Phi Chapter 1922

Originally uploaded by Unbowed.
I received this picture from one of my younger Chapter Brothers.

What stands out about this picture are three things.

The first is that I’m pretty sure that the Brother in the bottom right corner was my Uncle Kay. Komuria Harden went to medical school at Michigan in the early twenties. Was one of the first black medical school deans of Howard University Medical School. He died four years before I was born I believe, in 1965.

My father (who is also a member, inducted at Lambda Chapter while in Los Angeles) tells people to this day that he told me to either join Omega Psi Phi or not to come home. This isn’t what really happened. What REALLY happened was that he told me that because I was going to a school like Michigan I needed to be part of a group whose members would have my back. Black fraternities better served that purpose in his estimation than any other institutional vehicle (he was and is right about this). He suggested that I join ONE of them…but while he had preferences, it was up to ME to decide.

So I took a look around. One of my best friends at the time pledged another fraternity. But his experience was particularly brutal and while he graduated he did so some years after he was supposed to. I liked (and still like) the members of that Chapter a great deal…but I felt that at the time they weren’t serious about education, and were more interested in serving the campus population through entertainment than through education. Another group of friends I had were interested in another fraternity…but while I liked the members of that organization well enough, the reasons my friends (and others) gave for wanting to join had more to do with wanting prestige while not wanting to pledge hard. Further they didn’t have the same class affinity (working class) I did.

So what I wanted was an organization that would be about brotherhood, about working class black people (and about the nationalist education of black people). And I wanted an organization that pledged hard…not brutally hard, but hard enough. These values are values I received from my father. So even though he never said “pledge this or don’t come home” I ended up going that route anyway because of the values I received from him.

Years later after becoming a member I was browsing through the books at the Shrine of the Black Madonna’s book store, and I found a book detailing the lives of the first black Michigan med school graduates. I picked up the book knowing that my uncle (who I didn’t know much about) would be in it. And he was.

Among his organizational affiliations? Omega Psi Phi.

So the first thing that stands out is deeply personal. Even though I explicitly joined the organization of my father because the chapter represented the values that I received through my father…I also ended up joining the organization of my MATERNAL uncle, without even knowing it.

The second thing that stands out is the skin variation. By now many of us are familiar with the way that class is reproduced in black communities through skin tone. Light skinned American blacks tend to get more “stuff” than those who are darker in hue. Before large numbers of African and Caribbean blacks entered into prestigious American institutions it was uncommon to see darker skinned blacks at schools like Michigan. Anecdotal data suggests that some of the fraternities and sororities replicated this dynamic. We don’t see that here. There are some light skinned Brothers, some brown skinned Brothers, and some dark skinned Brothers as well. In 2007 this is common place. In 1922? Not so much.

The final thing? I still keep up with what is going on at Michigan. Although many graduates black and white come and go…I made sure I left my mark. People still know my name 20 years later. Phi chapter hasn’t been this big since the seventies. But even more important, with a couple of exceptions, NO black fraternity has.