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Why Some Members of Black Sororities and Fraternities Oppose Wearing Their Letters


Controversy Erupts Over Removal of Sorority Shirt from White Elementary Student in Nashville

A recent incident at McGavock Elementary School in Nashville has stirred controversy after a teacher removed a White elementary student's shirt adorned with the letters of a historically Black sorority. According to a spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools, the school justified the action by citing a dress code violation due to the shirt having writing. However, it was emphasized that the shirt should not have been replaced with a school uniform polo without parental permission.

The incident has sparked a broader online conversation regarding the teacher's reaction and the appropriateness of such actions. The teacher's response prompted discussions on whether this behavior should be commended or condemned. Members of the Divine Nine, a collective term for the nine historically Black Greek-letter organizations, expressed varied opinions on the matter. While many disapproved of the teacher's actions, some understood the passion behind her reaction.

Lawrence Ross, the author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities," provided insights into the strong sentiments surrounding the wearing of Greek letters. He explained that over a century of history, dedication, and service has made members fiercely protective of who represents a fraternity or sorority by wearing their letters. Ross, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., underscored the distinction between a young girl wearing a shirt due to liking the colors and an adult intentionally wearing letters without being a member.

The context of the Divine Nine's founding is crucial in understanding the significance of their letters. Many of these organizations originated in the early 20th century, a period marked by pervasive racism and discrimination against Black Americans. Ross highlighted that during this time, White fraternities and sororities often had racially restrictive clauses, barring Black Americans and other people of color from joining their organizations.

The incident at McGavock Elementary School brings to light the complexities surrounding the cultural and historical significance of Greek letters within Black sororities and fraternities. The ongoing debate reflects the tensions between preserving the sanctity of these organizations and navigating the evolving landscape of inclusivity and understanding.

The Legacy of Divine Nine: More Than Greek Letters, a Commitment to Community

The foundation of Black fraternal organizations, collectively known as the Divine Nine, was a response to the exclusionary practices of White fraternities and sororities in the early 20th century. These organizations, rooted in the cultural experiences of Black students, have played a pivotal role in shaping not only the collegiate experience but also in uplifting the Black community.

Comprising well-known organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and others, the Divine Nine have a rich history marked by a commitment to social issues. Ross highlighted that their founders and earliest members positioned themselves at the forefront of crucial American issues, such as voting rights, racial justice, and equal education. Notably, just two months after its founding in 1913, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., participated in the Woman Suffrage March in Washington, D.C.

Prominent civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. Du Bois, both members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., played key roles in the fight for racial justice. Today, the Divine Nine organizations boast numerous chapters globally, fostering traditions like stepping—an amalgamation of African traditional movements and American dance styles.

Beyond cultural expression, Divine Nine organizations remain dedicated to philanthropy and service. Scholarships, community service initiatives, and programs aimed at personal and professional development are integral parts of their mission. According to Ross, these organizations often serve as a crucial support system in the Black community, offering mentorship and guidance to the next generation.

However, the exclusivity of membership is emphasized by the Divine Nine. Prospective members must meet academic and community service criteria, alongside a commitment to upholding moral character. Becoming a member involves a significant dedication, signifying a pledge to work on behalf of the community and something larger than oneself. Ross emphasized the hard work and sacrifice required to attain this status.

Distinctive colors, calls, and letters characterize Black Greek-letter organizations, serving as symbols of pride and membership. The wearing of Greek paraphernalia becomes a visible expression of belonging and commitment to a legacy that extends far beyond the confines of college campuses. In essence, the Divine Nine is not merely about Greek letters but embodies a profound dedication to community, service, and the enduring legacy of Black excellence.

Ross informed CNN that their organization's protocols explicitly state that their insignia should only be worn by duly initiated members, and there are guidelines specifying when and where the letters should be worn. The controversy surrounding the second-grade student's AKA t-shirt in Nashville, as reported by CNN affiliate WTVF, revealed that the teacher involved explained to the child's mother that AKA branded items are trademarked and exclusively reserved for members.

The incident sparked mixed reactions within the Divine Nine community. While some members on social media supported the teacher's actions, arguing that the child should not have been wearing the shirt, others believed the teacher crossed a line by removing a 7-year-old's clothes. Similar instances of non-members donning paraphernalia or using hand signs have triggered anger and backlash among some members, creating debates on social media.

In 2021, actress Amanda Seales faced criticism for wearing AKA letters in an episode of "Insecure," despite her character being described as a member. Rapper Boosie BadAzz also faced online backlash in 2020 for wearing Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., paraphernalia and later apologized for his actions.

Ross emphasizes the importance of researching and understanding Divine Nine sorority and fraternity culture. While he encourages learning more about these organizations, he stresses the need for respect towards their cultures and traditions once awareness is attained. According to Ross, these cultural elements are significant in the Black community and play a vital role in community upliftment.

For Divine Nine sororities and fraternities, membership is not limited to the college years; it extends through graduate school chapters and lasts a lifetime. Ross underscores that membership continuity is crucial for their greater goal, connecting their college experiences back to the community, families, and individuals who may not have had the opportunity to pursue higher education. "Our college experience has to be able to go back into the community, has to go back into our family, has to go back and lift the people who were not able to go to college or aspire to go to college, or their kids aspire to go to college," he explains.

Certain organizations also confer honorary memberships upon individuals who have achieved significant success in their careers or have made notable contributions to society. In July, US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was granted an honorary membership in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The camaraderie among members extends to commemorating each other's milestones, such as graduations and weddings, marked by lively songs and chants. In times of sorrow, members are remembered and honored in memorial services following their passing.

Ross emphasizes that the enduring bond among members is forged through a commitment to lifelong service. He expresses, "We are in the experience business, and because we all undergo experiences that profoundly impact our lives, that bond never diminishes."

It's worth noting that Chandelis Duster discloses her affiliation as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., underscoring the personal connection and commitment of individuals within these organizations.

In conclusion, the article sheds light on the intricate protocols and cultural nuances within Divine Nine sororities and fraternities, particularly emphasizing the significance of their symbols and letters. The controversy surrounding a second-grade student's AKA t-shirt underscores the strict adherence to organizational protocols, sparking a broader discussion on the appropriateness of non-members wearing paraphernalia. The reactions from within the community showcase a diversity of opinions, with some supporting the teacher's actions and others expressing concern over the handling of the situation involving a young child.

The article also highlights instances of public figures, such as actress Amanda Seales and rapper Boosie BadAzz, facing criticism for wearing Greek letters without being members. These incidents reveal the broader challenges and controversies surrounding the use of sorority and fraternity symbols by non-members, prompting debates on social media.

Furthermore, the piece delves into the broader cultural aspects of Divine Nine organizations, emphasizing the lifelong commitment of their members. The extension of honorary memberships to individuals who have excelled in their fields, as illustrated by US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson's induction into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., adds another layer to the enduring bonds formed within these organizations.

In essence, the article encourages a deeper understanding of Divine Nine sorority and fraternity culture, stressing the importance of respect for their traditions once awareness is attained. The lifelong commitment to service and the profound impact of shared experiences are highlighted as foundational elements that contribute to the enduring strength of these organizations.