A Better Village

The truth will set you free.

Category: Black Sorority Sisters

Movie Review: Burning Sands (Netflix)

#BurningSands #LessSteppingMoreStudying

Burning Sands exposes the hypocrisy inherent in Black Greek letter organizations. It reveals a lot about what is wrong with some intake processes, but more importantly what’s wrong with the Black community–and the talented tenth charged with leading it. By most accounts, Black Greek letter organizations began in the early 20th century in response to Blacks not being allowed to join White Greek letter organizations, as a way of fostering scholarship and a sense of community among Black collegians, and as vehicles for Black collegians to provide community service. Yet, as Burning Sands reveals, instead of paying it forward many, Black collegians are engaging in counterproductive behavior that negates the purpose of Black Greek letter life.

One of Burning Sands’ explorations concerns some people’s motivation for pledging:  Sometimes a person is interested because they are “legacy”–they have a parent or parents who pledged, or they are  pressured by family members that dominate a particular affiliation. Some people join for social status or help climbing a career ladder. Some people join seeking a sense of family. Of course, reasons for pledging abound and are not exhausted here.

It is the exposé of contradictions that makes Burning Sands most useful. One of the most blaring contradictions explored surrounds the movement towards bonding that is supposed to be typical of pledge processes. For instance, throughout the film, the audience is exposed to line brothers treating each other in unbrotherly ways. Additionally, most–if not all–Black Greek Letter organizations are based on Christian principles, yet many Black Greek Letter members fornicate, gossip and bare false witness against each other and others–and engage in other ungodly acts. In one scene, the pledges visit their dean in his dorm room where a naked female can be seen lying in his bed. The insinuation is not that she was posing for a portrait. Further: Most, if not all, Black Greek Letter organizations are based upon the principle of scholarship, yet some organizations take pride in forcing activities upon pledges that cut into studying time. It is not uncommon for a pledge’s grade point average to plummet while pledging.

Sands also highlights the fact–possibly unintentionally–that Blacks lack leadership. Black Greek Letter organizations are supposed to consist of what W.E.B. DuBois, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, called the Talented Tenth–the small group of Blacks who were fortunate enough to pursue scholarship and who were expected to subsequently lead and pull others behind them. Yet in Sands, an elder member of the fraternity that is the subject of the movie supports the dysfunctional practices portrayed.

Yet, there are some misunderstandings:  Most people’s perception of underground pledging does not account for the fact that some organizations have study hours built into their processes that include big brothers and sisters checking the library to make sure pledges are there and getting their school work done. This is a little known fact that some organizations may downplay as pledging is often exaggerated to make it appear as if it is “so hard” to gain membership. Keep in mind that Blacks tend to have a fascination with scandal. One example of this from the movie is when the line brothers chide one of their own for not drinking and being sexually active. We seem to have adopted the notion that life and lessons are supposed to be lived and learned the hard way.  Maybe Slavery taught us that life is supposed to consist of struggle and sacrifice? We applaud poverty and deprivation and pathologize anyone who doesn’t seem to have had such experiences. Some take pride in their perceived ability to revoke “Black cards” from those who haven’t suffered enough. Black Greek Letter members are often no different. For this reason, graduate chapter membership is sometimes looked down upon–even amongst organization members–because it is perceived to be easier to attain. Some Black Greek Letter organization members literally pretend to have pledged hard just to get respect.

Some members scramble to specify that they pledged undergrad so they get more respect. Yet, the same members who mock people for pledging graduate chapters and being “paper” members are the same ones who brag about famous honorary members who didn’t “pledge.” Would a member who pledged “so hard” undergrad call her 50 year-old pastor who just joined a graduate chapter “paper?” And as discretion is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of “pledging,” what is a member doing discussing someone else’s process anyway?

