and in society, in general. As such, their goals have always been the development of personal excellence (usually high scholasticism), development of fictive-kinship ties (brotherhood and sisterhood), and racial (and gender for the sororities) uplift through civic action, community service, and philanthropy. The mission remains the same but may be fettered by various challenges in contemporary society.
Q: Should colleges be concerned about segregated Greek systems, not just of course the black fraternities and sororities, but the many other Greek houses that are almost entirely white?
A: They should only in as much as there is lack of acceptance (more than mere tolerance) of difference. I sense that minority, or at least, BGLOs have a good sense of what White Greeks do and are about, but there is little, substantive reciprocal understanding. There's more to BGLOs than stepping, and that might be all most White "Greeks" know, if they know anything about BGLOs. I think it is tragic when you have White "Greeks" dressing up in Black face and the like, but that comes from a lack of adequate education about "others." And the blame should largely be placed at the feet of Greek advisers, because they should know better and are in a position to help these groups break down some walls and get to know each other across racial, religious and sexual orientation categories.
Q: Do you see the social justice role of the system changing? Should it?
A: As long as inequalities exist, BGLOs' major mission has yet to be accomplished. I think one of the major issues now is that racism, sexism and various forms of xenophobia are not as apparent as they used to be. It's not that they are gone; it is, however, that many of these non-egalitarian attitudes are outside of people's conscious awareness. They are, nonetheless, still damaging. BGLOs need to realize and embrace the changing nature of civil rights discourse and activism.
Q: Your book includes essays on controversial topics within the system -- such as homophobia and violence. How serious do you think these problems are?
A: At the greatest level of abstraction, I think BGLOs face some significant challenges -- e.g., lack of critical, introspective analysis of the issues they face and a failure to incorporate new bodies of knowledge into their decision-making and problem-solving. As far as specific issues, I think most of their problems flow from their inability to resolve the hazing/pledging/membership intake process debate, or lack thereof. BGLOs are seriously hamstrung by not tackling this issue. Other issues such as homophobia (particularly among some of the fraternity members), the critique that they are anti-Christian, questions about how to incorporate non-Black (especially White) members, petty inter-group rivalries and the like all serve to undermine the great mission of these organizations.
Q: What should college leaders and professors at predominantly white campuses know about the black Greek system that they don't?
A: First, they really need to know the history of these groups and understand that they were and have always been more than mere college fraternities. They are the melding of civic, philanthropic, service, scholastic, and relational identities that last and function far beyond college years. Second, BGLOs face unique sets of challenges, and doing for them on college campuses what college leaders may be inclined to do for White "Greeks" is an ineffective strategy. Third, BGLO college chapters need more involvement, and more informed involvement, from campus leaders than they're getting now.
Q: What did you fraternity membership mean to you? Was it hard to write this book on a topic on which you have close ties?
A: A better way to put it is, "What does it mean to me?" I'm a life member of Alpha Phi Apha Fraternity. I still attend alumni chapter meetings on a monthly basis. I still do community service through the fraternity. I communicate with my line brothers, brothers who pledged me, and brothers I pledged almost on a daily basis. Most of my personal, spiritual, and professional mentors are Alphas. So, Alpha means a lot to me. It gave me brothers where I previously had none, and it placed me in the midst of men with a common sense of purpose. As for writing about BGLOs, I think I can be pretty objective about them, and I try to put various checks and balances within my writing process to ensure intellectual honesty. I think that's what the organizations deserve; I think that's what the readers deserve.