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Reuters/Heide Brandes
Not my brotherhood, not my SAE
THE LAST BLACK SAE

My racist SAE fraternity brothers broke my heart

William Bruce James II
By William Bruce James II

There will never be another black SAE. I wish there had been one less.

My former fraternity broke my heart this week. A video posted over the weekend allegedly showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity’s Oklahoma Kappa chapter chanting a disturbing song has once again evoked the images of deep hatred and cruelty that we too often choose to ignore in our country. To say it was racist is not enough. It hit me in the very core of my soul.

I know those bus rides well. I was a member of this chapter 14 years ago. The second black man to be initiated in those halls. We had our own songs—different songs—but songs we sang on every bus trip to every date party for four years. We didn’t know where the songs came from or who made them up or even what some of them meant, but we sang them so often we all knew them whether we wanted to or not.

Now, 14 years later, my “brothers” sing this song. This is what gets their spirits united for a great night out with their friends and their dates (one of which, thank God exposed them). This is what binds them. But I remember what binded us. I remember the True Gentleman. 

The SAE true gentleman is the man whose conduct stems from good will and an acute sense of propriety and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies, a man who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity. A true gentleman is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another, someone who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements. A true gentleman speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy, someone whose deed follows his word, who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own, and who appears well in any company; a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.

Goodwill. Propriety. Self-Control. Honor. Virtue. Sympathy.

Reuters/Heide Brandes
Tear it down

I wanted to be an Omega. All my heroes from television were Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas. I went to SAE. My mother wanted to protect her son from everything, and forbid me to pledge anything. I went through two days of rush just to see what was out there. Every house was the same, everyone looked the same, and I was very aware that no one looked like me. But a childhood friend of mine, Ben, wanted to see the SAE house because his grandfather had been an Alph and he hoped to honor him by extending that legacy. I walked into what was one of the most confusing houses I’ve ever been in. I met two of the nicest, whitest guys of all time—still love you Geoff and Mr. Manley—who told me a lot about the house and what they wanted to provide their pledges. They told me what they expected from their pledges.

They weren’t selling a hedonistic fantasy, and they weren’t trying to say what made them better than the other houses. It was refreshing. Then I got lost. (I said the house was confusing!) I found a room with a pool table, couches and a big screen. I had my rushee’s nametag on my chest and my National Merit/Achiever’s Scholarship, Math and Science nerd look on my face when I met a Native American fraternity member, a Brazilian (Venezuelan. Forgive me E.P.) fraternity member, and a couple caucasian members. They saw the look on my face and ripped into me—light heartedly— in order to let us know they could care less what our race was in the real world. We were in their home. Didn’t matter the color. Didn’t matter the country of origin. They were SAEs. Whoever you were out there was great, but once you come in here, you are one of us. Phi Alpha!

I wanted to be an Omega. My heroes from television were all Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas. I went to SAE! The pledge class had already been assembled. They had already met and gotten acquainted. They had already officially met as a pledge class. Then I showed up—the only black man there. I’d be lying if I said race never came up again. But I would be lying if I didn’t also say that when race did come up, it was from a place of genuine inquiry, of people wanting to understand a race they hadn’t been exposed to very often. And in my own little self-sacrificing way, I wanted to be that for the house. I wanted to be the guy that shattered all those preconceived notions of black men, those stereotypes of fear that in my opinion lead to our youth not always making it home from the store with their skittles. I knew when I joined that house that I’d be looked at differently. Why would he want to be in that house? And I knew it would come from both sides.

I remember hearing people say things about SAE having a black member. I remember being shoved into a wall at the school gym by some fellow black men who swiped the letters on the front of my shirt and said, “Whose house is THAT, brother?!”

But I held offices: I was a member educator, a song chair, I lead home coming pep rallies and stood out front and said, “SAE is different!” We can reach the mountain top. And we were different.

But it’s been 14 years since I walked in that frat house door, and there still hasn’t been a third black man in Oklahoma’s SAE chapter. I thought we were different—maybe we weren’t. Maybe I was just being hopeful, but I truly did believe. I believed in SAE. I believed in the True Gentlemen. I believed my brothers were my brothers. I believed my son might one day be their brother also if he so chose.

But then I saw that video. I saw that video that spoke of lynching me instead of letting me sign, of eradicating my four-year legacy instead of letting him wear their letters. And then my son saw my face. My sweet, innocent son saw the pain and anger in my eyes and I had a decision to make: a decision white Americans never have to face. Do I teach my four-year-old son about hatred today? Or do I let him keep his innocence for a few more days, weeks, or months before I have to start preparing him for this?

My mother prepared me, even though I thought she was wrong. I thought we’d have progressed further by now, but look at the news. Forget this one story and just look at the news. My mother prepared me, God bless her. And I will prepare my son—but not today. Today this black man gave him a smile and finished eating dinner with him. This black man gave him his bath and got him ready for bed in his perfect little world.

I had my time. I have my friends. But I can have no association with this organization as a black man. I know these were supposedly just “kids being kids,” and maybe they aren’t the hateful, ignorant lost little boys I think they are. But I will not stand behind them. Those boys are sons, sons of men who failed them, just like they failed my son.

Perhaps most importantly, you failed me: member 261-057. Your boys sang in unison. They may not know where the song came from or who made it up or even what all the words really mean, but they sang it until they had memorized every word.

I wanted to be an Omega. My heroes from television were all Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas. I went to SAE? Shame on me. But hopefully, there will never be another black SAE.