One criticism of Sands will likely be that Black Greek Letter organization rituals are being unfairly criticized by people who do not understand the original purpose of “pledging.” This may be true. One of the problems with large organizations, especially national and international groups, is that it is difficult to manage individual membership and rituals. Leadership passes these processes down to members they hope they can trust and to whom they trust has the requisite understanding of the organization’s mission and purpose. But the best intentions . . . Feelings get involved: Sometimes credible prospective members are passed over due to petty jealousies; sometimes people become intent on inflicting the same pain that was inflicted on them without regard to the organization’s mission and the lesson that is supposed to be learned; sometimes neophytes want to shed their newness by pledging a line–any line–and allow unworthy individuals to join by haphazardly pledging them without regard to their ability to uphold the ideals of the organization; and sometimes processes are changed out of fear–to appease those who may repeat something about the process they do not understand and cause a misunderstanding that leads to suspension.

Blacks have long had a legacy problem: We tend to start out good, but have a hard time maintaining our success over generations. The state of Black Greek Letter organizations is an example of that.

By some accounts, the Black Greek Letter pledge process was initially designed to parallel a rite of passage. Yet, many leave their processes unchanged and useless to the communities they pledged to assist.

The controversy about Sands stems from Blacks not liking inconvenient truths, and wanting to maintain a facade about Black elite organizations. Folks like to do their dirt in private and put on a facade of unity.  Anyone who betrays this faux unity–who dares to tell the truth, like Gerard McMurray does with Sands, is branded a traitor. (Yet, it’s okay for Blacks to expose the misdeeds of others, which is why movements like Black Lives Matter is not taken seriously. But I digress.)

Hopefully, Burning Sands will spark critical analysis and conversations about Black elitism, the need for leadership amongst Blacks, dysfunctional habits that need to be abandoned, and our inability to maintain generational success.

Why I #SupportSororitySisters

Mona Scott-Young and Forest Whitaker are under attack for their upcoming respective film projects, “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad.” According to some, both of these projects threaten to tarnish the otherwise good image of Black Greek Letter organizations (BGLO). Outrage over the projects have sparked at least one petition, and many online and social media discussions. I, a Black woman in her 30’s—and the member of a BGLO—am not offended, and am hoping that “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad” make it to television and the silver screen respectively, if for no other reason than on principle alone.

Here is why I #SupportSororitySisters.

Reality television and silver screen depictions “didn’t start the fire.”  Triflery and pettiness have permeated Black female relationships ever since we were taught to compete with one another during the Enslavement Process. The piety that belies much (not all) of the criticism of reality shows and media that show Blacks at their worst is not constructive because it is shame-based and aimed at covering up—not solving—the problem. During their discussion of the outrage over “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad,” and the petition during a Huffington Post Live broadcast, Drs. Marc Lamont Hill and Ricky Jones suggested that naysayers’ efforts to quell these projects are simply attempts to police the image of middle and upper class Blacks, and more specifically, organizations like BGLOs and historically Black colleges (HBC), which have long been symbols of the ability of Blacks to achieve middle and upper class strata. Drs. Hill and Jones seemed to further suggest that at least some of the criticism is the product of some people’s notion that Black elite organizations should somehow be exempt from stereotyping.

I agree with Drs. Hill and Jones’ assessment, and I disagree with the exemption. One of the biggest problems we have in the “Black” community is our psychotic tendency to “other” each other, and to not speak up about an issue until we are personally affected. We learned this during Slavery when we were taught to live in survival mode—and when we were taught to mimic our enslavers’ philosophy that in order for there to be winners there have to be losers. Further, the term “stereotyping” in the petition is being used loosely. We have to break away from the habit of excusing ourselves from addressing real problems by pointing to our hurt feelings. Every time someone presents an inconvenient truth—one that is contrary to what we want to believe about ourselves—we claim the defense of “offense.” Blacks aren’t the only ones who do this. Whites and others do this, too.

This is not to say that the depictions in “Sorority Sisters,” “Undergrad,” and other “reality” shows and media depictions are true. There are some BGLO members that only live up to the ideals their founders envisioned—whose hard work and professional and personal conduct set a standard for us all. But this is not the case for all, and nobody is, or should be, surprised by this. This is just like the many Blacks who claim to be “saved,” and claim to be Christians, but their behavior is the direct antithesis of what everybody knows about how Christians are supposed to live. Certainly, there are some Christians (very, very few) who talk the talk and walk the walk, but they can’t oppose others’ observations that some Christians are hypocrites. Emotional responses keep us from addressing real problems and perpetuate the idea that we lack the ability to analyze.

