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Branding: It's A Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand

Maya Richard-Craven |
June 10, 2014 | 1:45 p.m. PDT


When I was younger, I dreamt of joining a specific sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated. A sorority for girls like me: who loved brushing on make up, smacking gum and giggling at all the “fine” black men who’d walk by.

College would just be me and my girls, some “black American princesses” who had friends of all shades in high school, but would sport our AKA kelly green and pink jackets while strutting around campus with pride. But I was crushed to discover the harsh reality of what it would really mean to join an all black sisterhood.

Before transferring to USC, I attended Spelman, an all-black and all-women's college in Atlanta. Within the first week of getting there, older students, or "Spelmanites," warned me that if I were a Greek legacy, I would probably “be hunted down” by the chapter presidents on campus.

But I just as quickly began to avoid anything and everything Greek altogether, because I realized that joining AKA, or any black sorority, would mean fitting into a mold that just wasn’t me. I would never do my hair every day or put on heels for class, prior to chanting a “Greek chant” to let the world know that “me and my girls” had arrived. And if “one of my sisters” ever attempted to brand me, I would snatch the hot iron straight from her hand and whisper, "you, better run.”  

Most people don't know that the tradition of branding is still common among members of black Greek chapters nationwide. The term brand usually describes a “name given to a product or service from a specific source.” However, a brand can also be defined as “an identifying mark burned on livestock or (especially formerly) criminals or slaves with a branding iron, or a habit, trait, or quality that causes someone public shame or disgrace.”

In terms of black Greek life, these definitions of branding can be applied in two ways: the brand name like “Alpha Kappa Alpha” that becomes “I’m AKA,” before I’m [insert name] in an introduction. Or, there is the physical branding, the cast iron that melts part of a new members flesh, like a white master might have once done to one of the member's ancestors. 

The practice of branding stems from West African tribal traditions and has held symbolic value in the black Greek community since the 1930s

Today, new members of black fraternities and sororities are still expected to endure “the branding process” during initiation, when a melted hanger is pressed into the new members chest to symbolize black pride and new friendship.

Kappa pledges at the University of Georgia were "lined up and struck several times." (Rebecca Orlandini)
Kappa pledges at the University of Georgia were "lined up and struck several times." (Rebecca Orlandini)

Branding, or "getting a hit," is more common among all-black fraternities, and is most popular within the fraternity Omega Phi Psi, also known as "the Q's" or "Q Dogs." Omegas wear a specific brand called “the Friend link” or the “Friend-over-Friend pattern.” This brand is composed of two designs and “takes a total of four hits.”

The way the brand scars depends on the genetics of the receiver and the expertise of the brander. Some individuals who are branded go as far as picking off skin to create certain shapes or will clean and soak the scar during the healing process. However, branding can cause an overgrowth in scar tissue, especially for African-Americans, who are more likely to keloid than any other racial group. 

Although branding is still viewed “as the norm” in the black Greek initiation process, Ted Smith, the executive secretary of the Philadelphia chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, told the New York Times two decades ago that the Kappa organization did not condone branding “at all."

Smith also stated that if the organization were to “find, or catch, or see anyone doing it, he’s subject to disciplinary action.”

But many Kappas nationwide continue to disregard hazing policy today. One of the most recent cases of black Greek hazing involved eleven members of the Kappa Alpha Psi chapter at the University of Georgia.

On Jan. 27, Kappa pledges at the University of Georgia were "lined up and struck several times" at a member's home. Although all of the members were charged, only one member chose to turn himself in to the Clarke County Jail. Most of the members were eventually released after posting $2500 in bail.

Though media outlets have finally begun to pay attention to the black hazing epidemic, there are few people who have been brave enough to speak out against the psychological affects of hazing and pledging traditions.

One of the most famous examples would be Spike Lee's "School Daze," a film based on Lee's own experience after attending the all-black, all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Even though "School Daze" came out in 1988, most of the themes presented are still relevant to black Greek life and black college life today. Lee really weighs in on the psychological and social affects black fraternity hazing has on both men and women.

He gives viewers a visual idea of how strong the "Greek Code of Silence" was during the 1980s, and calls for his counterparts to "wake up" from the plantation mentality. Lee particularly focuses on themes such as colorism, hazing and sexism, to illustrate how many black pledging traditions stem from the social hierarchy that once existed between slaves on southern plantations. 

Just two weeks ago, actor Forest Whitaker announced he will be making a dramatic television series focused on Greek life at historically black colleges. The series will be titled, "Underground" because the main character will decide to join a black fraternity, and will become exposed to "harsh hazing conditions." 

Before I was exposed to what it really meant to join a black Greek organization, I honestly believed I would graduate from college in my (black) Greek letters. Although these organizations are known to unite African-Americans in various social settings, white slave masters first used branding, along with cutting off slaves' ears, as forms of punishment when slaves tried to escape.

Methods of physical torture that were once used on our African ancestors should not be normalized by brothers and sisters in the black Greek community today, simply for the sake of “black unity.”


"Shameless" is a new series by NT Columnist Maya Richard-Craven on shame and social status in the millenial generation. Read more here. Reach Maya here



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