48 years ago today, our shining black prince was taken from us.
He will always be royalty to me.
Let’s be clear: I do not watch Basketball Wives.
One of my greatest failings in my life is that I have a hard time maintaining the appropriate boundaries between acquaintances and friends. This was easier when I was much younger. I don’t know what happened along the way, but I will try to hammer it out.
In high school, it was much easier learning who your real friends were. You were either connected by your neighborhood or your previous schools. For me, experiencing the trauma of a closed junior high school and being forced to start high school in 9th grade rather than 10th led to a great, small cadre of friends early on. Later, participating in other activities helped me meet new people and gain different friends, like a summer job at the National Library of Medicine, being a cheerleader, or FBLA. Even though every person I met along the way was not necessarily a friend, there are several who are still in my “circle.”
College changed things, but just a little. Being black in a mostly white college helped narrow down the field, so to speak. I was from a black city, went to a black high school, and had black friends. I knew I would encounter others, but when it came to my circle, I knew (or thought I knew) who it would consist of. Certainly every black person at Georgetown wasn’t my friend, and there were many non-black people I came to admire, respect, and love. But from the outset, I knew where I would be welcomed without much explanation, as a black man.*
I later pledged Alpha Phi Omega in an effort to feel more like I was part of the overall Georgetown experience, and I did. Suddenly, I was connected to all types of people racially, culturally, economically, and more. I felt not only part of Georgetown, but like I could actually befriend someone of a different culture because we had things in common aside from the accident of living on the same floor in the dorm.
(For more insight into the Georgetown experience during that time period, please pick up my buddy Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Losing My Cool. Although I was not “in” this memoir, I was present during the time period he writes about and much of it rang true for me.)
All this as a preface… I am basically saying that until I graduated college, it was pretty clear who my friends were and why. It wasn’t until after college that things got muddled and complicated.
I often tell people that I didn’t learn how to curse anyone out until I became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
In APO, there were definitely moments when brothers hated each other and got into fights and whatnot. Indeed, there was a moment when I did a wall-slide (literally!) and broke down into tears after a chapter meeting. But Alpha was different.
In my chapter of APO, even though you had to earn the chapter’s vote, anyone was allowed to start the process. There was no “competition” so to speak as much as satisfying the requirements while being liked by the chapter. Some APO chapters are more competitive, expecting that you “make line” like an NPHC organization, and others are not competitive at all, barely requiring that you do anything.
Alpha, of course, was different. It was far more expensive, time-consuming, and downright scarier. You had to constantly prove that this was for you, that this was the right for you, that you could afford it, that you just plain belonged there. Even though I pursued an alumni chapter, there was always the suspicion that I could be hazed, either the old fashioned way of straight brutality, or in sophisticated, old geezer ways of running errands, menial labor, and other servitude. Also, needless to say, there was a lot more information to learn: history, people, poems, projects, etc. And whether you were in another fraternal organization or not, you sort of just know going in that becoming a member will be an intense experience.
Along the way, you meet others who also want to be down. Some of them never considered Greek life until one day, the looked up and noticed that all of their friends were in fraternities and they were missing out. Other people always knew they wanted to be in a fraternity but couldn’t in undergrad because of their grades, expression of sexual orientation, general lameness, or the chapter was on suspension. And there were people like me, who always wanted to be part of something but took a long time to figure out what.
I love Alpha very much. And I loved my chapter dearly at one time in my life. But I believe that forcing people together who wouldn’t ordinarily be friends has done some damage to me that I’m only just now able to start repairing. And it’s not just Alpha – it’s also APO to a different extent.
I was 23 when I became an Alpha. My line brothers were 31, 40, and 43. That’s an alumni chapter for you. It’s far less likely that you will come in with people in your age group. Rather than go into the details which would either be boring or too personal, I’ll say that I never clicked with one of my line brothers at all. He was toxic from the start. I was close with the other two, but ended up pulling away from them after about a year. They were nice, generally, and meant well, usually, but for various reasons, I knew my heart wasn’t in our relationship. It doesn’t give me pride to say I am not close with my line brothers, but I feel it’s necessary to be honest about our relationship.