And about middle and upper class Blacks being exempt:  Aren’t many of the cast members on Real Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives upper class? Many of them are college—and beyond—educated, and many own their own businesses. What exactly is middle and upper class anyway?

We need this mirror.  Maybe people seeing behavior they engage in acted out by others will be an impetus for change. Even reality “stars” have commented that seeing themselves act the way they have on television has provoked a desire to change. Further, I would bet a lot of things that many of the same people who are rallying against “Sorority Sisters” and “Undergrad” regularly indulge in other reality shows that “depict” Black females in a negative way. This sentiment was expressed by some of those who posted comments to the Huffington Post Live broadcast.

And if the opposition to “Sorority Sisters” is really about the image of the African-American (I prefer to say “Black”), then anyone who expressed opposition to “Sorority Sisters” ought not to be indulgers of any other reality shows that show us at our worst—which include but are not limited to: any of the “Real Housewives” franchise shows, the “Basketball Wives” shows; and opponents ought to have expressed dissatisfaction with the “change” petition concerning Blue Ivy’s hair—because nothing makes us looks worse than earnestly taking the time to create and circulate a petition about something as frivolous as a child’s hair. (I started not to even include a link to that petition, but that would have been the type of emotional response I argue against.)

And these same opponents ought to have expressed discontent over the issue that was made over Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas’ hair when she made history a few summers ago. Black Greeks and non-Greeks indulge in reality television and participate in frivolity.

Triflery and pettiness is not class-based. I know plenty of well-pedigreed professionals who get upset because someone walked in the room without “speaking,” for instance, and who talk about others’ choice of outfit, and other frivolous topics that will not make or break anybody’s existence.

I don’t know what Ms. Scott-Young’s motive was for creating “Sorority Sisters,” but I don’t agree with knocking someone’s hustle because you want to police an image that may or may not be far from an inconvenient truth.

We’re not fooling anybody. Even people outside of the Black Greek Life culture, who are aware of the intentions of BGLO founders, know that all Black Greeks do not live up to the ideals they pledged to uphold. Many BGLOs are said to be founded on Christian principles, yet there are many members who conduct themselves in opposition to such principles—in ways that include, but are not limited to: engaging in (lots of) casual sex; gossiping; allowing feelings of jealousy and envy to impact how they treat others; displaying prejudice against others based on ethnic, physical, and other differences; and gluttony (obesity). (Blacks’ confusion about what Christianity is and means accounts for a lot of this hypocrisy, but that’s another topic, for another blog.) Do you know any Black Greeks that have borne children out of wedlock? Do you know any that have multiple children with different parents? Do you know any that gossip? Any overweight? Have you ever heard a Black Greek comment that another didn’t pledge “properly?” Are any of your answers to the previous questions different than what they would have been had you not seen the trailer for “Sorority Sisters?” Nobody’s reality is shaken by what they see about us on television.

This display of consciousness to cover up an obvious demonstration of unconsciousness is taking our focus away from the real issue—the fact that we have more serious problems than what people think about us. We should have a problem with who we are and what we have become. We are those females (I use the word “woman” and “women” carefully) in that trailer. When I see my counterparts depicted in reality shows, I sadly—with all of my education and professional experiences—have flashbacks of being mistreated by my Greek and non-Greek “sisters.” And it’s not because I’m hanging out with the wrong people. It’s because Blacks as a mass have not recovered from the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process, and most of us are still operating like the self-hating slaves we were taught to be. This dysfunctional psychology is not particular to any class or socio-economic status. Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome has no respect of Black persons. Because it is so pervasive, I am not able to control when I will encounter a “sister”—Greek or not—that is going to judge my speech pattern, dress, other physical characteristic, or something she has heard about me, and accuse me of thinking that I’m better than she is, or worse—mistreat me because of her inferiority complex.

The “united front” we—Greeks and non-Greeks—try to show is killing us, because it prevents us from solving the root cause of problems. Hugging and kissing each other “on the yard” so on-lookers think an unbreakable bond exists that in reality doesn’t, is a waste of everybody’s time—which is not to say that sometimes such a bond doesn’t exist.

