On a chilly evening early this March, around 50 people gathered at the Afro-American Cultural Center, talking excitedly among themselves. Some of them were Yale students, others from neighboring universities, and a group of them were older African-American men from across the Northeast who had arrived to celebrate the “coming out” of one of their own. It was the probate show of Leonard Thomas ’14, the first and, as of now, only Yale student to be inducted into the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity since the last active brothers graduated in 2010.
A probate — a term primarily used among African-American fraternities — is the ceremony in which a pledge comes out to his friends, family and brothers as a member of the group. Both a party and a ritual, the event generally attracts a large number of the fraternity’s alumni, who are eager to demonstrate their support for a new brother. Most attendees do not know the new member’s identity until the official “unveiling,” adding to the mystique and excitement of the affair. At Thomas’ show he performed a step dance, recited information about the fraternity’s history and greeted other Greek organizations in the audience. It was the final stage in a rigorous process that he had been undergoing since the fall.
“Some probates are better than others,” Thomas said, reluctant to reveal details. “But either way, it’s the moment when you present yourself. It was the unveiling of me: my way of saying, ‘That’s who I am.’”
Alpha Phi Alpha is one of three cultural fraternities that have resurfaced on campus this semester, all considered to be outside Yale’s more mainstream Greek life. The two others are Kappa Alpha Psi (KAP) — also an African-American fraternity — and La Unidad Latina, a Latino fraternity also known as Lambda Upsilon Lambda (LUL). These three groups were all once active at Yale until recent years, but inconsistent participation, along with the graduation of key members, led to a halt in their activities.
While the organizations have experienced cycles of both high and low membership, one of their major points of appeal for the current brothers has been their long history on campus. The oldest, Alpha Phi Alpha, was originally established at Yale in 1909, just three years after its first chapter was founded at Cornell University. Kappa Alpha Psi followed shortly, in 1911. La Unidad Latina, which celebrated its 21st chapter anniversary this Thursday, is the youngest of the trio. As of their re-emergence this semester, Alpha and Kappa at Yale have one member each, while La Unidad Latina has three.
Many of the emerging groups are closely affiliated with existing cultural houses, such as the Af-Am House and La Casa Cultural, the Latino center. But within these organizations, students have expressed mixed feelings about the re-emergence of these fraternities and sororities. Those at the helm of the initiatives are excited about what a cultural Greek life can offer to minorities on campus — a stronger alumni network, additional lines of support, role models with similar backgrounds. But others are hesitant to place their support behind groups with the potential to cause divisions within cultural houses and existing social dynamics. For better or for worse, the sudden reappearance of these formerly dormant cultural fraternities signals a shift in the way minorities at Yale self-identify and interact with one another.
“It’s a wonderful coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time,” said Will Genova ’15, president of the Yale chapter of La Unidad Latina. “It makes you wonder, ‘Why now?’”
This Sunday, the brothers of La Unidad Latina gathered in the Branford dining room for their weekly brunch. The meetings, which are open to the entire Yale community, are designed to introduce the brothers to the greater campus population, Genova said. That morning, two of the three LUL brothers at Yale, Genova and Alejandro Jimenez ’14, were in attendance, along with four Latina students. About 15 minutes past noon, a young man walked into the room and was immediately greeted by Genova and Jimenez, who rose to shake the man’s hand and pull up a seat for him.
“Have you had breakfast?” Jimenez asked. “We could swipe you in.”
“No, I’m good. I’m meeting somebody later.”
The man was Jamil Abreu ’08, a brother of La Unidad Latina at Yale from 2004 to 2008, the last year the fraternity had been active on campus. Now a New Haven resident, Abreu is active in the process of reviving the group and continues to be a mentor to undergraduate brothers, Genova said, citing him as an example of the expansive cultural Greek network. Genova and Jimenez, who are both impressed by the support they are receiving from alumni, said the intimate size of the group makes the bond between brothers stronger than in mainstream Greek fraternities.
