Black greek letter organizations are a staple of the Black community. Unlike most other fraternities and sororities, which are firmly anchored to the college experience and revolve largely around social events, Black fraternities and sororities function as service organizations — with many members joining and remaining active well after their college tenure. As such, they operate under a unique veil of sacredness and honor. Members of these organizations take their letters very seriously. Of the nine sororities and fraternities in the National Pan-Hellenic Council (also known as the Divine Nine) there are well over a million members; many of them Black. And enough of them are on Twitter to cause a shitstorm when they get wind of Burning Sands, Netflix’s new original film that follows one man’s journey into a dangerous world of underground hazing.
I had the privilege of speaking with three of the film's actresses (none of whom had an adequate amount of screen time, but I'm saving the story about how women are portrayed in this film for another day) — and they seemed unfazed by any potential backlash. I can’t help but wonder if this is because they traded college bureaucracies for those of Hollywood, potentially leaving them in the dark about the fact that Black greeks don’t like to “look bad,” under any circumstances. (Trust me on this: I’m the only adult member of my family who isn’t affiliated with one the Divine Nine.) Others I spoke to were genuinely rankled by the trailer.
Officially, all Divine Nine fraternities and sororities are non-hazing organizations. But official in the same way that the Grammys respects all races and genres of music equally, or that Donald Trump supports International Women's Day [side eye]. Hazing, while not always as severe as portrayed in Burning Sands, happens. It’s just one of those things that everyone knows. With over a million members globally, that tea has been spilled and spread many times over. Not to mention there are non-greek individuals who end up supporting or engaging with pledgees while they’re “on line,” which Burning Sands did well to document. Crossing the burning sands, or successfully completing a pledging “process” — the duration of which is also called being "on line" — is a badge of honor and signifies that members have earned their place in the organization. It’s the reason why, for all their pride, these organizations also operate under a pretty strict code of secrecy about their intake practices.
In the spirit of fairness, I reached out to fellow R29ers to get their thoughts on Burning Sands. All of them wanted to remain anonymous, which is telling in itself, and these are some of the comments I received:
“It's frustrating as a member of the Divine Nine to see our sister and brotherhoods portrayed in this manner. A film like this is such a gross mischaracterization of the D9 orgs, and it only perpetuates lies that continue to jeopardize our rich history and relevancy today.” Except it’s not exactly a lie that pledging can cost someone their life. A quick internet search will show that at least six of the Divine Nine organizations have been involved in hazing incidents that resulted in the death of a pledgee or interested person.
That same coworker continued, “I'm not turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to some chapters of some organizations that may have taken things too far. But does that represent the larger community that is the D9? Negative and sensationalized stories bring in the ratings, but what about the long term effects these stories have our orgs?” As I said: They. Don’t. Like. To. Look. Bad. And while these extreme outcomes aren’t common, they still occur intermittently.
Another Black, greek R29er said, “The first commandment is to be discreet and this [movie] is anything but that… There are a lot of people who went through a 'process' and tell the world all of their chapter's business. I've heard of stories like the one portrayed in Burning Sands trailer, but I can only speak to my personal process, which I will not speak of.” This emphasis on discretion and secrecy creates the air of mystery that makes movies like Burning Sands easy to conceive. Black greeks create a bit of a catch 22 for themselves, because they're often proud of their process but can't acknowledge that it actually happened without incriminating their org.
It’s also worth noting that the film doesn’t feel like an indictment of Black greek organizations, but rather, a call for reform. Members of these organizations genuinely believe that these “processes” build character, solidarity, and pride. But there are also valid critiques about the lengths they go and the safe boundaries they cross. When I have a child, I’ll support their interest to join a Black greek organization if they want to, but I certainly don’t think it’s worth their life, or even a trip to the emergency room.
Whether or not someone needs to be broken down in order to be built up by an organization is just one source of debate between Black greeks and non-greeks. And it’s most likely about to come to a head once again after the release of Burning Sands. Just by writing this piece, I’ve put my Twitter mentions in danger. Fortunately, I have a block game that has undergone a process of its own and stands by me in solidarity.
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