FAMU hazing, Robert Champion: Violent rituals don't make men stronger
They make worse human beings. The hazing death of Florida A&M marching band member Robert Champion proves it. At a historically black college especially, slavery-style abuse shouldn't be a badge of pride.
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“He is distinctly not a man,” wrote one defender of hazings in 1915, describing the typical college freshman, “and the fraternity must take up the task of character shaping where the parents left off or never began.” Hazing, he added, “is a means of determining what a man possesses, whether he has a streak of ‘yellow’ or whether he has stamina.”Skip to next paragraph
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Universities struck back with anti-hazing regulations; in statehouses, hazing was banned as well. Today, 44 states have laws prohibiting the practice. From the very start, however, these rules were always observed in the breach. Boys would be boys, hazing advocates said, and no bureaucrat or legislator could stop them.
“What’s the matter with K.U.?” wrote a University of Kansas graduate in 1910, blasting the school’s new restrictions on hazing. “The authorities seem to think that the University is a school for namby-pambies and Lizzie boys.... Young men of talent and energy will not go to a school which bears so close a resemblance to a female seminary.”
They did keep going to universities, of course – and they kept hazing each other. Men at historically black colleges such as Florida A&M got in on the act, too, adding a new rationale: Hazing would toughen young African Americans for the long freedom struggle ahead. At the 1997 convention of Alpha Phi Alpha, the same fraternity that enrolled Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights warrior Andrew Young joked that his beatings at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan were nothing compared to the ones administered by his brothers at APA.
But hazing was no joke to other African Americans, who saw only pain – not humor – in Young’s analogy. “Why any organization that seeks to align itself with Black culture would mimic so closely the institution of American slavery, down to details including whippings, beatings, verbal humiliation, forced servitude, sleep deprivation, and even the branding of the flesh, is anyone’s guess,” Ebony Male magazine editorialized in 1993, blasting black fraternities.
The question remains. And whatever our race, we all need to answer it. Across our colleges and universities, men still undergo ritualized violence, abuse, and humiliation to prove their mettle. That doesn’t make them better men; instead, it makes them worse human beings. Robert Champion’s death is testament to that fact. It's time we all woke up to it, lest more young men suffer the same awful fate.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
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