Jimenez traveled to Providence, R.I., over spring break for his friend’s probate. Following a brief conversation, one of the brothers immediately offered a ride for him and a few of his friends. This gesture of generosity bolstered Jimenez’s belief in La Unidad Latina’s far-reaching presence outside of Yale.
“Our motto is ‘Para Siempre’ [Spanish for ‘forever’] — not ‘Para Undergrad,’” Genova quipped. This summer, he will be interning at PBS in Washington, D.C., where he will receive guidance from a LUL brother who helped him prepare for the job interview. Both Genova and Jimenez said it has been valuable for them to have mentors who have also undergone the experience of being a minority at an elite college.
For Wesley Dixon ’15, the Yale student responsible for bringing Kappa Alpha Psi back after its last member graduated in 2010, the fraternity has been an important part of his upbringing. The son of a former Kappa Alpha Psi member, Dixon grew up surrounded by many of his father’s friends, who were also involved in the fraternity as undergraduates. They were the men he looked up to the most, so becoming a part of their brotherhood felt natural to him.
On the day Dixon was initiated, March 14, his father and a group of the fraternity’s alumni came to participate in the celebration, as was the case with Thomas’ probate. Those who could not make it to the event called Dixon with their congratulations, and others sent him gifts such as letterman jackets and bow ties in crimson and cream, the fraternity’s colors.
History plays a large role, both in choosing a fraternity and completing the membership process, according to brothers from all three of the revived cultural fraternities. They were all attracted to the groups’ enduring traditions, as opposed to an affiliation to a traditional fraternity or a cultural house that ends upon college graduation.
“[One reason for membership] may be the lifelong association that is cherished so often by members of these groups,” said Rodney Cohen, the director of the Af-Am House. “This is not totally unique, but it is much more pronounced among black Greek fraternities.”
But for some who are outside of these circles, the fraternities’ histories can be alienating rather than appealing. Kadeem Yearwood ’15, a member of the Yale Black Men’s Union and Sigma Chi — a fraternity not affiliated with a specific cultural group — said he had not considered African-American fraternities as a freshman because as a “black Brit,” the tradition had not existed for him growing up.
“The rituals of the Divine Nine [the name for the national council of African-American Greek letter groups] are much more secretive than those of any other frat or sorority on this campus,” Yearwood said. “I don’t feel as comfortable with it because I don’t have that tradition from my family.”
Denzil Bernard ’15, a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon at Yale, said while the idea of an African-American fraternity was appealing, his cursory understanding of their history and their low profile on campus made them less salient to him when he was rushing groups this February. Yearwood acknowledged that it would have been too difficult for him to be the only Yale member of a revived group, which is the case for both Thomas and Dixon.
In Thomas’ opinion, the impact of cultural fraternity membership goes beyond mere family tradition and addresses racial grievances as a whole.
“No one can teach me how to be a black man except a black man,” he remarked. “I have mentors who are not black, and while I value my relationships with them, I can never ask them, ‘Where can I get a haircut from?’” On a deeper level, he added, this meant receiving advice on how to present himself during job interviews or at work from day to day, where people’s perceptions of him might be inextricably linked to his race.
FROM GENTLEMAN TO BROTHER
When a brother is officially inducted into a cultural fraternity, he is considered “crossed.” The moniker is not one that is taken lightly: In order to be initiated, prospective members have to undergo a process that several interviewed described as more intense than those for traditional Greek organizations. For many, the path towards brotherhood begins with gathering as much information about the organization as possible, from filling in an application to discussing the group’s ideologies with members past and present.
From there, pledges partake in activities designed to demonstrate their devotion to the fraternity or sorority. One Latino student, Harry, who asked that his name be changed given his work for La Casa, withdrew from the process early on because he thought the rush requirements reflected an exclusionary environment within La Unidad Latina.
For two to three months, Harry said, pledges were required to wear a uniform indicating their affiliation with La Unidad Latina. During this time, they also promised that they would not speak to anyone outside of LUL, in a sense placing themselves under a contract of voluntary social prohibition. While they were undergoing these tests, they were referred to by the brothers as “caballeros” — gentlemen. After they crossed, however, they were officially “hermanos”: brothers.
