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‘Burning Sands’ gives us the good, the bad and the ugly about fraternity life at HBCUs

Generations have benefited from the Divine Nine’s leadership, scholarship and charity

On March 9, hip-hop music fans around the world were recognizing the 20th anniversary of rapper Biggie Smalls’ death. However, March 9 was a much bigger deal for me because it was the 50th anniversary of the day my dad crossed the “burning sands” of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity at Florida A&M University (FAMU). In 1998, I would be blessed to cross those same sands at FAMU.

The term “crossing the burning sands” describes pledging a Greek-letter organization and crossing over from being a pledge to becoming a full member. Other organizations use this term as it speaks to the trials and tribulations that people face and rise above in life. For me, it meant that I completed one of the most arduous treks of my life. From the time I became interested to the time I crossed totaled 18 months.

I had great trepidation before I watched Netflix’s new movie Burning Sands. I couldn’t help but think about the Jay Z song “Get Your Mind Right Mami, in which he exclaims, It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust. So much of black Greek life and mystique are based on secrecy and discretion.

The film is based on the personal experiences of the writer-director Gerard McMurray, and was inspired by Robert Champion, the FAMU drum major killed in a hazing ritual in Orlando, Florida. FAMU settled a lawsuit for $1.1 million and issued an apology about the incident.

Champion, 26, died in November 2011 aboard a school bus after a football game and a band initiation rite. The initiation required pledges to run down the center of the bus while being punched and kicked by senior members.

The story was national news for weeks when 15 defendants were originally charged. Most took plea deals. According to CNN, the last three defendants were convicted of manslaughter and are serving time in prison.

Though the hazing of Champion happened during a band initiation, the prevalence of hazing runs deep, unfortunately, within the culture of some fraternities and sororities on both historically black and predominantly white campuses.

Divine Nine are central to HBCU life

It’s the honor, distinction and dignity that have been traditions for thousands of mostly college-educated African-American women and men since 1906, when the first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha (Martin Luther King Jr. and Stuart Scott were members) was founded. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, would be founded two years later in 1908 (Michelle Obama and tennis great Zina Garrison are members).

Following 1908, there would be four more black fraternities and three more black sororities created, all boasting their own illustrious history, members and contributions to American and world history. Six of the nine would be founded at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and all of them are collectively referred to as the Divine Nine.

Burning Sands takes place at a fictitious HBCU, Frederick Douglass University, during the Lambda Phi fraternity’s Hell Week. Hell Week is the period that culminates one’s pledging process.

During the movie, two Frederick Douglass quotes are repeated: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” and, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” These quotes are on opposite ends of the spectrum, yet still meet at a crossroads, showing the dichotomy of black Greek life.

Black fraternities and sororities are without question a huge part of the black college experience now as it was for most of the 20th century. As I always like to say, “It’s deeper than rap” lyrics, which refers to when there’s a beef between two hip-hop artists and the beef goes beyond the actual song as in Remy Ma vs. Nicki Minaj.

For me, pledging a fraternity meant much more than just wearing some letters and being popular. I had never seen a group of young black men who stood atop the social ladder and balanced that with excellence in academics and service to their community.

As an African-American, becoming part of a historically black fraternity or sorority means more than joining an organization to party and network. The social and networking component of black Greek life is quite amazing due to the global reach of the Divine Nine. However, Greek life for most blacks has more significance than for some of my black and white friends who pledged predominantly white fraternities and sororities.

Black fraternities and sororities on campuses provide images of young black men and women that mainstream media don’t show. They are lawyers, doctors, pro athletes, mayors, politicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, coders and journalists, to name a few. To follow in their footsteps was a great challenge and honor for me. Besides to my dad being part of Omega Psi Phi, my mom, aunts and cousins are all members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (former U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch and tennis legend Wilma Rudolph are members). My grandfather, uncle and cousin are members of Kappa Alpha Psi (Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin are members).

Like HBCUs, black fraternities and sororities were created out of necessity to serve and protect African-American communities. It’s not a coincidence that the Divine Nine organizations were founded during the Jim Crow era.

In the early 1900s, as today, the ability for educated blacks to come together to serve their communities was integral to fighting the injustices they faced in America. These organizations were and still are at the forefront of many movements, including the civil rights movement. They inspired other young blacks to go to college and even provided college scholarships to high school students.

When then-President Barack Obama announced his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, all Divine Nine organizations pledged their support and extended their resources.

I can’t ignore, however, what seems like an increasing number of incidents. During the era of underground pledging, there continues to be a constant when it comes to lawsuits, serious injuries and deaths at the hands of the Divine Nine organizations.

