April 13, 2013. A date representing a tangible mark in my life, the division between the man who I was and the man who I was bound to become.
There are dates with important meanings in everyone’s life: birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, all have the power to bring memories into the mind, allowing a brief reconnection with the moments that shaped the course of our existence.
April 13, 2013 has that power to me. However, the date alone would be meaningless without the months that preceded one of the most intense nights I’ve ever experienced. The process of arriving to that day made me gain a new consciousness about the hardships I would face in life, allowed me to understand even more the culture and history of the people who accepted me into their environment , and last but not least, gifted me with a set of brothers so different from me in appearance but yet so close in terms of drive, mindset and pride.
Ev, Rell, Jeff, Vaughn, Antoine, Clif, John, Q, Nie, Chris. We didn’t choose each other; our paths and aspirations crossed at a certain point, taking us through a journey ended on that night of April which bonded our lives forever.
Actually, a few months earlier we probably didn’t even like each other.
The first time I saw Ev and Rell, for example, I was met with scepticism. Antoine already knew them, but he wanted to make sure I was introduced to them before starting our adventure together. We went to their room and Rell locked the door behind us. Then they both sat down while I was standing in front of them. Ev stared me down: “What do you know?”
What did I know what? Was that an interrogatory? Who the hell were these dudes?
I simply explained the reasons why I was trying to join the same fraternity they were interested in. I went on saying how I felt so close with the principles of the organizations and how I was eager to bring my support to make Omega shine in our campus and beyond.
The more I talked, the more their faces softened. They looked angry at first, their expressions saying something like “why this weird white dude wants to join MY Black fraternity?”, even though it wasn’t THEIR yet. I suppose my words were convincing enough though, because it was all smiles and jokes after that.
“We’re gonna have some fun,” Rell said while I was leaving the room.
I was excited. It was interesting learning about the history of the fraternity, and while doing so not once my mind brought up the idea of me wanting to join a Black organization.
Most of those fraternities and sororities were founded during Segregation to bring about a union of ambitious Black college men and women of similar high ideals in order to stimulate the attainment of their goals. They weren’t allowed into white organizations, so they created their own, to raise their voice in a nation which was trying its best to shut them down.
In this case, I was on the opposite route – a white guy trying to join a Black frat – but it never bothered me. Probably, my lack of bias aided me in the process. I’ve never experienced diversity, never was I thought to look at the color of someone’s skin. My thought process was quite simple: I respected the organization, I felt its principles were peculiar of me, I wanted to give back something to a community that was already giving me everything and more.
Also, I was thrilled about the possibility of being considered a brother to some of the brightest stars in African American history: Jesse Jackson, Ronald E. McNair, Carter G. Woodson, Shaquille O’Neill and Michael Jordan, just to name a few.
Most of these men had to go through hell to join the same organization I was aiming to be part of. In fact, when hazing was legal they had no choice but to endure if they wanted to represent them.
Today though, hazing is no longer allowed, but to stilll describe the hardship of those times, I decided to borrow some words from my brother Langston Hughes, as found in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea:
Hazing was terrific….
Fraternity initiations occasionally sent agonized howls into the darkness around the countryside, whole woods and fields being available for the ordeal of brotherhood… When I was initiated, because I was a poet with my first book published and my name in the papers, each of my brothers to be was inclined to think every other brother would let me off easy. The result, each and every brother laid on with such a heavy hand, applying so many licks to be sure the poet would be well initiated, that I could scarcely walk for a week.
“A New Negro, huh?” Wham!
“The boy poet, heh?” Wham
I was well initiated all right!
In our own way, we were well initiated too and we couldn’t wait to introduce ourselves to the campus.
April 13, 2013 came. Omega Psi Phi hadn’t had new members since the fall of 2009, so we knew welll that Lincoln University was enthusiastic to have us back.
I just could not imagine that much.
While marching down to the campus quad, from the tiny holes of my mask all I could see was a horde of students running and chanting at our sides. When reached the quad, ready to start our show, we couldn’t. The space around us was so small, people were hanging from trees to get a peak of us. It took hours to the older brothers to make enough room for us to finally start.
And it was legendary. We were a complete mess at times – we forgot some steps, some words – I even got punched in the head by Antoine during one of our marches and almost fell on the ground.
Mistakes aside, it was also very emotional. We cried, we made people cry, my family wasn’t there, and they had not quite an idea of what was going on, but I like to imagine that they cried too, all the way from Italy.
We finished our show, celebrated with family and friend all night long and the day after. A whirlwhind of events happening so quickly that I couldn’t quite grasp the importance of that moment yet.
Truth is that from that night my existence was not the same. Not because the fraternity changed my personality in some way , but I felt I had acquired a new outlook on life, especially the apparently hard portions of it.
Almost a decade later, I recognize that I would even never been able to hike over 2000 miles along the East Coast, or become an Ironman, or do the multitude of crazy things I’ve done in my life, if that night, or everything that preceded it, wouldn’t have happened.
But I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I did it all by myself. Ev, Rell, Jeff, Vaughn, Antoine, Clif, John, Q, Nie, Chris – being an only child never allowed me to understand the value of sibilings – I’m so thankful to have met them. I’m thankful to have laughed, argued, cried and suffered with them. I’m extremely grateful to have learned through them that there are no limits if your mind is in the right place.
“If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter…” right?