Made Men and American Skin

american skin

“We will take this ride…across this bloody river…to the other side”

– American Skin, Bruce Springsteen

In the United States we are living within a very interesting system of evaluation of the human body where we are always witnessing the intersection of violence and the creation/recreation of identity at the level of the skin. In slavery, it was the pubic display of whipping marks and severed penises placed in the mouths of individuals who were lynched and hanged. In the prison industrial complex, the skin becomes a site for a new text that opposes and parallels the experiences of people who are imprisoned. This has transferred over into music and entertainment where rappers and basketball players – among many other people – are “tatted.” In the early 2000s, then commissioner David Stern ostracized NBA players (who were overwhelmingly Black) for their “ill-fitted” and “hip hop” style of dress. Dwayne Wade, a championship player who is Black, stated in an article that he credited David Stern for his improved dress.

My research over the last few years has focused on different aspects of healing. Within my emerging interest in healing, I have been concerned with how healing and violence intersect. Without fail, when you begin to discuss healing with Americans, their stories about why they need healing or why they choose to heal are related to some form of violence (that has happened or might happen). Meanwhile, the process of becoming healers may be wrapped in the acceptance of violence enacted upon themselves and others. In the case of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, the epidemic of police violence against Black boys/men has helped reaffirm an impetus to help fix/heal/restore particular aspects of presentation in the United States so that injustices like Michael Brown’s murder do not continue to happen. (Recently, actor Wendell Pierce discussed how he prepares for a policeman to stop him so that he isn’t shot while being Black.)

Indeed, the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and protests following acquittals of police responsible for their deaths) are parts of a LONG history of fire hoses, police dogs, whips, and other weapons aimed at non-White peoples in the United States. It has happened since the 1600s. Historically, violence against Black bodies occurred in “the streets” or in other public spaces (as opposed to much of the violence against Native Americans that took place in private boarding schools). Many historians describe 19th century slavery as it occurred within the gaze of White, Black, and Native American onlookers (Here is a link from the annals of UNC of Southern documents that illustrates the day to day life of plantation observation.)

But how do we articulate the vulnerability of the Black body despite where it is today?

A couple of days ago, Alpha Phi Alpha, a century old Black fraternity, celebrated its founder’s day. I’ve known men who pledged with this Black Greek organization. A couple of them – people I know well – suffered physical pain and humiliation at the hands of the fraternity. They were beaten with paddles. Some of their colleagues were branded with symbols of their loyalty to the fraternal organization. At the end of these initiation processes, they “crossed the burning sands” where humiliation and violence (among other rites of passage) culminated in their births into new “brotherhoods.”

Talk of personal suffering in these initiation practices is largely silenced. These men have been “made,” which is a status defined by the fact that a fraternity or sorority pledge (one who is attempting to join the fraternal organization) has made it through the process of initiation. Black Greek organizations are pervasively violent, as suggested by many stories of violent rituals on American college campuses (Link #1, Link #2Link #3).

Black fraternities aren’t alone in their violent practices. Fraternity hazing experiences define American youth culture across racial lines. I remember stories from a good friend at MIT – who was Korean American – about his biological brother at Dartmouth who was asked to prove his loyalty to the fraternity by allowing a fraternity “brother” to tie a brick to his testicles and drop the brick from a bridge. (A recent article from the Atlantic discusses these issues from the context of White fraternity life.)

Hank Nuwer, an officianado of “all things hazing,” documents myriad episodes of hazing throughout the United States. Most of these hazing rituals, his website suggests, take place in the middle of fraternity initiation where, for whatever reason, individuals are forced to endure something (some form of liquid poured into their mouth, beating with some device, public embarrassment, harassment of their genitalia, etc.). These hazing methodologies are often reminiscent of tactics used by the CIA to torture “terrorists.” White/Euro-American fraternity hazing first rose to prominence in the late 1800s, directly after the U.S. Civil War. According to Nuer, there was never a time when hazing was “legal” or “condoned.” According to his website, hazing is “nearly always against the rules.”

Indeed, what Nuwer’s research points to is the use of hazing in American college life as a preliminary step in more “adult” power broking in American society. In my writing about the cultures of healthcare (in an upcoming book) I discuss how transitions into power within healthcare hinge upon one’s acceptance of psycho-social violence against them in their training. Although, at times, physical violence defines hospital life. A lot of this power play, I suspect, begins within the backgrounds (college and otherwise) of the leaders within different fields in medicine.

Nevertheless, Nuer’s website is very interesting in its scope. According to his records, Black fraternities weren’t caught hazing – e.g. there weren’t incidents of hazing that turned into something “reportable” to authorities – until well after the Civil Rights movement. The first report involving a Black Fraternity, according to Nuer’s website, was at University of Virginia in 1992. (Although, I’ve heard of deaths of Black Greek pledges in the 1970s.) The person who died at UVA, Gregory Batipps, died while driving. His father, a physician, argued that he died because of exhaustion caused by hazing.

In the last 20 years, Black Greek hazing seems to have gotten worse. At each instance of hazing, Black Greek organizations and host universities come out and state, quite emphatically, that hazing is immoral and illegal. However, just below the surface, hazing remains critical in Black Greek life (although folks from the Black Greek world have argued that this shouldn’t be the case).

