Burning Sands exposes the hypocrisy inherent in Black Greek letter organizations. It reveals a lot about what is wrong with some intake processes, but more importantly what’s wrong with the Black community–and the talented tenth charged with leading it. By most accounts, Black Greek letter organizations began in the early 20th century in response to Blacks not being allowed to join White Greek letter organizations, as a way of fostering scholarship and a sense of community among Black collegians, and as vehicles for Black collegians to provide community service. Yet, as Burning Sands reveals, instead of paying it forward many, Black collegians are engaging in counterproductive behavior that negates the purpose of Black Greek letter life.
One of Burning Sands’ explorations concerns some people’s motivation for pledging: Sometimes a person is interested because they are “legacy”–they have a parent or parents who pledged, or they are pressured by family members that dominate a particular affiliation. Some people join for social status or help climbing a career ladder. Some people join seeking a sense of family. Of course, reasons for pledging abound and are not exhausted here.
It is the exposé of contradictions that makes Burning Sands most useful. One of the most blaring contradictions explored surrounds the movement towards bonding that is supposed to be typical of pledge processes. For instance, throughout the film, the audience is exposed to line brothers treating each other in unbrotherly ways. Additionally, most–if not all–Black Greek Letter organizations are based on Christian principles, yet many Black Greek Letter members fornicate, gossip and bare false witness against each other and others–and engage in other ungodly acts. In one scene, the pledges visit their dean in his dorm room where a naked female can be seen lying in his bed. The insinuation is not that she was posing for a portrait. Further: Most, if not all, Black Greek Letter organizations are based upon the principle of scholarship, yet some organizations take pride in forcing activities upon pledges that cut into studying time. It is not uncommon for a pledge’s grade point average to plummet while pledging.
Sands also highlights the fact–possibly unintentionally–that Blacks lack leadership. Black Greek Letter organizations are supposed to consist of what W.E.B. DuBois, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, called the Talented Tenth–the small group of Blacks who were fortunate enough to pursue scholarship and who were expected to subsequently lead and pull others behind them. Yet in Sands, an elder member of the fraternity that is the subject of the movie supports the dysfunctional practices portrayed.
Yet, there are some misunderstandings: Most people’s perception of underground pledging does not account for the fact that some organizations have study hours built into their processes that include big brothers and sisters checking the library to make sure pledges are there and getting their school work done. This is a little known fact that some organizations may downplay as pledging is often exaggerated to make it appear as if it is “so hard” to gain membership. Keep in mind that Blacks tend to have a fascination with scandal. One example of this from the movie is when the line brothers chide one of their own for not drinking and being sexually active. We seem to have adopted the notion that life and lessons are supposed to be lived and learned the hard way. Maybe Slavery taught us that life is supposed to consist of struggle and sacrifice? We applaud poverty and deprivation and pathologize anyone who doesn’t seem to have had such experiences. Some take pride in their perceived ability to revoke “Black cards” from those who haven’t suffered enough. Black Greek Letter members are often no different. For this reason, graduate chapter membership is sometimes looked down upon–even amongst organization members–because it is perceived to be easier to attain. Some Black Greek Letter organization members literally pretend to have pledged hard just to get respect.
Some members scramble to specify that they pledged undergrad so they get more respect. Yet, the same members who mock people for pledging graduate chapters and being “paper” members are the same ones who brag about famous honorary members who didn’t “pledge.” Would a member who pledged “so hard” undergrad call her 50 year-old pastor who just joined a graduate chapter “paper?” And as discretion is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of “pledging,” what is a member doing discussing someone else’s process anyway?
One criticism of Sands will likely be that Black Greek Letter organization rituals are being unfairly criticized by people who do not understand the original purpose of “pledging.” This may be true. One of the problems with large organizations, especially national and international groups, is that it is difficult to manage individual membership and rituals. Leadership passes these processes down to members they hope they can trust and to whom they trust has the requisite understanding of the organization’s mission and purpose. But the best intentions . . . Feelings get involved: Sometimes credible prospective members are passed over due to petty jealousies; sometimes people become intent on inflicting the same pain that was inflicted on them without regard to the organization’s mission and the lesson that is supposed to be learned; sometimes neophytes want to shed their newness by pledging a line–any line–and allow unworthy individuals to join by haphazardly pledging them without regard to their ability to uphold the ideals of the organization; and sometimes processes are changed out of fear–to appease those who may repeat something about the process they do not understand and cause a misunderstanding that leads to suspension.
Blacks have long had a legacy problem: We tend to start out good, but have a hard time maintaining our success over generations. The state of Black Greek Letter organizations is an example of that.
By some accounts, the Black Greek Letter pledge process was initially designed to parallel a rite of passage. Yet, many leave their processes unchanged and useless to the communities they pledged to assist.
The controversy about Sands stems from Blacks not liking inconvenient truths, and wanting to maintain a facade about Black elite organizations. Folks like to do their dirt in private and put on a facade of unity. Anyone who betrays this faux unity–who dares to tell the truth, like Gerard McMurray does with Sands, is branded a traitor. (Yet, it’s okay for Blacks to expose the misdeeds of others, which is why movements like Black Lives Matter is not taken seriously. But I digress.)
Hopefully, Burning Sands will spark critical analysis and conversations about Black elitism, the need for leadership amongst Blacks, dysfunctional habits that need to be abandoned, and our inability to maintain generational success.