(editor’s note: I wrote the original version on April 19, 2009.)
On April 18, 1989, twenty years and one day ago I became a member Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, the first black fraternity established at a historically black college (Howard), having pledged at one of the oldest chapters in the fraternity, Phi Chapter (the University of Michigan). At the first meeting the chapter held for interested individuals there were seventeen of us.
By the end of the process only four remained. Samuel Kirkland, myself, Darius McKinney, and Glenn Eden. I’d tutored Sam and Darius during their first semester in school (Summer 1988), and considered Darius a friend. The first time I’d met Glenn was at the first interest meeting. We were all middle/working class kids living in and around post-industrial cities (Detroit and Flint). A second year student, I was the oldest.
Now looking back on it, I knew I’d join a fraternity sometime next the end of my first year. My father–an Omega–talked to me about fraternities. I vividly recall him saying to me that given the racism at Michigan’s campus I needed to have a group of people that I could count on, a group of people that I could trust no matter what. I didn’t have to join Omega Psi Phi, he said, because Omega wasn’t for everybody. But I should consider joining one of them–Michigan also had chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, and Phi Beta Sigma on campus.
(I say “vividly” in part because my father’s memory of this discussion was very very different. He explicitly remembers telling me that if I didn’t become a “Que”, I couldn’t come home. He remembers this as clearly as I remember what I am telling you. It is possible our stories are somehow both correct, but I’m pretty hardheaded, and if I heard my father tell me what he thought he told me I’d have joined another fraternity.)
My first year I had a chance to see friends of mine pledge two other fraternities (Kappa Alpha Psi, Alpha Phi Alpha). Each with histories going back almost 100 years (Michigan’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha just celebrated their 100 year anniversary last week) over time each had garnered its own niche among black men. Over the years I was there as an undergrad Kappa Alpha Psi garnered a reputation as entertainers and event promoters. Phi Beta Sigma during my first few years was known as giving the best step shows. Perhaps because they were the oldest chapter–no, the oldest black organization–on the yard I think that Alpha Phi Alpha probably was the organization that probably best represented the average middle to upper class black man on campus.
There were only two undergraduate Omegas on the yard at that time. They may have held a party during my first year, but I don’t recall it. I do remember thinking that they were aloof. I didn’t see them at any of the other fraternity parties I went to. And they didn’t speak much when I saw them around.
My first year on campus coincided with Spike Lee’s movie School Daze. Now School Daze was about the black college experience…but for me Lee nailed the black experience at Michigan. What I knew about pledging I knew from School Daze. I knew it was hard. I knew it was brutal. I knew it was physical. I didn’t think he got the politics of fraternities right necessarily, but I knew that pledging wasn’t a cakewalk.
But that was the point. I didn’t want something that would be easy. I wanted something that would be difficult. Something that would test me. Something that would take me outside of myself.
So I spent those first two semesters getting the lay of the land. A few of my friends pledged Alpha, one of my closest friends pledged Kappa. For several weeks they dressed the same (the Alphas “Sphinxmen” wore black jackets, black jeans, and black boots, the Kappas “Scrollers” wore blue jeans, blue coats, black sunglasses, and either blue or red berets). Whenever there was more than one of them they walked/ran/marched in single line formation. They didn’t speak to anyone outside of their Big Brothers. When they spoke to each other, they whispered, passing messages up and down the line. Every day at noon they would perform skits for the Big Brothers and for the rest of the campus. Although they had study hours, most of us thought they’d used their study time for sleep…they looked so gaunt and exhausted we figured they didn’t really have much time to sleep.
My close friend who’d become a Scroller? He looked a bit like JR Reid from the North Carolina Tarheels only shorter. About 6’5 or so. Maybe around 250 lbs. I’m guessing he lost about 50-75 lbs while pledging. Each group of pledges has to come up with a line name….a name that describes the group. My friend’s line name was originally “The Octagon” because there were eight of them. After two quit (“dropped line”) their line name became “Six the Hard Way”.
