Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Black History Month Recommendation

I’d like to recommend to you the PBS program on the history of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. I’ve been watching quite a bit of Black History Month public television programming this year. I found this program to be informative and truly eye-opening. 

Alpha Kappa Alpha: A Legacy of Service, PBS

Back in 2016 I attended the Tipping Point event hosted by the African American Community Roundtable at Howard Community College. 

‘Tipping Point’ town hall tackles race relations in Howard County, Fatimah Waseem, Baltimore Sun

As is typical at most public events, the evening began with the acknowledgment of local notables in the audience. I was used to this. But as the introductions proceeded I noticed something that puzzled me. Why were people from sororities and fraternities being introduced? Why were there names heralded with such enthusiastic applause?

I knew absolutely nothing about the existence of Black sororities and fraternities. 

When I went home that evening I carried with me a statement made by one of the Black members of the audience. 

Black people have to deal with white people all the time, but it's possible in our culture for white people to be almost completely separate from blacks.

I felt the truth of that, and the weight of that. 

I’d like to tell you that I ran right out and delved into comprehensive research about the “Divine Nine” as the National Pan-Hellenic Council is referred to affectionately. I may have done a little. But my internal concept of sororities and fraternities was so shaped by stereotypical white organizations known for drinking, partying, hazing, and desperate social competition that something inside me shrank back and was repelled by the thought. 

Who would want to emulate or be a part of that? I couldn’t figure it out.

During the last presidential election the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority took center stage as candidate Kamala Harris sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, and then joined the Biden ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate. And again I wondered - - why sororities? The enthusiasm and loyalty was clear to see and yet I still didn’t get it.

Watching the PBS program the other evening gave me an immersive and engaging experience of the history and purpose of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. One of the most important things learned was that one of  their central missions is service.

Yes, “service to all mankind.”

And all this time I thought sororities were about parties and physical appearance and jockeying for social prominence.

I learned about the Mississippi Health Project, an initiative of AKA during the Great Depression that brought health care to Black tenant farmers and their families in the south during a time where some had never seen a doctor or been immunized. I thought about my own college years where I was mostly struggling to stay afloat academically, work campus jobs, with some fun college experiences thrown in. 

Compared to what these young women were doing my college years looked positively hedonistic. I may have been raised to “be a good person” but the drive to be involved in service to others had not been a part of my upbringing. Certainly not in the way that I saw in these young women of AKA. It was sobering. 

I hadn’t had any knowledge of this part of America’s history. I wonder why.

Black people have to deal with white people all the time, but it's possible in our culture for white people to be almost completely separate from blacks.

I did some digging around last night and it looks as though Howard County has two chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha: Iota Lambda Omega (1972) and Omega Eta Omega. (2015)  (Please correct me if I am wrong here.) The websites for both chapters include numerous service initiatives in our community. Many benefit young people.

Alpha Kappa Alpha is 115 years old and is alive and working in our community and yet some white people seem to find this some kind of mystery. Honestly, I was one of them. I was ignorant. Thanks to the PBS program I’m making some progress.

I’m going to close with one of my all time favorite Twitter posts from Propane Jane, @docrocktex26:

A lot of y'all don't understand an ounce of what's going on right now and it's because you're living/working in a community devoid of POC.

Even within a community we believe to be so diverse, so purposefully integrated, we are so much more segregated than we realize. When you see how some white people act in Columbia/HoCo, you know this is true.

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