freedom · sisterhood

through the years as we struggle

I’ll never forget the two times I almost fell off my chair while in graduate school.

The first time I almost fell off my chair I was reading a collection of essays edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin. I saw a name that looked familiar: Norma Boyd. She was one of the original founders of my sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. It had been years since I’d seen her name, which is pictured on  stained glass art created by Lois Mailou Jones, Howard University Professor of Art History Emerita.

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Lois Mailou Jones, Howard University Professor of Art History Emerita, created this stained glass commemorating the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

While reading that collection of essays, I learned how, under the leadership of Boyd, Alpha Kappa Alpha became in 1938 the first African American organization to hire a full time representative to monitor and lobby for legislation that affected the collective interests of African Americans. I was stunned. Not the NAACP, but AKA? Wow! Boyd is among the people of African descent pictured below with Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Soror Norma Boyd greeting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Indeed, with the goal of helping all people of African descent in mind and with Boyd’s help, the AKAs helped establish the Non-Partisan Lobby for Economic and Democratic Rights and the Non-Partisan Council on Public Affairs. All this from a group whose anniversary is celebrated today (our Founders Day is January 15, 1908) alongside a holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a freedom fighter, too.

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Dr. King as an Alpha man, circa 1952.

King is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, our brother organization. His wife Coretta Scott King was an AKA, too.

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Soror Coretta Scott King with her children.

What really touches me about this discovery concerning a goal of securing the collective interests of people of African descent as I continue in the academy is seeing how much the presence of women of African descent in educational institutions matter. I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to say “Soror” to a black woman who teaches on my campus.

Once, a recent retiree who is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, smiled as I walked her to her car. While doing so and feeling very sisterly, I said, “Soror.”

Next, “Sorry, I mean ‘sister.'”

She nodded and said, “Yes, I am your sister. And you can call me Soror, too.”

That made me smile because my best friend since my undergrad days is a Delta. We pledged different sororities on different campuses (and her first off-campus apartment had a bathroom decorated in peach and green, she said – or pink and green, my sorority’s colors, if you asked me). Thirty years later, we are still more like sisters than members of rival sororities.

 

 

I first learned about the history of AKA by peeking with a dear friend, then named Jill Campbell, into the scrapbook of her oldest sister Rhonda, who attended the University of Florida. As I continued through middle school and high school, I met teachers who were Greek, but I did not know it until I was about to leave for college. Inspired by them, I would go on in 1986  to pledge AKA via the Iota Nu chapter at the University of Miami.

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Me sleeping in my UM dorm wearing my pearls, an iconic piece of jewelry typically associated with Alpha Kappa Alpha. I like the Canes poster on my wall.

Along the way, I have found sisterly bonds with others (related biologically or not, American or not, southern or not, Caribbean or not, black or not, and Greek or not). My best friend in grad school was Hungarian.

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My best friend from my graduate school days (and honorary “soul” sister) is the Hungarian-born Aniko Varga. We are at a period dress costume party.

Another sisterly bond was had with University of Alabama Professor of English Dr. Trudier Harris, a member of Zeta Phi Beta, another historically black Greek lettered organization.

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Here I am with my colleague Dr. John Beeler and Dr. Trudier Harris. Beeler and Harris both had the University of Alabama’s great honor of being a “Last Lecturer.” Students get to decide who receives this opportunity to give such a lecture which answers this question “If you had to give your last lecture, what would it be?” The topics are always inspirational.

Harris, who sat with me on a panel also featuring Wayne State University’s Dr. Lisza Ze-Winters and New York Times‘ bestselling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, two years ago,  has an endowed chair named for her at the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill. I call her “Oh Great One.” She does the same to me, unveiling how being sisters sometimes has little to do with letters or blood line, but in being there for one another no matter the ups and downs and sharing an interest in making this world better on and off university campuses – like Norma Boyd. Among her many published works is a study that makes ties between King and important literary writings.

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Me at age four living in “The Projects” in Miami’s Coconut Grove – long before I knew anything about Greek life. My grandfather John Sands, by this time, had become a member of Omega Psi Phi via Florida A & M University. Within a year of this photograph, my family would move to a suburban community about 20 miles north. Our migration there figures into my present research. My dress is pink.

These thoughts and others, including seeing some of my students – among them recent History major graduate Terrance Lewis – become Greeks, uplift me. I am well aware of the respectability politics and less than perfect aspects of groupthink, which exists in and outside of organizations.

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It was an honor to visit Howard University in 2000. My sorority was founded here in 1908.

I am well aware, too, of the importance of bonding with the goal of creating a more just world in mind. King had the creation of a such a world heavy on his heart before his untimely death in 1968 in Memphis. I can only hope that today and the rest of the month, as I move on from celebrating my 50th year, that I keep all of this in mind. How much are my own goals in line with those of people like Boyd, King, Scott, Harris, Varga and so many others who work hard to create a vision fair?

PS I also nearly fell off my chair in grad school while tirelessly scrolling through microfilm featuring letters from domestic slave traders and discovered that I was suddenly no longer reading letters from white men, but from black women. In one letter, an enslaved woman asks to be freed. The result of that discovery was my first historical monograph.

 

 

 

 

 

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