I’d started running with a group of other freshman. My first campus girlfriend used to jokingly call us “The Magnificent Five.” To that extent we’d already had a line name. Already had a bond. It was just about figuring out which group we’d join, together. The Sigmas were tossed out because they weren’t popular enough. The Omegas were tossed out because they were brash and brutal. The first time we saw the Omegas was at the end of the year stepshow. Gold military boots, freshly painted. Royal purple diapers. And nothing else. They looked like something out of a science fiction movie. They scared the shit out of everyone who saw them. They called themselves dogs. And I saw why. They looked and behaved as if they’d rip someone’s throat out in a fight rather than throw a punch. And vulgar as hell. If the Kappas were the Navy, and the Alphas the Army, the Omegas were the Marines. The shock troops. Michael Bowen–an Alpha with around ten more years in the game than I–said the Omegas were “sheer, blunt force trauma.”
Seeing the Omegas at that moment probably sealed the deal me for my friends. We talked about it later that summer. The ques were wayyy too hard, too scary. The Sigmas didn’t have a high enough profile. The Kappas weren’t scary but one of the most challenging aspects of the pledge life is figuring out how to make a process as hard as possible without compromising academic excellence. From the outside looking in we didn’t think the Kappas on campus had that figured out, at least not in the late eighties. My friend for instance had to spend a few extra semesters in school because the semester he pledged his grades fell off the face of the earth. The Alphas were good men. They pledged hard enough. They had good character. They had a prestigious history.
It was all rational. Made a great deal of sense.
Later that summer my friends and I had a falling out. Pretty severe as far as those things go at least from my perspective. The details aren’t important here, but what I can say is that none of us were all that developed in the art of friendship.
This falling out pretty much removed the Alphas from my calculus.
So that summer I’d made the decision to pledge Omega. One of the first parties on campus made the difference between the Omegas and the other fraternities crystal clear. Another fraternity had a party, and had a step show. During the show they made fun of the others. In making fun of the Omegas–who had a party the following week–they noted that there were too few of them to joke about.
The two Omegas on the campus (plus one) were there. When they heard what the performers said about them, they walked into the center of the party, disrupted the show, and began handing out fliers advertising their party.
Of course a fight broke out.
There were literally two to three dozen members of the other fraternity, and only three Omegas. The Omegas didn’t run or leave each other. And the following, while important was not crucial. They didn’t lose.
That was the type of friendship the type of bond I wanted. The brashness I wanted. I wanted to be with a group of men who would literally go to the ends of the earth for one another, and were willing to disrupt anything and everything in the effort to be.
I was still scared shitless–I weighed barely 145 with clothes on–and didn’t think I had it in me. But it was at that moment I knew I’d made the right decision. The Ques continued to frighten, to intimidate. The first seven weeks of pledging I thought I would quit every single minute of every single day, in fear of what they would do that night, in fear of what they’d do the next day. But I moved through my fear, with my fear. And when i didn’t think I could go on, my line brothers picked me up, urging me not to give up, not to quit. I did the same for them.
I want to say we changed the campus irrevocably when we crossed. Of course that isn’t totally true. But what we provided in my time as an undergrad was a space for black men who wanted to be in a fraternity, but didn’t want to be Greek. Because our numbers were still low we were not really known for what WE did as Omegas. Rather we became known for what we did in the Black Student Union. What we did in the Office of Minority Affairs. What we did when students were maced by police on campus.
More than any single experience I have ever had, pledging Omega Psi Phi prepared me for life. Prepared me for those moments I didn’t think I’d finish my PhD. Prepared me for fatherhood, for how to raise, care for, and discipline children. And most importantly it prepared me for now–when it seems as if the bills don’t stop coming, the challenges of raising a family of seven in a Depression never cease, when every day a new hurdle appears, a new obstacle looms large.
Twenty years and one day later I wonder where I would be without the Ques. And I turn to the poem “Invictus” by Ernest Henley, a poem I learned while pledging. The second stanza:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeoning of Chance
My head is bloodied but Unbowed
Twenty years and one day later, my head is bloodied.
I remain unbowed.
Deadly Sirius 4/18/89
- Samuel D. Kirkland
Lester K. Spence
Darius V. McKinney
Glenn B. Eden
DP Selvan Manthiram
ADP Lee Rudolph
Long live the Sons of Blood and Thunder. Long live Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.