“All [the brothers] talk about now is La Unidad Latina,” Harry said. “I’m afraid that there’s already a divide between the Greeks and non-Greeks.” He felt uncomfortable with the specific steps that had been prescribed by the national fraternity, because he thought they advocated uniformity, which seemed counterintuitive to the goal of celebrating diversity.
When the hermanos crossed over on March 2, they held a party at La Casa that was open to the entire Yale community. However, Harry said non-Greeks in attendance did not only feel excluded from the celebration, but also uneasy about its representations of Latino masculinity.
“We were told it would be a party for everyone,” he said. “But it was very clear that the event was actually for La Unidad Latina brothers and Yale girls, who were subject to some very aggressive behaviors.” Harry described the brothers as “predatory,” noting that they spent the night dancing with the female students and were dismissive of the nonbrothers in attendance.
As Latina students explore their own options in regards to a Latina sorority, some prospective pledges have expressed similar trepidations about the process. Sarah, who was involved with a push to bring Lambda Pi Phi back to campus, said concerns over rush traditions caused her to withdraw from that effort. (Her name has been changed for this article given her current work in forming a different Latina sorority with many of the same people who previously expressed interest in Lambda Pi Phi.)
“People on this campus still have conversations about cultural houses and whether they should be around,” Sarah said. “People are still concerned about self-segregation and the allocation of special resources to some and not to others. I felt like the exclusivity of Lambda Pi Phi’s pledge process perpetuated these stereotypes, and I didn’t want to be involved with something that would exacerbate the negativity toward La Casa.”
As with La Unidad Latina, Sarah said Lambda Pi Phi’s rush procedures would have required her to take certain actions that differentiated her from the rest of the student body, such as dressing in a uniform attire with other pledges. She had been uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to herself — had the requirements been more “low-key,” she said, she might have continued with the process.
Yearwood also attributed the low membership numbers within African-American fraternities at Yale to a challenging recruitment process, which might forge a tight bond between pledges but alienates those who are intimidated by its demands.
“Most people regard the level of hazing involved in black fraternities as much higher than that of any other frat on campus,” he said. “It may just be a stereotype, but I’ve heard that they hit their pledges with a paddle. A lot of the stereotype is that it’s much more severe.”
When asked whether Alpha Phi Alpha hazed its pledges, Thomas laughed. “There’s absolutely no hazing involved,” he said. “Hazing is illegal!” He described stigmas as a consequence of the perception that the fraternities are isolating or separatist in nature. While entry into these organizations is open to male students of all races, Thomas acknowledged that cultural Greek life may exude a tone of exclusivity.
In the days leading up to and following their crossover on March 2, the brothers of La Unidad Latina wore their fraternity letters with pride. Their Facebook profiles were covered with photos of them posing in white T-shirts with Lambda Upsilon Lambda emblazoned in brown and gold. Jimenez’s cover photo is an image of the three Yale brothers posing with two other members, arms around each other’s shoulders and palms up with thumbs, middle and index fingers raised.
About a month later, an anonymous posting appeared on Rump Chat, the campus tabloid blog. The submission read: “That new frat on campus is basically three guys wearing the same hoodie and taking photos with hand signs. It’s basically the college equivalent of a gang.”
Shortly after the message was posted and before it was removed by Rump Chat moderators that same day, it circulated widely among members of the Yale Latino community. Online Yalies, in particular, were quick to respond to the thinly veiled slur. Tumblr users, including Heidi Guzman ’14, pointed out the discriminatory undertones of aligning Latino men with gang life.
“What bothers me is that this person probably knows what the group actually is: They know it’s a frat, and they know it’s people of color,” Guzman said at brunch this Sunday with the brothers. “It’s just racist.”
The brothers nodded in agreement. Their fraternity was no different, they said, from any of the other Greek organizations on campus: Sororities such as Kappa Alpha Theta and Pi Beta Phi, for instance, are also known for having signature hand signs.
