When I'm correctly tagged as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, I'd like to think that it's because I exude ambition, class and a belief in paying it forward.
Experience has taught me otherwise.
Some people look no further than the color of my skin and length of my hair. The stereotype of the light-skinned, long-haired AKA is an ugly one that has persisted—partly, thanks to Spike Lee's unforgettable depiction of the vapid and vain fictional Gamma Rays in School Daze.
This image of AKA was re-ignited earlier this week when pictures surfaced of the Barbie doll thatMattel created to commemorate the sorority's centennial year.
"If the doll is supposed to be representing a sorority for black women—why did they choose to make the doll that color," reads the post on MediaTakeOut.com. "And to all the proud AKAs out there—we're not trying to start no mess. But somebody had to ask the question."
Well, the doll in question is caramel-colored—a shade that mirrors many African-American women, including this proud AKA, as well as other African-American Barbie dolls, though not all. I would even say that "Soror Barbie" is progress. Growing up, Barbie was my favorite doll, but she rarely reflected African-American images or interests. I would treasure this AKA doll regardless of whether her color exactly matched my own. I am certain that many of my sorors share this sentiment.
During the centennial celebration starting this week in Washington, D.C., thousands of our members, covering a variety of hues along the color spectrum, will be on display—shattering the insidious stereotype.
It is the wealth of talent that women across generations bring to Alpha Kappa Alpha that has sustained the sorority for 100 years. Reducing AKAs to little more than a group of women linked by skin color and hair length—a group of women who could "pass a paper bag test"—is not only demeaning and offensive, but it dismisses the continuing relevance of black Greek-letter organizations.
My own interest in Alpha Kappa Alpha was sparked when I was a little girl, blissfully unaware of the politics of skin color.
I couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 years old when a Girl Scout leader asked me if my mother was an AKA, saying that she resembled one of her sorors. I idolized the Girl Scout leader and decided that one day I, too, would be an AKA.
Ten years ago, my dream of joining the sorority came true. I felt that I'd come full circle when I was finally able to address the Girl Scout leader who had been one of my inspirations as "Soror."
I have come to truly appreciate the ties that bind. I've moved three times since 2001, more than that when I include summer internships. Alpha Kappa Alpha helped anchor me to those new communities; the sorors I met in those new cities helped bring me closer to Alpha Kappa Alpha. They've played a huge role in my decision to remain financially active and in contact with sorors from my college days and beyond.
Their displays of unexpected kindness helped me understand that sisterhood didn't require years of knowing someone or grandiose sacrifices. With every dinner invitation, airport drop-off and pick-up, and phone call just to see if I was okay, I grew to appreciate and depend on the sorority in ways that I could have never anticipated when I was the little girl who just wanted to be like her Scout leader. I've leaned on sorors as "Moms" away from home and as the sisters I never had.
A similar sense of sisterhood draws women from all over the world this week to cherish and celebrate the ideal that 16 young Howard University women formed a century ago. In many ways, the story of Alpha Kappa Alpha and other National Pan-Hellenic Council groups is the story of African Americans—individual achievement has always been tied to a broader social uplift, the concept of "linked fate" very much in play.
For instance, Alpha Kappa Alpha helped secure housing for black female students at my own alma mater, the University of Illinois, when they were not welcome in campus dorms. The existence of the AKA sorority house in the pre-Civil Rights era—a building that was open to other African-American women as well—helped parents feel at ease in sending their daughters away to a predominantly white university, which spurred an overall increase in black student enrollment.
Alpha Kappa Alpha's platform is economic and political empowerment, education, and mental and physical well-being. Yet, these depictions of sorority life are often missing from popular culture portrayals that typically glorifies stepping and rivalries, and relies on age-old criticisms of elitism and divisiveness.
Though black Greek-letter organizations are certainly not above reproach, too often the criticism fails to acknowledge these contributions. As scholar Gregory Parks, editor of Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun, noted in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed: "They are the melding of civic, philanthropic, service, scholastic and relational identities that last and function far beyond college years."
In countless communities, our members accept the mantle to do more and be more. In the next 100 years of this institution, this is our challenge.
Raven L. Hill is a writer who lives in Maryland.