Sphinxman Lawrence Ross, 1985

Editor's note: This blog posting about pledging is from our archives. Keep checking The Root for continuing coverage of the lawsuit against SAE.

Ah, it’s time to go back to school, and boy, have you had a great summer as a black Greek! You’ve chilled with your frat or sorors, attended umpteen Divine Nine picnics, and fallen in and out of love with that guy or girl you met on Facebook. But now it’s time to box everything up, kiss Mom and Dad goodbye, and get back to your dorm or apartment.


But what folks don’t know, or like to talk about, is that the beginning of the school year is also the beginning of the most important task on the unofficial black Greek fraternal calendar. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the start of the Underground Pledge Period!

Wait, we’re not supposed to talk about that, right? Whenever I lecture on college campuses, the black Greeks are adamant about maintaining the public stance that hazing has no place in their organization, and that their chapter doesn’t participate in such barbaric activities.

Uh-huh. Yeah, right.

But before we start talking about underground pledging, let’s go back a bit. For those who aren’t familiar with black Greek pledging, it officially ended more than 20 years ago, when the Divine Nine stopped all aboveground pledging. That meant that no longer could you walk around campus in uniform, cut pledges' hair, walk in line and do a lot of unsavory things that we black Greeks had been noted for, like beating men and women to the point of permanent injury and death. The assumption would be that if you killed pledging, then you would hopefully stop pledges from getting killed. Except it didn’t work.


See that picture over there? That’s me in 1985, Sphinxman #3, pledging Alpha Epsilon Chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, on the University of California at Berkeley campus. That expression on my face should tell you, I wasn’t in a situation where smiling was encouraged. But for the past 20 years, my aboveground experience is the experience that black Greeks have desperately been trying to emulate via the underground pledge process.

Unfortunately, what people have experienced as “pledging” via the underground is about as similar to aboveground pledging as a horse is to the space shuttle. Both are modes of transportation but completely different animals.
There is no comparison. It’s as if current members are trying to create a “process” based on the game of telephone, and what they've created is a disaster.


The underground pledge process is an absurd scenario where “old-school” brothers or sorors who crossed in 1994 tell wives' tales about what they did “on line” to folks who crossed in ‘03. And those wives' tales are then enhanced up the ladder until the pledging stories become more and more fanciful to those black Greeks on campus today. And these current black Greeks will use those stories to convince some poor unsuspecting college student that the only way they’ll get respect is by pledging underground. Hundreds of aspirants will do it, hoping that the “pledging” they’re doing will give them the respect they crave.

In the coming months, thousands of black Greeks on college campuses are going to break their oath and bylaws in the coming months, and think nothing of it. So why do we do this? Well, there are a number of reasons. When you break it down, they’ll do it because black Greeks on college campuses like the feeling of power that comes with pledging someone.


They consider it their right to do so, and will rationalize their actions by saying that their organizations should do something about it, or that hazing is inevitable, or that they’re teaching pledges the info that can’t be learned in the official process, and what they do is pledging and not hazing, or if only their victims wouldn’t submit to the abuse … blah, blah, blah. But in the end, they do it because they like the feeling of power over someone without power. Plain and simple.

And because whatever amalgamated underground process they went through validated them as men or women, it is nearly impossible to make these black Greeks understand that there is no correlation between how hard you pledged and how great a brother or sister you are. None accept the visceral one people use as an echo chamber in order to convince themselves that what they are doing is correct. ‘I can tell the difference between someone who has pledged and someone who hasn’t,’ they’ll say. Or you’ll get some ‘Paper burns, sands are forever’ drivel as an explanation.


Yeah, right.

So why am I writing this? Well, because just as California has devastating earthquakes, and Category 5 hurricanes hit New Orleans periodically, a black Greek hazing death is more than overdue, and it will happen soon, probably this year. We as black Greeks are just too predictable. Someone will die because a chapter chose to pledge people underground versus following their organization’s proper program. How they’ll die is immaterial. But it will be that initial decision to pledge someone underground that will kill someone, and I want no one to say that I didn’t warn you.


So find that secret park. Go to that secret basement. And get your “boys” or “girls” ready for the “process.” Just know that if you participate in an underground process and a pledge dies across the country, in a different chapter or organization, that you still have just as much blood on your hands as the chapter who killed the pledge. Because don’t we learn on line that what happens to one happens to all?

Remember that adage when you have to stand in front of a mother or father and tell them that you had a hand in killing their son or daughter because you wanted someone made right via your underground pledging process. And then come back and tell me if it was worth it.


Contact Lawrence Ross on Twitter: @alpha1906

Contact Lawrence Ross via email: alpha1906@gmail.com

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.

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