How a Box of Donuts Changed My View on Hazing
It was a cool night in the Spring of 1987, and I was squarely in the middle of my “process” as an undergraduate pledge of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, InC. I was pledging at the legendary “Bloody Beta Omicron” Chapter of Tennessee State University — a historically black university in Nashville. I had been through all the rites of legend and mystery for several weeks, and had become hardened—like forged steel—by the fire of what we called “pledging” back then, but what I am sure would be defined as hazing now. Never mind that half or more of what we’d been through was more a matter of practice than actual fraternity policy (that’s the whole debate on hazing after all, right?). My line brothers and I were determined to be unconquered as we trudged—willingly—across the Burning Sands—a reference to our crossing over into membership together.
We were in preparation for the highly anticipated probate show, where we would emerge from the womb of our late-night sets and showcase our newly-learned steps for the young women and men who were awed by Black Greekdom and what we called, “stepping.” My line brothers and I had been dispatched to raise funds for our elaborate costumes using “any means necessary.” In those days, one of the quickest ways to make money was to buy donuts in bulk and resell them individually. There were 13 of us pledging together, so we figured we could cover a lot of territory on and off campus.
We begged, borrowed, and scraped together enough pocket change to buy several boxes, distributed them evenly among us, and planned who would go where in small groups. I was Number 12. Our Number 11—also known as my “Front”—and I volunteered to expand our territory beyond TSU and onto the campus of neighboring Fisk University.
That was the first mistake.
We arrived on the campus of Fisk University—another historically black university—and immediately sought out the women’s dorm. There we stood hawking donuts: two tall, weary-eyed, battle-worn black men, dressed in fatigues and boots, with pockets weighed down by objects we were told to keep in our possession at all times, begging for sales as if our lives depended on it. We got looks of sympathy, but not many sales, so we decided to go inside.
Mistake number two.
Emboldened by the fear of going back to campus empty-handed, we snuck inside and went door-to-door, floor-by-floor. It took us a while, but we managed to sell a few treats here and there, until we realized the lateness of the hour. If we didn’t make it back to campus by our appointed time, there would be even more hell to pay, so we gathered up our remaining boxes of donuts and hurried down a side staircase, through an exit door.
As we were making our way around the side of the building, we heard a voice shouting in our direction. We turned to see a man rising from his seat next to a young lady on a bench in front of the entrance. From a distance we could make out his black jacket. Security? Should we run? We both paused, mulling it over. In hindsight, we probably should have just taken off running, then we wouldn’t have seen him turn squarely to us, revealing the cascading old gold letters on the front left side of his jacket. Although he was a little shorter than the two of us, and obviously from another chapter, he was still a Big Brother.
And he was beckoning us to come to him.
We had no idea who this cat was, but by now, we’d been trained well to respond to the will of Big Brothers, even if they weren’t in our chapter. We looked at each other in knowing affirmation that we would have to just “suck it up” and hope that all he wanted was a greeting or something minor. Taking a synchronized breath, we ran as fast as we could until we stood in front of him, at attention, eyes fixed straight ahead, because—as in the days of chattel slavery—a being deemed inferior was not permitted to look a Big Brother directly in the eye.
“Greetings, Big Brother!” we quickly shouted. Being in sync with one another was second nature by now. He asked us where we were from. We told him. He asked for our names. We complied. He asked us what we were doing on “his campus.” We explained, even as he was walking in circles around us, inspecting us like a drill sergeant does fresh recruits. Then he made a request that still makes me shudder when I recall it:
“Give me some donuts.”
I don’t recall if it was my Front or me who said “No, sir, Big Brother,” first. All I know is that it set him off. He laughed, with incredulity in his voice. Then, going cold in the face, he repeated his request. That’s when it dawned on me that this wasn’t about hunger or even a chronic sweet tooth. He was making an instinctual, primeval power move, one that has — since times most ancient — caused great wars to be raged among men: he was showing off for his girl.
I broke my straight-ahead gaze momentarily to look down at the box of donuts in my hands. I thought about the pennies I’d located in the crevices of car seats I could no longer sit on because of my sore backside, raw from contact with the legendary wood. I remembered the nickels and dimes giggling girls had pulled from their jeans pockets and placed in my hands, calloused from early morning pushups on concrete sidewalks. I thought about the quarters and dollars of laundry money I gathered from its designated drawer in my dorm room, even as my nose bore the stench of the sweat-drenched hoodie I’d been wearing continually for the last 3 sleepless nights. I took a deep breath and returned my gaze forward and said, as calmly as I could:
“I can’t do that, Big Brother.”
Call it a woman’s instinct. Call it clairvoyance. Whatever it was, it prompted the young lady to rise from her seat on the bench and place her hand on his shoulder. “Leave them alone. Come on, let’s go,” she smiled, as I thanked whatever gods there were for taking control of this unnecessary standoff.
But he wasn’t hearing it.
Telling her to hold on a minute, he walked up on me, directly into my face. He stood so close that I could smell the residue of the breath mint he had popped earlier in anticipation of a good night kiss from his lady friend. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t that crucial. I was even willing to apologize, though I had done nothing wrong. The thought of running even re-entered my mind. I would have done anything to ease the situation; anything except give him the representative fruit of my labor. His words interrupted my hasty thought process.
“Open up the box, motherfucker.”
