In the past two weeks, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. has been the subject of intense media scrutiny as a result of a damaging civil lawsuit that was filed by some members who call themselves “Friends of the Weeping Ivy.” The news was picked up by the mass media and all hell has rained down on dear old AKA, my beloved sorority, ever since.
We have been called “Criminal girls with 20 pearls,” “She say she say,” “AKA’s money gone funny,” “Sorority girls gone rogue” and worse. To be candid, it has been embarrassing for all of us to endure the negative publicity surrounding the lawsuit filed against our international president, Barbara A. McKenzie, just one year after our centennial celebration in Washington, D.C., last July. And it has been downright heart wrenching to watch our sisters fight each other publicly with lawsuits and harsh indictments instead of finding a way to talk to one another directly and allowing our bylaws and internal oversight processes to deal with this matter privately.
As a sorority member, I can’t comment publicly on pending litigation. But as a loyal AKA, I want to set the record straight about the very meaningful legacy, enduring sisterhood and continuing relevance of Alpha Kappa Alpha despite this latest brouhaha.
Partly as a result of this mess, there has been much speculation about whether Greek-lettered organizations and other traditional black organizations such as the NAACP have any relevance in a country that elected a black man president.
After all, we live in a “post-racial” America, right?
If we have learned anything over the past few weeks with the Gates/Crowley/Obama White House summit, the Sotomayor nomination and general discussions about race, and culture, in America, it is that black and white Americans often see the same issues quite differently. We come to the table with different life experiences and backgrounds that shape our opinions and worldview.
I have been asked many times by my non-black friends why I joined a sorority exclusively for black women, or, better still, why I founded an organization (iask, Inc.) for professional black women back in 2004. My answer is always the same—these organizations are still necessary even in the 21st century—and they serve a very useful purpose in the collective cultural tapestry of America.
I joined AKA for many reasons, but mainly, I wanted to belong to a group of like-minded women who could relate to and share my values and my unique life experiences as a black woman in America. It can be hard on a black woman, both in academia and in the corporate world. It’s hard to ignore those pervasive feelings of invisibility and isolation. Having a group of sisters, my “sorors,” to help get through it all has had a big, and positive, impact on my life. I’m part of an international sisterhood of more than 245,000 women. I can go to any American city—not to mention most countries—and instantly find a network of sisters to bond with, both personally and professionally.
It’s easy for outsiders to dismiss the legacy of Alpha Kappa Alpha, to use this latest dust-up as proof of its irrelevancy. But we are heirs to an historic legacy—a legacy that can’t be diminished by all the recent drama and naysaying.
We were founded in 1908 by college-aged black women, just one generation removed from slavery—at a time when American women had no rights. And for most of its existence, Alpha Kappa Alpha has helped to improve social and economic conditions for all Americans (not just black Americans) through our award-winning social programs. My favorite example: the Mississippi Health Project, which brought primary medical care to the rural populations across the state for six summers in the 1930s. It was the first mobile health clinic in the United States and assisted approximately 15,000 people in the Mississippi Delta.
In 1938, we were the first organization to lobby Congress for minority civil rights. We were the first sorority to gain observer rights status at the United Nations—way back in 1946. In 1965, with a $4 million grant, AKA became the first sorority to operate a federal job training center: the Cleveland Job Corps. We’re continuing that legacy today.
I bring all this up to say that AKA has overcome far greater challenges than this current lawsuit. A strong organization does not grow to be 101 years old without having endured great successes and great adversities.
I think about our founders—nine black collegiate women in the early 1900s—brave enough and gifted enough to see the needs of their time, and of ours, 100 years later. Alpha Kappa Alpha has survived Jim Crow, sexism, racism, a Great Depression, two world wars, and witnessed the civil rights movement. It is time for us to return to our mission and values. It is not about the colors or the letters we wear. It is about our legacy. We need to remember that, this, too, shall pass. When the dust settles, our hearts and dear Alpha Kappa Alpha will be stronger, more loyal and more true.
Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root and an active member of a Washington, D.C. graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. The opinions expressed here are her own and not those of her chapter or the leadership of Alpha Kappa Alpha.