Why Do Black Men In Fraternities Adopt the Slave Owner’s Practice of Branding?
Reported by Kacie Whaley
Branding is a respected ritual within black fraternities that is said to have evolved from traditional tribal marks that are prevalent in Africa. But with more mainstream photos and footage of branding arising, including the circulation of one man showcasing his unconventional frat scars in a Vine video, is the ritual proving to be too extreme?
John Norman posted a Vine video showing pictures from the Omega Psi Phi branding scar that was burned into his hand, Watch The Yard reported. In one picture, his Greek letter was dripping with blood and pus, while in others the scar was healed and permanently dented into the skin on the front of his hand.
The placement of the Omega scar is quite unique, but the act itself is far from it. Even basketball legend Michael Jordan has an Omega symbol burnt into his chest.
The act of branding entails heating a metal rod shaped like an organization’s respective Greek letter, and pressing the flaming-hot instrument on a member’s body part until a second or third-degree burn is formed. Members are able to manipulate how the scar will look by peeling off the scab to create a lifelong risen keloid or cleaning the wound, resulting in a permanent flat mark.
The New York Folklore Society defined fraternity branding as “embodying membership in the organization, the organization’s commitment to community service, and admiration for a particular individual.”
“Branding is simply black pride in certain organizations to signify that they are Greek for life,” Dr. Jaffus Hardrick once said when he was an adviser for the Tau Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Baylor University in Texas. Baylor produced a report on branding in 2005.
James SoRelle, a professor of African studies at Baylor, said in the school’s report that branding is similar to a rite of passage that signifies the transformation of a frat brother turning from a boy to a man. But not everyone feels that the treatment through which Greek members endure this coming-of-age transition is the most sound tradition.
One of the most prevalent arguments against branding involves claims that the process evolved from the unhealthy treatment of Africans during slavery. Black slaves in America were sometime branded like cattle as a form of punishment and also gave owners a means by which to identify a runaway.
“I was against (branding) because one way it was used was to identify slaves, but also because I felt it was inhumane treatment,” Cleotus Bables, an Omega member of the 1970s, told Baylor University.
Bables also said that he had seen frat kids getting “injured” and “infected” from branding, which are also typical concerns of the permanent scaring method.
With the popularization of social media videos and photos, the ritual is being glorified and other cultures are adopting it, however, the dangers of physical injury from the potentially-painful process does not always translate, as ABC News reported. One example of a branding gone wrong was Amon Carter IV. A few years ago, Carter, a white male, was drinking with his Kappa Sigma frat brothers who all attended Texas Christian University. When Carter got drunk and passed out, the members attempted to brand Carter’s buttock. The brothers continuously overlapped fraternity and sorority symbols on Carter, causing brutal second and third-degree burns.
“My whole other butt cheek was destroyed,” Carter told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
While the popularity of branding grows beyond black American fraternities, it is still less accepted in public, even on college campuses. In fact, many schools consider branding to be an act of hazing, which can lead to suspension or expulsion from the school and/or Greek organization.
With all the controversy behind branding, young frat brothers looking to represent and belong to an esteemed organization may continue the tradition of the burring process. But those who may find the method too extreme can opt for other ways to represent their frat.
“Although more profound and enduring, branding is not dissimilar from…use of tattoos, or special T-shirts, hats, or related dress,” said Dr. David Rudd, former professor and chairman of Baylor’s psychology department. “All indicate that the individual has ‘achieved’ membership in a select group.”
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