All I remember about my summer job in '88 was that my frat brother and I were working in 110-degree heat, and that was in the shade. My job was to use a heavy jackhammer to break up about one hundred yards of thick concrete, all reinforced with steel rebar, which made it feel like we were employees of the Slate Rock and Gravel Company. And to top it off, my sands and I didn't get paid a lot for the work. In fact, we were paid so poorly that we half expected Harriet Tubman to sneak onto the job site and try leading us to freedom.
So why did we do it? Why did we work a manual labor job that reinforced my mother's contention that a college degree was best earned by those with soft hands and hard heads? One word: nationals. We needed the money to go to nationals.
Nationals, boule, conclave, no matter what you call your summer national convention, it is the final reward for Black Greeks. After all of those days and nights spent arguing at chapter meetings, organizing fundraising events, and waking up at dawn for community service projects. In your deepest ‘the frat/sorority/chapter/brother/sister is really getting on my nerves moments', the idea of the national convention shimmers like an oasis in the fraternal desert.
So how do I describe a national convention to people who've never been? Well, imagine a family reunion where thousands of your relatives descend upon the biggest hotels in the city. You know some members, don't know others, but you're all united around the pride of being members of the same family, all with the same name. And you're excited, really excited, to see and meet them.
Okay, maybe you don't understand me. When I say excited, I don't mean, hey it's great to be here excited. When I mean excited, I mean holler across the room at the top of your lungs excited. Buying everyone in the room a drink excited. Hugs, laughs, dancing in the hallway and lobby excited.
But you're not just there for fun. No! Because there's business to be done, you invite the family to gather in a large convention room and invite their opinion on various aspects of the family business. And since these folks are all college educated, and not one of them thinks their opinion to be unimportant or unnecessary to the future of the family, these business meetings can seem to be endless.
So that's a national convention in a nutshell, except that it's not. There's much, much more.
For me, the national convention is about experiences, particularly when I attended as a college brother. Not to say alumni members don't have fun, but there's something unique about being a broke college brother or sister, visiting a new city, and experiencing something that you'll never forget.
Nationals is about my best friend and I deciding that it was a good idea to take a three day there and back Greyhound bus trip to Baltimore from Oakland, armed only with trays of KFC chicken and a large bottle of clear liquid that was decidedly not water.
It's about sleeping on the hotel room floor of frat brothers or sorority sisters you just met, simply because the conversation about issues in the organization, or in African America, are just too good to stop, even though it's four in the morning.
It's talking to brothers or sisters who are doctors, scientists, and lawyers, accomplished people, who look at you, a snotty nosed teen, as an equal. It's learning from fellow college students about what they do to be the best example within the organization. Honoring the founders of your organization for allowing you to have such rich once in a lifetime experiences.
Yes, I know the complaints. Our national conventions are too expensive, sometimes too laden with the frivolous, and could make a bigger impact in the cities where we land. I'm in full agreement.
But see the kid in the photo with the lampshade on his head? That's me, Alpha Phi Alpha convention, Kansas City, in '88. I'd just arrived at nationals, and boy was I feeling fraternal. Was it silly? Yeah. But it's a memory I wouldn't trade for anything. I'm just glad that my current trips to nationals don't involve breaking up concrete in order to earn money to attend.
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Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.