“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men,” advises Professor Hughes (played by Alfre Woodard), dropping a Frederick Douglass quotation on Zurich (Trevor Jackson), the protagonist of Netflix’s black frat drama Burning Sands. Set at a nameless HBCU where pledging is forced underground because hazing has been banned, Netflix’s Burning Sands follows premed student and pledge Zurich in a relatively standard tale of college life.
The film’s most noteworthy scenes are those that depict the processes of pledging itself, a well-established system of servitude, humiliation and psy-ops-level mind games. For some pledges, this also means physical beatings as a means of control. Director Gerard McMurray, himself an alumnus of Omega Psi Phi, illustrates an aspect of Greek life, black and otherwise, that many of the adults in charge of these organizations want to cast a shadow over: the culture of hazing.
A lot of us men, in and out of fraternities, are clearly broken. In some ways, a fraternal organization offers a way to fix that which we find painful and lacking. A distorted sort of intimacy, first through humiliating conflict, then through bonding as a result of having “survived” that conflict, works for some of us because this society hasn’t given black men particularly the options of platonic touch, confiding our feelings to one another or any sort of genuine intimacy. I know that was the case in my decision to join a fraternity.
“Why didn’t you join a black frat?”
I get this question a lot less after writing a piece for Salon a couple of years ago entitled, “I Was the Black Guy in aWhite Frat.” I was a fly in the buttermilk who thought assimilation would save me from what I then knew of the senseless oppression of white supremacy, having spent 12 years in predominantly white private schools.
The notion of joining a black frat hadn’t even crossed my mind then. I had to be shaken out of my delusion over the course of many years. And writing that piece was like the capstone in the process of coming to love my blackness, especially with so many strangers reaching out to tell me of their similar experiences.
Months before the Netflix film, 2016 saw the release of the alarmingly accurate Goat, an indie film about the white frat experience. There are similarities between the movies and the cultures they examine that some may not expect. In both films, when the protagonists are clutching their wounds or suffering some new and bizarre indignity, some (many?) viewers may ask, Why? Why sign up for, or pay for, this sort of experience?
No matter what color the fraternity members, there are going to be those who drink the Kool-Aid (or the La Croix, as the case may be) and those who take the experience at face value. Or those who outright reject it and “drop.” At one point, a pledge called “square,” deemed “not a real nigga” by his pledge brothers, confides in Zurich that status is what he’s after. That’s his why.
Put bluntly, the experience of pledging is a mindfuck. Things normal people may question or reject 10 times out of 10 are met with the explanation of, “It’s done because it was done to me.” Tradition. Brotherhood. Service. Sometimes these things matter. Sometimes they do not.
There are the lineups, the most structured form of hazing, with physical training and borderline torture like what mostly middle-class 18- to 21-year-olds who’ve never lived under a draft might envision basic training to be like. One of those places where male pride runs as high as testosterone.
The 18-year-old me would probably ask, “Why are you snitching?” The distance of time, however, lends perspective. Burning Sands does well not to shy away from the abusiveness of the hazing process. For me, there weren’t beatings, but I think that’s only because my house had sent so many kids to the ER in years past. Beatings did happen regularly at the house next door, made up mostly of Italian guys from Long Island, N.Y., and New Jersey.
That said, this is the reality for students across the country, in all sorts of Greek organizations and other groups on campus with their respective pecking orders. One scene in particular, in which pledges are forced to finish a watercooler-sized jug of water as brothers casually watch TV, harks back to the case of Chico State University student Matthew Carrington, who died of water intoxication during a hazing ritual.
HBCUs have classically been excluded from the conversation surrounding hazing because the practice has been seen as a decidedly “white” problem. The Divine 9 officially banned pledging in 1990, but many, like the characters in Burning Sands, go “underground.”
The hazing death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion in 2011 changed the perspective of many who felt that this campus culture of abuse did not affect young black men and women. That two films about two supposedly distinct sides of this culture have been made within the last year means there is an audience among whom many have been affected by hazing and its physical and psychological side effects.
The importance of black Greek organizations is not lost on me, but there is a reconciliation that must be made. Those in leadership positions must first concede that a significant portion of Greek culture is underpinned by a system of dominance and intimidation disguised as immovable ritual, which can turn ugly before students even know what’s happening.
Hazing deaths stretch back to the mid-18th century with white fraternities, and like so many of America’s bad habits and traditions, the pattern will most likely not be broken overnight. This culture has always embraced cruelty in its many forms, and campuses across the country are reflections of that.
These organizations are, at their best, philanthropic groups of young people who are powerful examples of service on campus and in their communities. They can also be cultural clusters that allow young adults to find a major component of their all-important identity. But if sexual assault, physical and psychological torture, and even involuntary manslaughter are affecting even a small percentage of the Greek world, more must be done to change the culture.
Mostly, I’m glad that Netflix exists as a viable alternative to the theatrical distribution system to tell these sorts of stories. I can’t imagine my experience, or that of any of my high school friends, joining a black frat being translated to film 15 years ago. In the cases of both Burning Sands and Goat, it has become clear that with a number of tragedies having marred the world of fraternities, we may finally be prepared to face and tackle these problems instead of turning our backs on them and the students they affect.