Collectively known as the Divine Nine, black fraternities and sororities have long been central to the African-American college experience—standing as vanguards of social justice, community service, black excellence and achievement.
So it has been surprising and, to many members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., disappointing that they’ve been forbidden by their respective organizations from wearing their Greek-letter paraphernalia while participating in protests that have been sparked around the country to voice anger and frustration at nonindictment decisions for former Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson and New York City police Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
AKAs received an email that said sisters could wear sorority colors at protests, but asked them to “refrain” from wearing any sorority “paraphernalia.” Deltas were notified of a similar prohibition on their organization's website.
In both cases the instructions contained a disclaimer of legal liability—which appears to be the impetus for the ban. But as of press time, my calls, seeking comment, to both the national offices of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta have not yet been returned.
The directives have come down as students at several black colleges, notably the Atlanta University Center—which includes Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University—have become visibly active in speaking out against injustice in the Ferguson and New York City cases.
And given the histories of both sororities—and the legacies of such illustrious AKAs as C. Delores Tucker, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King; as well as Fannie Lou Hamer, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Mary McLeod Bethune, all members of DST—some young activists have rejected their organizations’ national directives because they believe that the directives run, fundamentally, in opposition to the values upon which these sororities were built.
I spoke with several sorority members who shared these sentiments but did not want to make public statements counter to their organizational leadership. Tamura Lomax, assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, co-founder of The Feminist Wire and a member of Delta Sigma Theta, voiced her frustration with her organization’s position, emailing the following:
I’ve always been extremely proud that Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. was born in protest and stood on not only the front lines of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913, but the March on Washington in 1963. In fact, our 10th national president, Dorothy Irene Height, created the five-point thrust, which focused specifically on women’s and civil rights in 1956, as an organizing and programming tool. Political awareness and involvement are pivotal to the thrust. I’m not sure if this is gendered or not yet, but a part of me feels like this is an act of self-surveillance, which not only hopes to appease some sort of purity ideal for white folk, but weirdly aims to assert our humanity as black folk. I say this because I actually believe that they mean well.
While some sorors have decided to toe the party line and not wear paraphernalia while protesting, many others have decided to fall in line with and honor the ancestors by doing the opposite. This isn’t about the Divine Nine. They’ve made their statement. But Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Jonathan Ferrell, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, brothers Garrick and Carl Hopkins Jr., Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, Rosan Miller, Ersula Ore, Michael Brown and countless others are speaking too. The privilege of respectability didn’t save them. Nor will it save any of us.
These beautiful, brave sisters are standing up to manifestations of white supremacy within their own organizations and should be applauded. These times call for rejecting notions of anti-black classism that serves to privilege a certain kind of “respectable” African American. And as black women living in a country that has consistently tried to break our backs when they weren’t being used for the benefit of a state that consistently disenfranchises, arrests and kills us and our children, it is our responsibility to stand for justice, no matter how uncomfortable.
Right now, across the country, people are standing together to protest the killing of black people at the hands of the police—we are not only honoring our history but also plotting our future as a society. And I find it quite unfortunate that sororities so well regarded in the African-American community would attempt to distance themselves from that. Unless they listen to the voices of the sisters in their ranks who are speaking truth to power, they risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history.