“Honestly, it’s just bigotry,” Sarah said. “When I saw the post I thought, ‘It’s so interesting you chose “gangs” to describe a group of Latino boys — if it were a group of white, WASP-y boys, would you have said the same thing?’” It was clear to her that the comment had been made in contempt not of fraternity life in general, but of La Unidad Latina.
Beyond this particular controversy, there is the larger question of whether Yale’s campus is “ready” for full-fledged cultural Greek life, as fraternity brothers of all stripes have expressed uncertainty about whether the newly re-established fraternities will be able to sustain themselves past the college graduation of their founders.
The three members of La Unidad Latina have set themselves apart from the rest of La Casa, Harry said, noting that the brothers strongly believe that Greek life is essential to the strength of the Latino community and that it has begun to dominate their conversations. Both he and Sarah expressed a concern that cultural Greek life would threaten relationships previously founded on the Latino students’ mutual connection to La Casa. Harry’s fears are tinted with a mixture of nostalgia and pride — as someone who has invested a large portion of his college life in La Casa, he is protective of the progress they have made in the time since the Latino fraternity was dissolved in 2008.
“Of course we respect and care about them, but it gets complicated when there’s a potential for conflict,” he said. “I fear it will take a long time to adjust to the addition of this fraternity, and that in the meantime it will be harmful to the existing framework.”
He paused and then added, “We’ve come so far without them here.”
Two years ago, the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi celebrated the centennial of their fraternity’s founding. Members came out in the thousands to Indiana University Bloomington, where the first chapter of the organization was formed. It was both a pilgrimage and a reunion.
Around that time, an article published in Uptown magazine, a publication for affluent African-Americans, questioned the development of black fraternities over the decades, pointing to the hazing and abuse controversies that have cast a shadow on the groups’ storied histories. The piece called on the fraternities to return to the guiding principles outlined by their founders, to commune with their culture rather than with the “antics” that had come to dominate their membership process. It asked the question: “Are they fulfilling their legacy?”
The article stirred national discussion about the racial politics of black Greek letter groups. The writer of the piece was a former Alpha Phi Alpha brother, and just a year before, he had been hired as the director of Yale’s Af-Am House. Today, Dean Rodney Cohen stands by his belief in African-American fraternities as a vehicle for social advocacy and leadership.
Cohen also pointed to the rich history of leadership in African-American fraternities. He noted, for instance, that two of the three founders of the Af-Am House were members of Alpha at Yale. He ended his article with a powerful invocation: “In the religious world, Christians often ask WWJD, ‘What would Jesus do?’ It is now time for black fraternities to ask WWFD — ‘What would the founders do?’”
“Black Greek letter fraternities have had their challenges like most college-based fraternities, but these organizations have led the way in producing outstanding leaders and change agents in society,” Cohen said in an interview with the News, citing Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Benjamin E. Mays as examples of notable alumni. Cohen emphasized the importance of service efforts as a way of breaking down the organizations’ dubious public image, which he said in his article has descended in recent decades to that of “quasi-gangs.”
For the brothers of La Unidad Latina, the group’s new beginning presents an opportunity for them to rewrite the misconceptions of their own past, which are similar to some of the negative associations miring African-American fraternities. The Rump Chat post was indicative to Jimenez of a larger problem surrounding La Unidad Latina’s reputation.
“It’s upsetting that that’s their first impression of the group,” he said. “But it’s up to us to show them that we’re more than that.” As with Cohen’s idea for African-American fraternities, the solution begins with service.
During the initial informational sessions Genova attended, he was inspired by the impact that the brothers of La Unidad Latina had made on the Latino community on campus. The “hermanos” had founded many Latino student groups, such as the Dominican Students’ Association and Amigos, a mentorship program for at-risk New Haven public school students. He saw their legacy as one that transcends not only racial barriers, but also the constraints of college life.
The future survival of these newly re-established groups rests not on the enthusiasm of current brothers, but rather on their ability to attract new and constant membership. Jimenez acknowledged that La Unidad Latina would not be able to call itself an active fraternity unless it continues to thrive long after they are gone.
“I don’t think we’ve been revived yet,” he explained. “If there’s no one else after [the current brothers] leave, then we didn’t do our job.”