Several months ago I agreed to write this editorial related to the new movie “Burning Sands.” While most of my writing the past few years has been about historically Black colleges and universities, my research background revolves around fraternities and sororities, not just Black groups, but also a focus on Latino and Asian based groups. I have also served as an expert witness in more hazing cases than anyone, mostly cases involving predominantly White fraternities, but including band hazing cases, including the widely publicized death of Robert Champion.
I didn’t get caught up in the hype of “Burning Sands.” I knew I would need to watch it before writing, but I was in no rush to see it once it was released on Netflix on March 10th. I decided I should sit back and wait, and watch some of the predictable debate.
Yes, predictable, because any movie that offers any type of critique or exposure of the negative aspects of Black fraternalism is met with a great level of defensive denial. In 1988 when “School Daze” was released during my junior in college, people complained that Spike Lee showed hazing in the fictional Gamma Phi Gamma. The predictable response was that we were non-hazing organizations, and this movie exaggerated a minor part of Greek Life.
A year and a half later, Joel Harris died pledging my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, at Morehouse College.
For about a month now there has been robust debate about “Burning Sands.” A few people asked me what I thought but I said I would offer something at the appropriate time. I was waiting, patiently, for something to happen to make my point.
Two things did.
On April 7th I received an e-mail from an attorney letting me know that a hazing case that I was working on from 2010 had finally been settled. That November, around the time of crossing, four women pledging Delta Sigma Theta at East Carolina University were in an auto accident that killed two of them, with a third being arrested and charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle. As the expert for the women that died in a case against the chapter (not the national sorority), I reviewed thousands of pages of documentation, videos of step shows and probate shows, pictures and other artifacts.
These women conducted a pledge process that was identical to anything you would have seen in the mid-1980s when I was in school. Underground pledging and hazing was flourishing in this chapter. And yet it was sleep deprivation which turned out to be the final blow.
This case reminded me that “Burning Sands” is authentic. People die from hazing each and every year, and that includes Black groups. In addition, underground pledging shows no signs of slowing down. For anyone who disagrees all you have to do is watch the tremendous number of probate show pictures and videos that are currently flooding all social media platforms. As an expert witness, all of these displays provide cultural artifacts that I use when hazing charges are levied. Too often, in an effort to prove they are “real” and not “paper,” these shows are often coded messages of guilt that a good expert witness can use.
The second event took place on April 8th, a reminder of the never-ending cycle of hazing. I receive a Google news alert anytime there is a story of fraternity or sorority hazing. In my inbox that Friday morning was the headline, “Hazing Allegations Under Investigation at FSU.” I clicked the link to see at Florida State, my fraternity was being investigated.
It stood out to me because within the past year on that campus, both Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi have been investigated for hazing as well. This is in Florida, a state with one of the nation’s toughest hazing laws named after Chad Meredith, where hazing can result in a third degree felony instead of a misdemeanor. This is the state where, in the wake of the Champion hazing death, three band members received jail time, including a drum major who recently lost his appeal to have his almost seven year sentence reduced.
It is a vicious cycle. As some hazing cases close, either with suspended chapters returning to campus or lawsuits being settled (none of the groups ever win), new cases and suspensions begin every semester.
Every. Single. Semester.
So there should be no debate about the authenticity of “Burning Sands.” It depicts an activity that is happening every year, all the time. Despite our best efforts to educate, the culture continues its march toward oblivion with every underground line that operates in the shadows of the institution and the organization, generally only to be stopped in cases of injury or tragedy.
On the whole, I was not moved by the film. It started slowly, I never really connected with the characters, and the acting bland. But a little over an hour into the film there was a moment which defines why we can’t escape this cycle. In a conversation, Ernest (also known as Square), tells his line brother Zurich why he could not simply quit pledging.
He says, “I’m pledging for what I can get now.”
Long gone are the days the best and brightest on campus pledged these groups to be part of a legacy and advance the cause of the group and the people it represented. For most, Greek membership is simply a way to obtain social capital. It is a way to put on a nationally recognized brand, raise one’s profile on campus, and go from obscurity to notoriety.
For many, this will be their greatest achievement, as evidenced by the number of members who should be making their mark in their careers that show up on campus for every probate, cook out, or just to hang out. Being a member is not part of their identity; it is their identity.
I’m not mad about “Burning Sands.” It is an accurate reflection of Black Greek life in 2017. In fact, it shouldn’t be thought of simply as a studio film.
In reality, it is a documentary.