Black Fraternal Organizations: Systems, Secrecy, and Solace
Posted: 3 Aug 2017
Date Written: July 25, 2017
Fraternal organizations hold a storied place in the Western world. Sometimes romanticized and occasionally framed as malevolent and controlling forces, fraternal organizations are often thought to influence, if not rule, the social order from the shadows. Membership in these organizations is often simultaneously revered and misunderstood. The reverence toward these organizations is both a product and a cause of recent popular cultural fascination with the secret world of fraternal orders. For example, the 2006 film The Good Shepherd portrayed Matt Damon's character's coming of age via the Yale University secret society “Skull and Bones,” all against the backdrop of the burgeoning Cold War and McCarthyism. Dan Brown's recent books qua films (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and The Lost Symbol) follow Tom Hanks' character “Harvard Professor Robert Langdon” and his attempts to disentangle the web of deceit and manipulation that supposedly characterize secret fraternal organizations from the Freemasons and Illuminati to the Knights Templar and Rosicrucian Order. Reflecting popular intrigue, U.S. News & World Report released a “collector's edition” entitled “Mysteries of History: Secret Societies” in 2011. The editors surreptitiously alleged similarities between Freemasons, the Chinese Triad, and Al Qaeda, but went on to write, “In fact, even though secret societies in general have gained a reputation as a pernicious influence, a subsection of them have at times played a beneficial role in human history. This is particularly true in the case of fraternal orders” (Bernstein 2011, p. 7).
With such varied, sensationalist, and mystified discourse surrounding fraternal organizations — all coupled with the hot button topic of race in the Age of Obama — what is one to make of the curious case of Black Fraternal Organizations (BFOs)? Groups like African American fraternities and sororities (also known as “Black Greek Letter Organizations” or “BGLOs”), Prince Hall Freemasonry, and various iterations of black church groups, together suffer a dichotomous fate. On one hand, to most mainstream eyes, these groups come into focus through a particularly narrow lens. They exist as leftovers of a by-gone age that “self-segregate” and thereby perpetuate racial antagonism; they are self-serving and loutish elitists that represent the worst of both the “Talented Tenth” (Du Bois 1903) and the “Black Bourgeoisie” (Frazier 1957); they are strange and bizarre fundamentalists and hucksters hostile to intellectual inquiry and free thought, and/or they are little more than “educated gangs” (cf. Hughey 2008). Such distortions are counter-balanced by an equally radical viewpoint. For many, black masons, black fraternalists, or black churchgoers do not occupy their social world — they and their contributions are simply invisibilized. We have witnessed disbelief from others upon hearing that 95 % of churches today are racially segregated (DeYoung 2004); we have frequently heard young white college students (ironically while sporting t-shirts emblazoned with their own Greek letter paraphernalia) to remark, “What? There are black fraternities?” And in regard to Freemasonry, many white lodges either do not know about, or refuse to recognize, Prince Hall masons (the black arm of masonry since the late 1700s) as an integral part of their worldwide fraternal order. Despite this double-edged predicament, BFOs are slowly gaining entrée into the mainstream and are recovering an image of themselves as a heterogeneous and varied collection of organizations across the political spectrum: from African Methodist Episcopal and ethnic-based Black churches' (e.g., West Indian, West African, etc.) recent public offers of sanctuary to undocumented residents, to the 2010 National Heritage Museum's exhibitions of Prince Hall Freemason history. With uneven, yet important, steps forward, BFOs are now staking their claim as important social and civic institutions. How they have been portrayed in scholarship is another matter.
Keywords: Black Greek Letter Organizations, BGLOs, Black Fraternal Organizations
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