I could hear the tension in my Line Brother’s breath next to me as I reached down and pulled back the hinged green and white box lid to reveal a dozen perfect donuts, glistening with glaze. I affixed my gaze on them, no longer seeing the donuts, but all the rounds of horror I’d been through at the hands of adult males like this, who hid their shattered esteem behind colors and letters; I saw the concentric circles of tradition that opened the door for thugs to have a chance to act out gang initiations in the name of fraternal principles; I saw the holes in a system that—in the name of building free Black men—reveled in relegating them to treatment that would be vilified if enacted upon us by those of a different hue.
I was in a trance, and saw what happened next in slow motion. I watched my neatly rowed donuts crumple like paper as he grabbed a fistful of them and waved them in the air triumphantly; I saw him look back at his lady friend, even as she put her head into her hands in shame; I saw his hand, stuffed full of my sweet labor as it approached me, and I felt it as it thunder-slapped me in the center of my chest, smashing the dough into my black sweatshirt.
That was the final mistake. And it was all his.
I felt his hot breath, bathing my face in rhythmic waves propelled by uncontrolled laughter. Then, for one second, there was silence, and everything came back to life at full speed.
I was choking him.
My line brother was trying to remove my hands. The girl was screaming, and I was choking him, looking into his eyes for the first time. The bravado was gone, replaced by fear. He was flailing and trying to fight back, but the warrior in me had been fully awakened by my own sense of human dignity, called out by my survival instinct, in self-preservation. I stared even deeper into his eyes as I lowered him to the ground, searching for one trace of the tyrant I had seen only moments before.
Fortunately for me, my line brother pulled me away from him and broke my grasp. As the Big Brother, who suddenly wasn’t either to me, backed away from me, he uttered something about me paying for what just happened and that I would see him again. I told him he didn’t have to wait and that he was welcome to walk toward me and make his payment on the spot. He declined. We made our way back to the vehicle and calmed down.
My line brother remarked that he’d never seen “that side” of me. I paused, tried to force a laugh, let the adrenaline ease from the fiber of my bones, and I thanked him. I thanked him for keeping me from seriously hurting that cat—even if it was in self-defense. I could have injured him for life. Worse, I could have taken his life from him. All because of a desire to belong to a group.
This is what people fail to understand in this whole debate over hazing, whether it is in a band, a fraternity or sorority, a predominantly black or predominantly white university, an athletic team, or even the military. Hazing opens the door for the weak to prey upon the perceived-to-be-weaker, in the name of “breaking someone down to build them up.” What I realized that night, however, is that one’s ability to endure physical, emotional, and psychological abuse does not determine their strength of character—contrary to popular group culture beliefs. There are men I know who can take a brutal beating standing flat-footed, but I would not trust them to deposit a check for me or to be around my children. A beating does not magically invent character that isn’t already there; it creates the same cycle of abuse that creates molesters, spousal abusers, and child abusers.
Someone hurt me, so I’m going to hurt somebody, especially if they perceive that I have power over them.
How else can one explain the cockiness of a lone Big Brother, standing up to two younger men who towered over him, and ordering them around? How is it that we didn’t see the absurdity in that scenario ourselves? That we felt actual fear when we recognized who he was based on his clothing? Like Pavlov’s dogs, taught to salivate at the ringing of a bell, we had been conditioned to respond to swinging wood, physical punishment, and humiliation, all so that we could become “better men.” I can’t fully fault the Big Brother, because I asked for it, and that’s the larger part of the discussion that no one wants to take on: Hazing is totally, completely voluntary.
We can talk all about Peer Pressure and Social Death, but unless someone puts a gun to your head, you put yourself at risk when you put your life into the hands of people who are living, breathing wildcards.
You could say that I asked for my situation on that spring night, because I was wearing the clothes that I bought with my money. I showed up to an interview and said “yes sir” and “no sir;” I filled out an application; others show up at appointed places at appointed times, knowing that Hell awaited them and they went anyway, willingly, into the foray. The pressure is that strong to belong.
When I was told to endure something, I did it without questioning—up until that night, when things got out of hand. This is the final piece in this puzzling hazing conversation: things always get out of hand. It is never a question of if someone is going to get hurt or worse; it is a simple question of when it will happen. In my case, I finally took a stand against hazing, but at what potential cost? I could have committed a crime—however justifiable—because things went too far.
I could still be in jail, without a career, my wife, my kids; and the only dreams I would have had would be limited to the confines of my mind for the rest of my life.
I could be carrying the burden—to my grave, mind you—of taking away some mother’s son; a father’s seed; a woman’s future husband; a potentially successful, educated African-American man.
I could have become a killer.
Instead, because of the actions of my line brother, I eventually crossed over into a prestigious fraternity and survived a cumulative incident of hazing that turned a calm, educated, 20-year old student leader into a brute with a bloodlust for retribution— in a matter of seconds.
I’ve grown idealistic enough to believe that maybe one day, we’ll return to the founding ideals of our organizations: intellectual and scholarly excellence, leadership, growth, togetherness–without beating, humiliating, and killing one another in the process.
That will be the day, perhaps, that I can take a bite out of a donut without experiencing a sweet taste with a bittersweet memory.
Dr. jeff obafemi carr is a former Commentator on NPR and the Producer/Director of the Award-Winning Film He Ain’t Heavy, which documents, explicitly, a group of underground fraternity pledges. Follow him on twitter: @jeffocarr