Reality shows don’t trash our image. We’ve done that already, by not recovering from the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process, and allowing the dysfunction we were taught to live under during that time to continually be perpetuated. Some people have just been smart enough to pick up a camera and make money off it. And if our BGLOs are so untouchable and filled with the talented tenth of us—how come any members are even signing up to be a part of Ms. Scott-Young’s projects and “performing” for them? Folks would have been better off skipping the petitions, and simply convening regional meetings to discuss how Black Greek life got so far away from what BGLO founders intended.

When we change who we are, our conduct and subsequent image will naturally change with it. We won’t have to worry about being embarrassed by desperate wanna-be celebrities who think that their path out of poverty is performing in ways that reflect the worst of us. We won’t have to worry about any of “us” taking to social media with frivolous petitions about individual characteristics, like hair, that speak nothing about a person’s potential or worth. But this mass change has not happened yet, partly because we have concerned ourselves more with image than with substance.

And let’s be honest:  a lot of the concern about our image is directly related to what we want Whites to think about us. If “Sorority Sisters” were just a show that Blacks could access, I can almost guarantee you that the present backlash would be non-existent. We might be a little bit concerned about what Black non-Greeks would think. But with Whites being able to access any channel on television, just as Blacks, there’s a chance they might think that our elite organizations aren’t what we’ve been saying they are. Newsflash though: When Whites see us convening our bourgeoisie conventions at local hotels and convention centers, and producing elaborate award shows, they don’t think that those of us attending are any better than those of us that can’t afford to attend—they think its funny that we spend all of this money to convince them that we can shine just like them when we get all dressed up when: A) they already know this to be the case, so we’re wasting our time trying to impress them; B) there are so many more Blacks that are suffering; and C) as soon as the lights go out and the right song comes on, we can be just as ratchet as “the others.” Don’t worry:  Whites already know that “all Blacks aren’t like that.”

This concern about what Whites think about us is probably what drove the petition about Blue Ivy’s hair. We know that Jay-Z and Beyonce’s family is popular amongst Whites and Blacks, and we don’t want Whites seeing us with our hair “all messed up.”

The pretention that belies the motivation to petition against something like “Sorority Sisters” and “images that depict Blacks in a negative way” is a waste of time. Blacks and Whites alike already know that all BGLO members aren’t ridiculous.

If the concept behind “Sorority Sisters” were a complete distortion, and that distortion had the potential to impact people’s view of an otherwise unblemished institution, there would possibly be cause for alarm. But Black Greeks and Non-Greeks alike have witnessed Black Greeks engaging in injurious conduct long before the “Sorority Sisters” trailer came out. For instance, Greeks and Non-Greeks have witnessed dissatisfied members ripping “letters” from other members because one doesn’t approve of the other’s membership. Dr. Marc Lamont Hill mentioned this while discussing the outrage over “Sorority Sisters” during the Huffington Post Live broadcast. (I don’t think any BGLO founder would be happy about the arrogance that drives these sorts of attacks among members.)

Pretention wasn’t a part of our founders’ plans, problem resolution was. The founders of BGLOs intended to encourage those of us who are able, to cooperate to solve problems affecting all of us. They had very specific plans in mind for determining who was worthy of engaging in such struggles. Again, as some folks started to concern themselves more with image than with substance, even those plans changed. (But I highly doubt that any BGLO founders would be satisfied with members ripping “letters” off of other members when becoming a member means working cooperatively with all other members. Where is the sisterhood or brotherhood in alerting others—Greek and non-Greek—of another member’s route to membership, and your humble disapproval of it?)

Further, and most strikingly, this whole situation is an example of “us” (Blacks) not all being on the same page. If we were all (Greek and non-Greek) as sophisticated as we’d like to believe we are—and as sophisticated as we want each other and others to believe—none of us would sign up to “perform” in any reality shows, we wouldn’t have to worry about anybody petitioning through social media about frivolous topics, and we wouldn’t have to worry about that one inarticulate, toothless witness news reporters always seem to find to describe what happened—because he or she wouldn’t exist.

Shutting down projects that publish “somebody’s” truth does more harm than good. It perpetuates dysfunctional unified fronts, encourages dishonesty, and prevents problems from being solved—and problem solving was exactly what our predecessors intended.