The Historical Significance of Sacrificial Ritual: Understanding Violence in the Modern Black Fraternity Pledge Process

Article excerpt

Since the late 1980s, and especially after the death of a Southeast Missouri State University student in 1994, the pledge / initiation process of black Greek-letter fraternities (BGFs) has come under intense scrutiny.(1) The tragedy in Missouri was not the result of anomalous violent behavior in BGFs. Unfortunately, physical abuse is often encountered in the BGF initiation process and has led to the hospitalization or death of a number of young black males. The belief that violence in these groups is not isolated is further supported by the near death of a University of Louisville student in 1997(2), two additional incidents at the University of Maryland--Baltimore County and Kansas State University in 1998, and injuries to students at Grambling State, Mississippi State, and Georgia State Universities in only the first quarter of 1999. Hazing's perseverance continues to baffle college and university administrators, BGF officials, and an increasingly concerned community at large. The fraternities have been taken to task in these diverse mediums, but hazing incidents continue and remedies remain elusive.

In this article, I contend that if solutions to the destructive behavior which sometimes manifests itself in these organizations are to be found, we must begin to take different approaches to understanding the impetus which lies at the heart of the pledge process. Critically speaking, when engaging this process one must work diligently to frame it in such a way as to view it not necessarily as a directionless anthropological aberration of black men who wish to impose violent behavior upon one another. On the contrary, it must be approached as an activity which has been historically viewed as functional. The fact that injured pledges are victims of violent physical aggression is indisputable. Presently, however, we will not focus our attention on these injured individuals, but the fact that the modern pledge process is an operation of historical social import as well as a powerful aspect of black fraternity legend and lore. We must then understand that, contrary to the beliefs of many BGF members, at its heart, this process is a sacrificial rite which was not created by BGFs. Therefore, the BGF pledge process is not unique in and of itself. All these factors combine to support the thesis that the modern BGF pledge process is a form of sacrificial ritual and such rites (be they mortal or not) are largely inaccessible to intellectual explanation unless one can locate some basis for them in historical and contemporary social reality (Boudervijnse, 1990; Edem, 1993; Girard, 1989).

Violence Vehicles: Rituals as Social Stabilizers

As long as we insist on interpreting the violence of initiation rituals in purely individuo-psychological terms, we can only assume (in this case) that BGF members are dysfunctional sociopaths. This view must consequently suggest that members seek some sort of moral justification for their acts after the pledge process is completed by showering the newly initiated neophyte with "love" in the form of verbal and social acceptance or gifts (Cox, 1994; Olsen, 1995; Wright, 1995). Upon initial observation, it would appear that the pledge is simultaneously disdained and coveted, because such quick movement from a position of loathing to one of love seems implausible. Pledges are often told by their Deans of Pledges (members who are primarily responsible for the progress and well being of potential initiates), "None of the brothers like you. You have nobody, but each other and me." Beyond this creation of an illusion of aloneness and adversity, the reality must be that the pledge is somehow loved all along (whether this type of love is pure or healthy is arguable)--even when he is the object of violence from his fraternity-brothers-to-be. This love / loathe ambivalence would seem to be, on its face, non-sensical. When examined more closely, however, it can indeed be explained.

It must be clear that fraternities are filled with rituals. …