My former fraternity broke my heart today. A video was posted allegedly showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity’s Oklahoma Kappa chapter chanting a disturbing song evoking images of deep hatred and cruelty that we too often choose to ignore happened in our country. To say it was racist is not enough. It hit me in the very core of my soul when I saw the video.
I know those bus rides well. I was a member of this chapter 14 years ago. The second BLACK MAN to be initiated in those halls. We had our own songs….different songs…but songs we sang on every bus trip to every date party for four years. We didn’t know where the songs came from or who made them up or even what some of them meant, but we sang them so often we all knew them whether we wanted to or not….
So now 14 years later, my “brothers” now sing this song. This is what gets their spirits united for a great night out with their friends and their dates (one of which, thank God exposed this …this). This is what binds them. But I remember what binded us. I remember the True Gentleman.
The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.
Good will. Propriety. Self-Control. Honor. Virtue. Sympathy.
I wanted to be an Omega. All my heroes from television were Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas. I went S-A-E. My mother wanted to protect her son from … everything and forbid me to pledge anything. I went through two days of rush just to see what was out there. Every house was the same, everyone looked the same, and I was very aware that no one looked like me. But a childhood friend, of mine, Ben, wanted to see the S-A-E house because his Grandfather had been an Alph and my friend hoped to honor him by extending that legacy. I walked in to what was one of the most confusing houses I’ve ever been in. I met two of the nicest, but, whitest guys of all time (still love you Geoff and Mr. Manley) who told me a lot about the house and what they wanted to provide their pledges. They told me what they expected from their pledges.
They weren’t selling a hedonistic fantasy, and they weren’t trying to say what made them better than the other houses. It was refreshing… Then I got lost…(I said the house was confusing.) I found a room with a pool table, couches and a big screen. I had my rushee’s nametag on my chest and my National Merit/Achiever’s Scholarship, Math and Science nerd look on my face, when I met a Native American fraternity member, a Brazilian (Venezuelen. Forgive me E.P.) fraternity member, and a couple Caucasian members. They saw the look and they ripped into me and everyone else they saw, light heartedly, but they let us know they could care less if any of us there, whatever our race may be, signed with their house or not. We were in their home. Didn’t matter the color. Didn’t matter the country of origin. They were S-A-Es. Whoever you were out there is great, but once you come in here, you are one of us. Phi Alpha!
I wanted to be an Omega. All my heroes from television are Omegas. My Cousins are Kappas and Alphas. I went S-A-E! The Pledge class had already been assembled. They had already met and gotten acquainted. They had already had official meetings as a pledge class. They were all equally pigmented. Then I showed up. The only BLACK MAN there. I’d be lying if I said race never came up there. But I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t say that when race came up it was from a place of genuine inquiry. People wanting to understand a race they hadn’t been exposed to much. And in my own little self-sacrificing way, I wanted to be that for the house. I wanted to be the guy that shattered all those preconceived notions of BLACK MEN; those stereotypes of fear, that I think (it’s just my thought. It doesn’t have to be your truth) lead to our youth not always making it home from the store with their skittles. I knew when I joined that house, that I’d be looked at differently. Why would he want to be in that house? And I knew it would come from both sides.
I remember hearing people saying things about S-A-E for having a black member. I remember being shoved into a wall at the school gym by some fellow BLACK MEN who swiped the letters on the front of my shirt and said, “Whose house is THAT, brother?!”
But I held offices. I was member educator. Song chair. I led Scandals, directed U-Sing, directed Home Coming Pep Rallies (some of the Illest still!). I stood out front and said “S-A-E is different!” We can be at the Mountain Top. And we were different….
But it’s been 14 years since I walked in, and there still hasn’t been a third BLACK MAN. I thought we were different. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe I was just being hopeful. But I believed. I believed in S-A-E. I believed in the True Gentlemen. I believed my brothers were my brothers. I believed my son should be their brother if he so chose one day.
But then I saw that video. I saw that video speaking of lynching me instead of ever letting me sign. Of killing my 4 year legacy instead of ever letting him wear their letters. And then my son saw my face. My sweet innocent sympathetic son saw the pain and anger in my eyes and I had a decision to make: A decision White America will never understand. Do I teach my innocent 4 year old son about pure hatred today, or do I save that innocence one more day? Do I let him keep going a few more days, weeks, months before I have to start preparing him for this? My mother prepared me…I thought she was wrong. I thought we’d be further by now, but look at the news. Forget this one story, just look at the news. My mother prepared me. God Bless Her. And I will prepare my son, but not today. Today this BLACK MAN gave him a smile and finished eating dinner with him. This BLACK MAN gave him his bath and got him ready for bed in his perfect little world. I will not take that yet. But when I do, I will take S-A-E away as well. I had my time. I have my friends.
But I can have no association with this organization as a BLACK MAN. I know these were “kids being kids” and maybe they aren’t the hateful ignorant lost little boys I think they are, but I will not stand behind anything that allowed this to happen. They are not just kids being kids. Those boys are sons. Sons of men who failed them, and they failed my son. You Failed ME! Member 261-057. Your boys sang in unison. They may not know where the song came from or who made it up or even what all the words really mean, but they sing it so often they know all the words whether they want to or not.
I wanted to be an Omega. My heroes from television were all Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas….I went..S-A-E? Shame on me. But hopefully, there will never be another BLACK S-A-E.
-William Bruce James, II