Kendall Finlay (C’17) knew he wanted to join Greek life at Penn, but with the various options he wasn’t sure where to turn.
He went through the unofficial “dirty rush” at a few IFC fraternities during his freshman year, but after making it through several rounds of the closed rush process, he had an epiphany. “I had a moment—a single moment—when I realized this wasn’t for me.”
Undeterred, he decided to join a different kind of Greek organization during his sophomore year: Alpha Phi Alpha (referred to as just “Alpha”). Now he calls himself “an Alpha for life.”
“I felt like I could be myself,” Kendall said. “And that was the difference between mainstream Greek life and Alpha. I could be myself on all sides—not just half of me.”
When trying to understand black Greek life, it’s necessary to first learn why the organizations came to exist. According to Amir Baiyina (W ‘17), many were “founded on a predominantly white campus, where students of color were not welcome until things started to change in the early twentieth century.”
“There is a lack of inheritance of information, of resources, and it affects your collegiate journey,” Amir said. “These organizations are a way to not only bond, unite, and motivate people, but also to pass down information and values that students of that experience will confront.”
Today, there are nine main black Greek letter organizations on American campuses, commonly referred to as the “Divine Nine,” six of which are on Penn’s campus. Though they are much smaller than mainstream Greek organizations, they can play a crucial role in the Penn experience for many black students.
Kendall finds people who are unfamiliar with black Greek culture at Penn are often surprised when they hear only nine people are in his particular chapter. It’s not just because the fraternity only accepts people they deem to be a perfect fit.
“Think about where we are,” Kendall explained. “If you go down south to a major school, a [Historically Black College & University], perhaps, the chapters are huge. They’re just as big as [IFC] chapters here. But being at a private white institution, seven percent of our population here is black. And that’s African, African–American, whatever. Everybody is one ‘seven percent.’ Let’s be generous and say half are male and half are female. So that means 3.5% are male. So 3.5% of the student population is eligible to be in a black fraternity.”
There is, of course, a silver lining to the lower membership numbers. “The benefit of having small chapters is that we all know each other,” Kendall pointed out. “That fraternal bond is real. There aren’t cliques. You can’t have cliques.”
Kwadwo Agyapong (C’16) agrees. “[Joining] brought me into a community—this type of family that I was looking for. I never had brothers growing up, and these are just guys that are very like–minded individuals, people I respect.”
Kwadwo, a recently graduated brother of Omega Psi Phi, had a similar IFC rush experience to Kendall. “I rushed, I did all that stuff,” he recalled. “I just felt the bond wasn’t as close, and that was really [what I was looking for]. I still met some really cool people who I still talk to through those experiences. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
For Sarah Hampton (C’17), a sister of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Panhellenic process never seemed particularly appealing. “I kinda knew I didn’t want to [rush Panhellenic sororities].” She saw girls standing outside in the rain, crying about the bid process. “It wasn’t for me,” she said.
The three black fraternities on Penn’s campus do not exclusively pick from Penn students. The Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi and Alpha Phi Alpha chapters at Penn are all “citywide” chapters, meaning that they recruit members from other colleges in the area, including Drexel, Villanova, La Salle and St. Joseph’s (which with Penn comprise the “Big Five”). As Kwadwo explained, this is both a part of history and a part of the numbers game. “There aren’t very many black students, or even less so, black men, on Penn’s campus, so to only extract our numbers from the black men at Penn, we’d be struggling for membership.”
One can imagine how difficult it can be to organize events that cater to five different student bodies with five different campus cultures and administrative rules. Each organization tackles this differently. “We have a rotation type thing,” Kwadwo explained, “but of course within our chapter, Penn is the most important because that’s where we’re chartered. And some schools are more open to Greek life than others. But you gotta show love to every school though.”
Sarah, as a member of AKA—the only black sorority on Penn’s campus that is a citywide chapter—notes the challenges that come along with that arrangement. “Not everything’s here, and you have to travel to a different school, so I can’t just be like, ‘I have an event tonight at 7, I’ll just show up.’ I have to plan how to get there, and I don’t have a car so I have to find someone to split an Uber.” Planning the events themselves can be even more of a challenge—it’s difficult to book a room on a campus you don’t actually attend.
Relays, Stepping, Strolling
The pinnacle of the social calendar for members of black Greek life is Penn Relays. The annual stepping and strolling competitions between Greek organizations are held at Wynn Commons. “It’s our black Fling,” Nailah Hill (C’17) said.
Stepping is a style of dance mixed with clapping, stomping, and vocals—sort of like tap–dancing with your whole body. The dance can be traced back to 19th–century South Africa and has been a part of black Greek culture since as early as the 1920s. “I wouldn’t say stepping is a black Greek thing,” Kendall explained, “I would say it’s a black culture thing.”
Strolling, on the other hand, is a sort of synchronized, choreographed dancing, and each national organization has their own signature moves. “There are certain strolls that all Alphas know,” said Kendall. “I could go to L.A. right now and turn on the song, and everyone knows it.”
