Prior to writing this story, I sat down, shut up, researched and interviewed before drawing a conclusion or commenting.
“I said I was amazin’. Not that I’m a Mason.” –Jay-Z.
Secret societies, sororities and fraternities have become a fascinating topic of conversation in our culture. Even top hip-hop artist Jay-Z was compelled to address the issue in Rick Ross’ song, “Freemason.” Our curiosity has led to many rumors about what really goes on in these groups.
Secret meetings, secret handshakes, secret groups – fraternal organizations don’t make much sense to those of us on the outside looking in. Folktales portray such organizations as tightlipped groups that engage in barbaric rituals to initiate new inductees all for the purpose of serving the community. So we draw the conclusion inductees are beaten to perform community service and bond. Well we can all donate to charity and make friends for free, minus the bruises. It’s tough to come up with a legitimate verdict about these organizations when you’re not in one. But if you happen to be a member on the inside, hazing is generally justified. Even some of the higher ups that publicly condemn hazing can be found at the hazing sets privately condoning every act. It’s meant to break you down to build you back up. When practiced by an experienced individual, hazing can be used teach invaluable lessons. When a pledgee is instructed he or she has ten minutes to learn information, while doing push-ups and being yelled at, the lesson translates personally and professionally. It’s no different than your boss giving you a deadline, while you have tons of other work to do and your manager is shouting at you to get it done. The intensity and pressure of hazing is meant to build a pledgee’s character for the organization and preparation the real world. It forces one to go beyond his or her boundaries and produce the confidence to show one possesses more power than he or she believes. Hazing is an extreme word for process, and with its different degrees, hazing can actually become extremely extreme. There’s an extreme difference between being instructed to recite information while water balloons are thrown at you versus reciting information while a mob of fraternal members strike you with tools that have no business hitting the human body.
Last month, Orange County Sheriffs claimed members of Florida A&M University’s famed “Marching 100” band allegedly killed drum major Robert Champion by acts of hazing. FAMU President James Ammons fired Julian White, the band’s director of 13 years, because he said he failed to protect students from hazing regardless of repeated complaints. Its no coincidence the word haze has another meaning – a state of mental obscurity or confusion. Despite Champions death, Mr. White’s facebook wall is full of support from band members and faculty.
Why are bands hazing in the first place? Because most of us don’t show up to football games for football games – we show up for the halftime show. The level of expectation from the band is enormous. Recruitment numbers, grants and jobs are all on the line. That’s serious pressure and the price of being #1 is deadly. When I was in college just about every student organization on campus hazed. Even the anti-hazing groups hazed. All campus organizations are required to attend anti-hazing workshops and sign agreements, but a signed anti-hazing agreement like a signed autograph from Flavor Flav – meaningless. Hazing was an agreed upon traditionally practiced ritual that everyone knew about, but no one spoke about. If you belonged to any organization at my HBCU, you were hazed and you may have hazed. You too could have killed or been killed. Including me.
The tradition isn’t limited to Black Colleges. In December 2008 at San Luis Obispo school at California Polytechnic State University, Carson Starkey died from alcohol poisoning during a Sigma Alpha Epsilon hazing incident. His prospective fraternity brothers didn’t even take him to the hospital. But it’s not limited to college – there is a culture of hazing worldwide. From high school varsity football teams, to the NFL, to police officers and even The United States Army, these brutal rites of passage practices are alive and well. Army cadets are often hospitalized for injuries caused by hazing. Yes, the same Army that protects our country’s freedom hazes. In a March 2009 – U.S. vs. Army E-8 – Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii case, a higher-ranking officer was convicted of hazing soldiers for weeks at a time. Professional football rookies are frequently subjected to humiliation as a players’ tradition. The rookies are pranked and have to foot the bill for team dinners, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars. Hazing can be viewed on reality TV shows like “I Want to Work for Diddy”, where willing contestants undergo strenuous, often foolishly shameful tasks as a part of a program of rigorous physical training in order to gain membership into the organization.
The idea of hazing has been twisted and the purpose has been buried. Folks are hazing for revenge instead of the reason they claim hazing exists. Like soulless vampires looking for blood, new inductees are eager to pounce on new pledges. “It’s brewing”, one band member said. “It’s got your blood boiling.” When pledgers are giving pledgees 105 licks of wood just because they received 104 when they pledged, hazing has been perverted. The purpose has been lost. Don’t do what wasn’t done to you. It should never be about hurting someone, but helping someone. Back in the day hazing was legal and folks were pledged out in the open. Today, hazing is a third-degree felony. Institutions are being sued, folks are getting severely injured and pledgees are dying gladiator-type deaths for spectators to see. The further you put hazing underground, the more dangerous it becomes. It’s a very complicated situation and there’s no simple solution. I’m not sure hazing can be stopped, but it can be controlled, and it starts from the top all the way down. If these processes must exist, there must be structure, oversight and collective responsibility. When people are given unregulated power over each other, terrible things tend to happen.
An organization that hazes is a closed loop in order to protect itself. You must have your own morals and values in place when deciding to join these organizations. If something seems life threatening or harmful, don’t do it. That doesn’t have any affect on your contribution as a member. It’s proven that some people are pledged hard and become terrible members, while some aren’t pledged hard at all and contribute the most.
From the outside looking in, hazing is barbaric. It’s foolish. It’s pointless. It’s whack. But when you’re on the inside, hazing is necessary. It’s respected. It’s purposeful. People sign up for these organizations knowing what is required for membership, but no one signs up to die. No one. Whatever hazing is or isn’t, no one’s life is worth the membership. The argument that hazing is a willful act of the victim doesn’t excuse the responsibility the perpetrator. No one agrees to be hazed to death.
Robert Champion’s life wasn’t in vain. There will be drastic changes in organizations around the world regarding hazing. There will be lawyers, lawsuits and new laws because of his passing. The entire “Marching 100” staff’s job might be in jeopardy and University president Ammon’s job is at stake. Champion’s death has caused a necessary dialogue about the tradition of hazing and its future. Robert’s last name is fitting for a man who refuses to be defeated. The Champion’s spirit lives on – this is only the beginning.
– Enitan Bereola, II
Bereola is the go-to style and etiquette impresario, public speaker and entrepreneur. He is also the bestselling author of BEREOLAESQUE: The Contemporary Gentleman & Etiquette book for the Urban Sophisticate. He is working on his follow-up, Guide to Ladies’ Etiquette from a Gentleman’s Perspective. Check his website Bereola.com and @bereolaesque on Twitter as well as his Facebook fan page.