Greek members burn with pride

Nov. 30, 2005

Jamie Westmoreland/Lariat staff
Phi Beta Sigma alum Kirk Copeland, a spring 2005 graduate, recollects when he was branded with the fraternity's Greek letters as a new member.
staff writer

From one pledge class to another, historically black fraternal organizations have handed down traditions meant to bond members. Branding is no exception.

Brands are generally third-degree burns that burn the skin open and heal as a scab. As the burn heals, scar tissue forms where the skin was destroyed and a scar is formed.

However, this scarification practice among fraternities at American colleges has garnered opposing views from members within fraternities as well as the outside community.

"Branding is simply black pride in certain organizations to signify that they are greek for life," said Dr. Jaffus Hardrick, an adviser for Baylor's Tau Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

"It is an ongoing tradition within the history of black fraternities which began on the campuses of historically black colleges," Hardrick said.

Popular culture and modern society have divergent views on body markings. Tattoo art has evolved to signify personal expression on the part of the wearer as an individual as have piercings, but what happens when those body markings are deeply rooted within the culture of traditions associated with race, or more specifically, slavery?

Plantation owners used the practice during the era of slavery to mark slaves as property for identification purposes. However, branding is a tradition that originates across the seas and signifies more dignified milestones in the historical culture of Africans and African-Americans.

"Indigenous Africans used the practice of body markings like scarification as points of identification in order to identify tribal groupings or to identify one another," said James SoRelle, a professor of African studies. SoRelle said scarification is a rite of passage in many West African tribal customs, commemorating the transition of young adolescent males into adulthood.

Becoming part of a family

Whether they existed as marks of manhood and bravery or as a means of identification, body markings can be more than simply body art.

When Kirk Copeland arrived at Baylor, Phi Beta Sigma became his home away from home.

"Even though (Phi Beta Sigma's) ideals were very similar to other black fraternities in terms of upholding 'brotherhood, scholarship and service,' the Sigmas here really tried to live that," said Copeland, a 2005 alumnus.

Once Copeland's pledge process was completed and he was recognized as a member, a "brother" asked the new members if they were interested in being branded.

"The iron was sitting on the stove. It was a regular metal rod, an actual branding iron. They put it on the fire until it turned red and my frat brother popped it on my arm for a few seconds," Copeland said. "I didn't really feel anything but heat on my arm, but I could smell my flesh for a few seconds."

Some view the practice of branding as hazing, but fraternity members say branding is a choice, not a forced action.

"It's an individual decision, a way of showing commitment, a lifetime dedication to a certain organization," Hardrick said, "but it is an individual decision that comes down to that individual. It's your body; it's your choice."

Ties to slave history

Cleotus Bables, a 1958 graduate of Paul Quinn College who pledged Omega Psi Phi's graduate chapter in 1972, pledged because many of the community leaders at that time in Waco, were Omegas themselves.

"Many of the people who in Omega Psi Phi were local leaders," said Bables, who had been a science teacher, a coach and a principal.

Bables is currently an education consultant for an alternative certification program that aids professionals from various backgrounds in becoming certified educators. Bables chose not to brand himself because he didn't approve of it.

"I was against (branding) because one way it was used was to identify slaves, but also because I felt it was inhumane treatment," he said.

Bables said Omega Psi Phi outlawed the practice in the early 1990s as the organization felt the practice was inhumane.

"Several kids had gotten injured and other kids' brands had become infected," Bables said. "We as an organization outlawed it, but it is still done underground."

Copeland said he understood both points of view on the practice of branding.

"My thing is to each his own. I have no regrets about what I did, but I would say that if you have any doubt at all about doing it, don't," Copeland said.

Symbol of 'machismo'

Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., has researched and studied African-American sororities and fraternities and published his findings in 2003 in his book titled Black Greek 101.

"The whole theory of branding as a means of dedication is a bunch of crap," said Kimbrough, who attended college at Georgia in the 1980s and pledged as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.

"Most people have no clue about when or where the practice started or even why," he said.

Kimbrough said branding was first documented in an article in Washington, D.C., around 1935, and then not again until the 1950s.

"At that time, people usually got it on their chests above their hearts and no one could see it, but in the 1970s it became an expression of machismo where men had more visible brands," he said.

Kimbrough explained there was nothing historically documented among black organizations about the origins of the practice.

"People make up all kinds of justifications for branding, but there is really no reason," Kimbrough said. "Ninety-five percent of people can't give you a plausible reason why they are branded other than they thought it was cool and it looks good and that makes it a fad."

Baylor hazing concerns

Nonetheless, this "fad" carries some serious ramifications for undergrads.

Baylor's statement on hazing is inclusive of branding and defines hazing as applying to all student members of any campus organization for the "purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in, or maintaining membership in an organization."

"Branding of new members would be considered hazing," said Bethany McCraw, associate dean for judicial and legal student affairs at Baylor. "Some organizations might state that only the new members who consented were branded. However, the Texas Hazing Law specifically states that consent is not a defense to an act of hazing."

McCraw said branding of members in a student organization is not condoned by Baylor. It could also result in suspension or expulsion of students from the university as well as suspension of the organization or revocation of the organization's charter at Baylor.

"Although more profound and enduring, branding is not dissimilar from other forms of hazing, use of tattoos, or special T-shirts, hats, or related dress," said Dr. David Rudd, professor and chairman of Baylor's psychology department. "All indicate that the individual has 'achieved' membership in a select group."

Hardrick said some view the practice of branding as animalistic, but others feel it is a choice of expression.

Copeland said that when his children ask him about the Sigma symbol emblazoned in the skin on his left arm, he will tell them the truth about it.

"I will tell them I didn't have to do it, nor did I need to do it, but that it was something I just wanted to do to show myself as a Sigma," he said.