“Fling for us is like a warm up for Relays,” Kendall said. Amir agreed with that assessment—to a certain extent. “I would say that would have been a little more of an accurate statement a decade ago,” he noted. Back then, the Relays festivities were held on Highrise Field, and were much more lively and packed than the current celebrations at Wynn Commons and Irvine Hall. “[Apparently] Highrise Field used to just be filled with music and people—just madness, a big crowd of people taking over the whole thing during Relays.”
While these performances are integral to the organizations’ identities, they play a specific role in black Greek culture—and they don’t necessarily apply outside of that realm. “People will ask us to come stroll or step at an event they’re having,” Sarah said, “and we have to be like, ‘we’re not a performing arts group.’ It means something to us, so it’s not so much like we show up and do this.”
While strolling and stepping are particularly visible, according to Amir it is important to note that they don’t encompass the entire black Greek experience. “Some people, I will say, in the culture, put a little bit too much emphasis on [strolling], because it’s shiny—it’s something that’s fun to do. And that’s something that’s a little looked down on—prioritizing that over chapter work, doing the real things, the service.”
Programming & Parties
For the most part, the service done by black Greek organizations is centered around the black community and is an integral part of the black Greek identity. “With a lot of MGC organizations,” Kwadwo outlined, “they’re very big on community service and programming.”
The Ques, Kwadwo explains, held a “Women’s Appreciation Week,” in which they organized events ranging from salsa dancing to self–defense classes to a “sit–down conversation about gender equality and women’s rights.” And in February, Kappa Alpha Psi hosted a week–long series of events which included a group discussion held in Steinberg–Dietrich Hall about the relationship between hip–hop and politics.
But, frats are still frats—they like to party.
Perhaps the most obvious factor distinguishing black Greek parties from other frat parties is the entry process. “When I came to Penn and heard of this ratio thing, it was kind of weird to me,” Kendall noted. “There’s no ratio [at black parties]—we don’t ever do that,” he stressed. Instead, many parties will charge at the door, with different prices depending on both time and gender. “They do charge women less,” Nailah added. “Inflation happens at midnight, and inflation is ridiculous.”
The most Kendall has ever seen someone pay is $45, which may seem steep, but on most weekend nights, there is only one party hosted by a black fraternity—and Penn students aren’t the only attendees. “If we’re throwing a party,” Kendall said, “and it’s going to be lit, we’ll have people coming from [University of the Sciences], Drexel and [Villanova].”
Moratorium & New "Intake" Process
Kwadwo didn’t join Omega Psi Phi until the spring 2016 semester—his final at Penn. Omega Psi Phi didn’t have a presence on campus at the time Kwadwo first wanted to join, so he was forced to wait things out.
Nailah was also forced to wait until the spring of her junior year to join her sorority of choice, Delta Sigma Theta. “It was pretty late,” she admitted. “Everyone tries to do it sophomore year because you’re not allowed to do it as a freshman, only because you don’t have enough credits.” Delta Sigma Theta in particular requires all members to have completed 24 credit hours.
Kwadwo and Nailah are not alone, however, in having to wait to join the black Greek chapter of their choice. A nationwide moratorium—an indefinite ban on new member intake—was imposed in 2015 by several organizations, including Kappa Alpha Psi and Delta Sigma Theta. Amir couldn’t join Kappa Alpha Psi until the spring of his junior year.
As part of the moratorium, national chapters revised and modified the process of selection and initiation of new members. While not much information was released to the public on what specific incidents sparked the moratorium, Amir and Nailah both believe the main culprit was hazing at other chapters. “You have different chapters in various organizations that do some stupid things, get caught, and it cripples everyone,” Amir explained.
It’s more difficult for black fraternities and sororities to deal with legal challenges than it is for their wealthier, “mainstream” or IFC and Panhellenic counterparts. “It comes down to resources and membership,” Amir said. “Because when you talk about numbers, and when you talk about the ability to battle lawsuits, unfortunately sometimes lawsuits cripple our organizations because lawyers are a lot of money.”
Finances affect the black Greek experience on Penn’s campus in other ways, too.
“One of the things we’re pushing for is to get some kind of a physical representation on campus,” Rio Dennis (C '19), a member of the sorority Zeta Phi Beta, explained. But houses are expensive, and her organization has fewer members than IFC and Panhellenic organizations.
Kendall’s Alpha dues are $100 a semester—markedly lower than that of any on–campus fraternity, without the chapters’ comparably small size being taken into consideration. “At the end of the day,” he pointed out frankly, “if [IFC fraternities] are taking kids on trips to go see the 76ers and we don’t have the money to do that…I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that’s how things are.”
With both dues and membership being smaller than those of IFC fraternities, many chapters rely on their graduate chapters for support. These graduate organizations help provide funding for chapter events, give advice and even give individualized support like sponsoring a chapter member’s trip to an expensive conference.
Anyone who graduates from a Divine Nine organization is expected to join a graduate chapter and support the organization as a “financial.” Should someone relocate, they can find a graduate chapter in their new area—the bonds and shared identity established through these groups last well beyond graduation.
As Kendall said, “It’s kind of like joining a church.”