Snitches Get Stitches?

From the time I played little league sports to the time I entered corporate America, I’ve experienced some form of hazing. The fabric of our society is built on the premise of no easy roads to success, of paying your dues to get where others already are. In a way, I can’t disagree. Who wants to see someone else walk in and enjoy the fruits of something you sacrificed for and worked tirelessly to help create and/or sustain? However, the question is … at what cost?

As one of the many proud FAMU alumni and a friend to many who experienced the same ritual, including my dad, I was torn regarding the Champion incident.

I thought: Robert was a grown man and made the choice on his own … why put these students in jail for something he willingly put himself through? I understand hazing is illegal, but they didn’t deserve to get charged for manslaughter over a tradition that started decades ago.

But now as a parent of a teenage daughter who will enter college in three years, I understand the point that had to be made. It was imperative to prevent anything like this from happening again. Like records, traditions are meant to be broken, especially when it involves violence that can lead to serious injury and death.

According to hazing expert Hank Nuwer, there has been at least one death every year from 1969 to 2016 as a result of hazing, initiation and pledging-related accidents. This is not just among U.S. college students, but also includes high school students, military deaths, adult societies, Masonic organizations and occupational deaths.

When asked, “Were you hazed?” my answer was simply, “No, I just pledged … hazing is illegal.” Even as I write this, I choose my words carefully. Maybe I am just brainwashed to protect what I hold so dear.

In January, the University of Oregon strength coach was suspended after pushing three players too hard, thus forcing them to be hospitalized. Was he trying to make these athletes better, or did he go too far? Could these athletes have become better from something less strenuous? It goes back to the adage of who polices the police? No matter what it is, it’s not worth a person’s life.

“[Burning Sands] depicts the honor, distinction and dignity promised to the brothers of [the fictional] Lambda Phi just as clearly as it shows the danger in their baptism by fire,” according to Netflix. To my surprise, McMurray, a member of Omega Psi Phi, did a good job showing this.

Bring The Pain … The Misconception of pledging

My mindset when I pledged was: By Any Means Necessary. The world can be a cruel place and growing up as a black man or woman is exponentially harder. So, whatever they throw at me while pledging will only make me better and prepare me for the real world. I won’t quit no matter what the cost.

I admit that simply pledging (or being hazed) doesn’t ensure greatness. It just means you went through a tough process. Among black fraternities and sororities, there is the saying, “It’s harder once you make it” across the burning sands. And this is true, because now you have a chapter and committees to run. You have a community that depends on you to serve. It’s similar to someone who makes it through college with a 4.0 but gets into the professional world and lacks the drive, hustle and professionalism to be successful.

Critics often say the Divine Nine creates elitism among African-Americans on college campuses. Some individuals, once they become part of these organizations, do develop an elitist attitude. In the film, there is a moment when a girl who is in a sorority asks, “Who is your girlfriend … is she in a sorority?” and the guy replies, “She’s not the sorority type.” The girl says, “I wouldn’t know her then.” This suggests that black Greeks interact only with each other. On some HBCU campuses, this is true but that’s an individual choice, not an organizational one.

I’m also asked why I would let someone haze me just to be part of an organization.

My response: If you simply see it as that, then it will be just that. One of the great things about pledging for me was that I learned the true meaning of humility, which has taken me far in my life and career. I learned to push my mind, body and soul to limits that I didn’t think were possible. I developed a mental toughness and resolve that I didn’t know I had. My grades were the best they’d ever been because I was disciplined throughout the whole process. And once I crossed the burning sands, it did become harder. I learned what it was like to run a company after running my chapter. The first contract I ever negotiated wasn’t in corporate America but via my chapter. I learned to make something out of nothing.

Yes, I did lose 15 pounds off my 130-pound frame while I pledged. It was a minor sacrifice in comparison with all that I gained and continue to gain. I was broken down and built back into someone much better than when I started. While pledging, I was never disrespected. You can make a man (or woman) work hard for something and allow them to keep their dignity. Of course, there was a physical element that I’d never experienced before, but it was the mental challenges that made pledging hard. You don’t have to beat or touch someone to challenge them.

Aaron Paxton Arnold is a keynote speaker, national media contributor and founder of MusicIsMyBusiness. He’s written for and/or appeared in Forbes, Inc., CNN, MSNBC, Fast Company and serves as a contributor for The New Kiss104.1FM morning show in Atlanta. In 2012, he was named one of 125 top alumni in Florida A&M University's 125-year history.