Subconsciously, I’ve tried to supplant these negative fraternal experiences with my line brothers into positive experiences and new memories with “specials” or “specs” [speshes]. In one case, my spec was someone I sponsored for membership in the Boston alumni chapter. In two other cases, they were people I took a shine to, but did not sponsor. In all three cases, I took the young brothers under my wing, taught them everything I knew, confided in them, was hard on them, and at the end, gave them the best crossing gifts ever. EVER.
But as time goes on, the black t-shirts fade and the paddles get dusty. Again, rather than bore you (further) or get too personal, just as I realized I had to let go of a relationship with my line brothers, I also have to let go of one with my specials, too. I can’t expect devotion just because I made them nice things and made fusses about each of them. Maybe for some of them, they just don’t see our relationship being what I wanted and hoped it could be.
I apologize for that interlude. It seemed sadder than I had hoped and strays far from the ratchetness of the animated gif of Evelyn Lozada up above.
Being an Alpha has complicated my perception of who is in my circle.
The “line brother” dynamic expects the individual to put the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the self. This is counter-intuitive to human nature. How can I expect to take care of the group if my mind, body, and spirit are not already in tip-top shape? Further, what if I have embraced the mentality of being on-line but my brothers have not? Having line brothers (or line sisters) is often romanticized as being a phenomenal thing, usually because the adversity and hardship of being on line is supposed to bring you together. Maybe my line and I didn’t go through enough hardship to truly trust each other. I can own that. But to what end is a line brother or line sister relationship if not friendship? Do we pick our other friends based on bad things happening to us? Of course not.
It’s also likely that I’ve romanticized what it means to have a special. I think I tried to codify the friendships I had with brothers when I was on-line into a more official relationship which proclaimed ownership of some sort:
I don’t have a lot of answers right now but I suppose there’s time to figure it out if I want to.
I know that becoming an Alpha was a choice and paying my dues every year is also a choice, regardless of the circumstances I’m faced with as an active member. And like I said, I love Alpha and I enjoy Alpha. And regardless of my complicated relationships with my line brothers and my specials, I still have some awesome friends in the fraternity who don’t need a title. They number less than ten and they are worth the price of admission.
But I also have to face facts: being a member of a fraternity forces me into relationships with people I would not ordinarily choose to be around or associated with. If you are not a fraternity member, you really need to consider this fact before you join. Your life can be just as enriched without membership in a fraternity if you know how to make friends with people – and know how to be a good friend in the first place.
If you love having a small circle, know that membership is the opposite of that. Be prepared to either fake it or be known as that evil, surly frat brother that nobody likes.
I feel this will need a Part II because I didn’t even get to touch on the notion of what happens when people who don’t share your values think they’re in your circle. And that has nothing to do with being in a fraternity.
*As a gay man, it would be two years into my Georgetown experience before I would become comfortable enough to officially be out of the closet to the black community. Perhaps that warrants another diary entry at a later date.
if I am ready to do this full time.
When I’m on the train, I read my favorite gay magazine. I can’t remember having ever seen someone who looks like me on the cover. When I read it I see more ads – for underwear, cologne, cruises, hotels, and clothes – with people who don’t look like me. None of the writers look like me, nor are there any stories about anyone who looks like me. When I finally see an advertisement with someone who shares my skin color, the advertisement is for HIV medication.
While I’m waiting for my friend in the gayborhood hotspot I notice that none of the bartenders, DJs, or waiters look like me, nor do most of the clientele. Out of boredom, I fiddle around with the Grindr mobile dating app on my iPhone. My screen is filled with different faces, bodies, and torsos of men in the area. One particularly handsome man attracts my attention, until I read the “NO ASIANS” typed in angry capped letters on his profile. I wonder how I would feel if I were Asian.
After having a few drinks with my friend, I walk home through the garment district in midtown Manhattan. I see a gay male couple walking hand in hand down the street. They also do not look like me. In fact, they look like they could be in one of the gay cruise ads I see in my favorite magazine. Their relaxed and happy faces turn frightened when they see me, and they immediately cease holding hands and separate. On this late night in an unfamiliar area of the city, I am not seen as a member of the LGBT community. I am black. I am male. I am a threat.