We must attempt to understand what this fairly contemporary emergence of Black hazing means within the broader landscape of violence against Black peoples in the United States. One might suggest that Black hazing is “kids being kids” in a college environment where Black folks can finally be “normal.” If this is the case, I might make an argument that, in a post-Civil Rights era, Black families and communities continue to adopt White/Euro-American frameworks of “crossing over” into their cultural spaces.

To begin to have this conversation, we must discuss the genealogy of Black Greek life. Let’s use Alpha Phi Alpha for example. Alpha Phi Alpha parades its “7 Jewels” around as the apostles of its brotherhood. The “7 Jewels” were 7 men who, according to Alpha Phi Alpha advertisements, founded the fraternity at Cornell University in 1906. When I was a student at MIT, university parties hosted by Black and Latino students would often include men who pledged Alpha Phi Alpha during their tenure at colleges in Boston. They would often shout “O…6” as a form of reverence for their founding as a study group at Cornell University in 1906.

This beginning must be critically examined. In 1906, the “7 jewels” were connected to organizations like “Jack and Jills” and variations of the Freemasons and Eastern Stars. This Black bourgeoisie (as I call it) first took root in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. The first “Black U.S. Senator” was a man named Hiram Revels. His story is a story that I don’t have time to talk about here, but I will assert that he was related to Native Americans in North Carolina who, at the point of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War, could not provide Hiram with the proper infrastructure to advance in American politics. Hiram became well known over a decade in which he became the face of Black politics. So, by 1906, the “7 Jewels” weren’t creating some revolutionary method for Black men to survive. They were part of an already established Black political system…a system that hid as much as it helped clarify.

We can’t dissolve or elide this conversation about Black elitism as we begin to understand the plight of mostly poor Black men in Ferguson and elsewhere. The proliferation of Black Greek life over the last century is a symbol of a major shift in American life toward the “haves” and “have nots” in Black America. Tyler Perry, in fact, has a television show with this very title. His show, which is featured on Black Entertainment Television (BET), includes one or two White characters. However, its premise is to depict how American Black communities are divided into the haves and have nots….into the wealthy and the poor…into the connected and disconnected. Many folks in Black Greek life call their “connections” a form of organization. I suggest that they are part of a storied history of indisputable self-segregation of Black peoples. (To help contextualize this frame of reference, please read much of the history about the debate between – in fact, the hatred between – Marcus Garvey and “light skinned” Black leaders like WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington.)

Indeed, Black collegiality and fraternity became the language of post Civil Rights America. Recently, Bill Cosby has faced an onslaught of accusations regarding his alleged role in the rape of several women since the 1970s. These new images of Cosby offset the wholesome American image that he created in his hit 1980s television program, the Cosby Show, in which he featured a family, led by a doctor and lawyer, which had major relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. On many episodes, Cosby sported sweatshirts and t-shirts from institutions like Howard, Spellman, and Tuskegee. Meanwhile, many folks pondered why Bill Cosby never let his fictional children interact with or talk about the other, less privileged parts of New York outside his upper-class neighborhood in Brooklyn in the middle of the Crack epidemic and Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” (Here is the link to a great article on Cosby, race, and class…where a great book from 1992 – Enlightened Racism – is referenced.)

So as we ponder the nature of violence against the preciousness of life for which we write out hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter, we must not forget to ask “what’s the matter?” with these same lives. The cultural conditions of privileged Black lives may hide what would, in the “streets,” seem like injustice and immorality. There are dozens of stories – from the 1990s, 2000s, and now the 2010s – of rampant violence against Black men and women within the elite space of the university vis-à-vis Black Greek life (as evidenced in three links above). Perhaps folks feel like the tradition of the university, as an already privileged space, doesn’t allow them to question how violence and re-segregation occur in today’s university. But this conversation is vital.

I’m left with this sour question: isn’t it a bit ironic that most Black fraternity violence began to take place after the end of American segregationist policies?

Perhaps the Black Greek paddle is the university’s version of the police baton or 9mm. I can’t imagine what must be going through the head of an 18 year old African American kid at Cornell University today? He already feels like White people think he shouldn’t be there – heck, some Black folks probably think he doesn’t need to be there – and it is suggested that he can’t really succeed unless he partakes in fraternal rituals. In these rituals, his skin may be (and often is) exposed in his attempt to be accepted. Is there safety in this acceptance? Well, I’m sure there is some perception of safety. But skin doesn’t lie. Like on the plantation, the public value of abuse cannot be underestimated. Back then, society covered up the immorality of the abuse of Black men and women by referencing scripture and law. Today, I’m persuaded that violence among privileged Black youth in college is seen as more of an accessory. It is not. It’s systemic. It is here to stay. It speaks of deep seeded political and economic issues.

Nevertheless, brute acts against the Black body are worn as trophies.

So we must ask what the skin means in today’s conversation about systemic abuse, institutional racism, and the reality that perception is more critical than ever before. You know your racialized body is perceived in certain ways. The perception is that you can’t get out of those systemic racial perceptions unless some smaller community perceives you as loyal. Then, in being “made,” you hide particular marks and reveal others. All of them – the ones you want and the ones you don’t want – are part of that “bloody river” that we are still traveling across. They are part of all violence against Black peoples. May we obtain bravery to acknowledge this.