A Review of Brown, Parks, and Phillips, eds “African American Fraternities and Sororities,” by Daleah Goodwin

African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision, Second Edition by Tamara L. Brown, Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips, eds. University of Kentucky Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN:  9780813136622. $39.95.

ImageTamara L. Brown, Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips take the lead in documenting the multiple narratives of Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO) in their updated collection of twenty essays entitled African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and The Vision. Calculated efforts to thwart African American economic independence, political enfranchisement, and social equality characterized the turn of the twentieth century for African Americans. During this period, commonly referred to as the nadir—the lowest point in African American history, African Americans increasingly turned inward to address the status of black America. The term black racial uplift represents the efforts and self-help ideologies of African American women and men to positively change the social, political, and economic direction of black people. BGLOs emerged with the primary purpose of black racial uplift to fight “against segregation, discrimination, prejudice, mistreatment, and [for] the advancement of themselves and their people” (71). The hostile racial environment on predominately-white college campuses and exclusionary clauses of White Greek Letter Organizations (WGLOs) and other student groups isolated black collegians and fueled the need for a black collegiate support system. Throughout the twentieth century, BGLOs maintained a necessary presence on college campuses and continued the mission of black racial uplift as several of the works illustrate. The essay by Robert L. Harris Jr. highlights the collective action of BGLOs in the campaign for civil rights, while Lisa Rasheed and Kenneth W. Mack, respective studies, celebrate the academic and legal contributions of black women BGLO members. Since BGLOs inception, Jessica Harris and Said Sewell state “The ideals of brotherhood and sisterhood and benevolence remained fundamental to these organizations especially as they established service, philanthropic, and social activist agendas aimed at challenging and redressing social and economic discrimination in their communities”  (71).

As with black racial uplift, BGLOs also created and replicated social gender expectations and ideals. Marcia D. Hernandez, Anita McDaniel, LaVerne Gyant, and Tina Fletcher explore contemporary gender stereotypes of black fraternities and the extent that those stereotypes influence black sororities’ perception of them. The simultaneous embodiment of the “nice-guy” and hyper-masculine personas by contemporary male BGLO members offers incredible insight into African American masculinity (380). Mindy Stombler and Irene Padavic, as well as Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, argue that fraternities (black and white) reward and reaffirm masculinities that celebrate male dominance and the expendability of women. The studies in this collection enhance the gender narrative of BGLOs by complicating women’s active participation in fraternities.  Some, not all, women are fully aware of this objectification, yet they still align themselves with fraternities. Stombler and Padavic contend that these women participate as ‘little sisters’ or ‘sweethearts’ to further their own personal agendas whether to enhance their attractiveness to sororities, to secure a husband, engage in community service, protection/security, or for “brotherly affection” (294-295). The complex gender performances in BGLOs demonstrate the continued need for detailed analyses on sororities’ production and performances of femininity, sexuality, and hyper-feminine character.

The works in this collection also offer varied interpretations of BGLOs purpose and history. Michael H. Washington and Cheryl L. Nunez break from the dominant discourse and argue that BGLOs sought to “socialize blacks to white norms and values” (156). The authors do not state what does or does not constitute “white norms and values” but imply that BGLOs, as well as early twentieth century black elite and intelligentsia’s, barometer of success (evidenced by educational attainment, economic self-sufficiency, political enfranchisement, and self-determination) in some way belonged to white Americans.  Furthermore, their assertion implies that black Americans did not desire or reward things such as education, and that any black American possessing or pursuing those norms and values disavows black culture. This could not be farther from the truth as evidenced by Crystal Renee Chamber, MaryBeth Walpole, and James Coaxum. Instead they suggest that while BGLOs (and like organizations) “[bolstered] educational attainment, persistence to degree, and overall academic aptitude” they also maintained African connectivity (233). Gloria Harper Dickinson details African preservation in BGLOs via rituals and service projects. Sandra Mizumoto Posey, Marcella L. McCoy, and Carol D. Branch, respectively, discuss at length aspects of African aesthetic retention through branding, calls, and stepping. In another essay, the liberties of Craig L. Torbenson perhaps overstate the role of WGLOs, and, more importantly, dismisses the larger role of black churches, fraternal orders, and benevolent societies in the founding of BGLOs (56). Offering another perspective on the creation of BGLOs, Jessica Harris and Said Sewell recognize how the black church, a spiritual pillar and social center in African American communities, served as a model institution for BGLO principles, initiatives, organizing, and work. Anne Butler builds on the influence of churches by examining the impact of fraternal and benevolent societies on BGLOs. In early America free black people created fraternal orders and benevolent societies to affirm their African past, resist racial and economic inferiority, assert political astuteness, and offer familiar and communal bonds. BGLOs, relying on the template provided by black fraternal orders and benevolent societies, established comparable organizations on college campuses in the twentieth century.

Brown, Parks, and Phillips build on the dominant conversations and portrayals of BGLOs. Readers will appreciate the multiple perspectives these essays offer on this overlooked area of scholarly inquiry. The editors, as wells as the many of the authors, offer practical research questions and point to un/underexplored areas for continued interdisciplinary BGLO scholarship. African American Fraternities and Sororities is a go-to text for not only historic BGLO informational data, but it is a resource elucidating how BGLOs envisioned themselves, then and now, as part of collegiate culture, social reform, political expression, and strengthening African American communities.

Daleah Goodwin                                                                                                                    UGA

Daleah Goodwin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Georgia. She received her bachelor and master’s degrees in history from Florida A&M University. Her research focuses on 19th and 20th century black women.

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