Some members of black Greek letter organizations voluntarily scar themselves by branding. Understanding this ritual requires going beyond the brand’s physical form and examining the personal and organizational narrative histories that often accompany it. As participants in a ongoing dialogue about what branding means today, fraternity members informally negotiate with brothers who do not support branding, family members who struggle with what it means to their own group identity, and most importantly, popular culture, which holds negative associations. The men who undergo branding, however, invert the narratives that explain branding as a mark of ownership and slavery and insist on defining its meaning for themselves.
Sam Ryan, Warren Dews, and Richard Pierre belong to the Epsilon Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a black Greek letter organization founded at Howard University in 1911. The Epsilon Chapter followed not long after in 1919 to serve African American men studying at New York City–area universities (Ryan 2004). Ryan, Dews, and Pierre are in their thirties, college-educated, and community-minded. Each of them bears between four and ten Omegas branded onto various parts of their bodies.
... If not the unrestrained imprudence of youth, what do these brands signify?
The Aesthetics of Branding
Dews bears brands on each of his arms, two designs created with a total of four “hits” of the iron. On his left arm, two omegas intersect in what some call the Blood Link or Friend-over-Friend pattern. Both the names and the form reinforce the idea of a deep connection between fraternity brothers...
From left: Fraternity members Sam Ryan, Richard Pierre, Alex Hoag, and Warren Dews, Jr., proudly display their brands. Photo: Sandra Mizumoto Posey
Branding is an unpredictable process. Some wearers prefer raised scars, such as those on Dews; others do not. Members sometimes try to guide the brand into the desired result by either purposely interrupting the healing process to create a keloid (by picking off scabs), or by cleansing the wound carefully on a regular basis in hopes of creating a flat scar. Unfortunately, how one scars is almost entirely genetically determined, and these methods can affect the resulting scar only minimally at best.
The other factor that determines the form of the resulting brand is the skill of the brander.... Expert branders combine a steady hand with careful touchup hits if necessary, but when poorly done, these touchups can add to the unevenness of the brand instead of fixing it. The person being branded must also be able to keep perfectly still during what can be a painful process.
The final result, which can be judged only much later, after the wound has completely healed, is thus determined by the intersection between biology and artistry....
Branding, however, is a complex art form that is half material and half incorporeal. To analyze it, we must go beyond its physical form and understand the personal and organizational narrative histories that often accompany it. For Ryan, the development of his appreciation for branding, and his understanding of what it means to him, began early:
I learned about the fraternity by seeing brands. My mentor at the Boys Club ... the way his shirt [was] rolled up, you could see his brands. He was initiated in 1954. As a kid growing up from the age of six on, that’s all I would see and I would ask about it and he’d say, “Well, if you go to college, I’ll tell you more about it.”...
Following in his mentor’s footsteps included joining the same fraternity, being branded, and later becoming a director for the Boys Club in New York.... Branding swells thick with meaning, literally and physically embodying membership in the organization, the organization’s commitment to community service, and admiration for a particular individual. After being branded, the body is transformed physically to enter a new psychic space. Narratives enter to bridge the gap and explain to others what the transformation represents. They embody personal histories and organizational histories and are constructed and reconstructed to define what branding means. Ryan’s personal branding history complements and reinforces the organizational branding history that he considers the most viable.
Slavery versus Agency
...by pushing aside the narrative histories that tie branding to marks of ownership and slavery, Pierre asserts that the association and its attendant meaning simply doesn’t fit:
Everyone has their own opinion. And the argument that slaves got branded, well, slaves didn’t get branded. They were branded. They did not have a choice. This is a choice we have, that we make. I mean, we could make the argument, slaves didn’t go to college. But they weren’t allowed to go to college. To be part of this organization, you must meet the requirements. You have to have been attending or going to college or have attended college and have a certain GPA...
For Pierre, branding is wrapped up in the idea of association, achievement, and agency. Members are quick to name the many extraordinary individuals who were Omegas...The ability to choose for oneself, and to disallow outsiders to dictate your behavior or what it means, is central to the ability to self-represent one’s identity and to achieve the oft-unrecognized potential of the black male.
There is no known record of the history of the practice among Omega members, nor is there one narrative that dominates or enjoys consensus. In fact, the governing body of Omega Psi Phi makes an effort to distance itself by formally denying that branding has any place in the organization....
The most familiar narratives constructed by outsiders involve the branding of slaves to denote ownership and relegate the slave to a status more animal than human. Of late, branding has also become a practice associated with neotribalists, an often-marginalized group interested in preserving and promoting the tribal values of earlier eras. Common practices within this subculture include tattooing, piercing, cutting, and branding, which are rarely viewed positively by outsiders—much as tattoos were once associated with motorcycle gangs and dissolute sailors.
Media narratives about branding are even more striking. For example, in the science fiction series Stargate: SG1 (2003), human males are used by a parasitic alien race as incubators for their young. The brand here is a mark of ownership, and as such it indicates the bearer’s primary worth in this society as a vehicle rather than as a sentient being in his own right. Interestingly, the symbol used by one of the alien contingents is the Japanese-Chinese character for “within” or “inside,” underscoring their men’s status as mere carriers.
In his DVD commentary on School Daze (1988), Spike Lee (1991) states that the Gammas were his conflation of the worst characteristics of all the African American fraternities. He makes no secret of his disdain for these organizations: “It always amazed me, the amount of abuse and punishment people put up with just to belong to a group, to any organization. Broken limbs, I mean they will fuck you up, just hit you with paddles, all types of stuff, just so they can belong to an organization.” Lee’s film places branding in the African American fraternity context, but his particular perspective is evident. The significant keloid brand is sexualized and visible only on the most unethical character in the entire film. It evokes the stereotype of the black man as overly sexual and dangerous.
...Public acceptance of brands as a positive statement or work of art seems almost impossible. Stories about the perils of hazing and the pain and cruelty often associated with these rituals appeal to people for the same reason that reality shows and Jerry Springer do: by viewing these spectacles, viewers define themselves by what they are not...to be civilized and avoid challenging existing worldviews, people need barbarians to compare themselves with.
Jerry Springer may or may not be helping society achieve greater insight into human nature, but in the media, some headway is being made. When well-respected public figures such as Michael Jordan appear with brands, the ritual becomes associated more with the perceived character of the bearer. bell hooks, however, argues that Jordan ... is “the quintessential symbol of the fetishized eroticized black male body” (hooks 1995: 207), dehumanizing himself by appearing in cartoons, his photographic image juxtaposed with animated characters...
...As members of Omega Psi Phi, Warren Dews, Sam Ryan, and Richard Pierre represent thousands more who take it upon themselves to challenge media narratives with personal ones, allowing only themselves to define what branding is and who they are. It is they who “release the black male body and let it live again.”
Sandra Mizumoto Posey (www.americanfolk.com) is an assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary General Education Department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She received her Ph.D. in folklore and mythology at UCLA. Previous publications include Rubber Soul: Rubber Stamps and Correspondence Art (1996), part of the University Press of Mississippi’s folk art and artists series.
The final result, which can be judged only much later, after the wound has completely healed, is thus determined by the intersection between biology and artistry.
Interviews with Ryan, Dews, and Pierre were conducted at the Omega Psi Phi Grand Conclave in Los Angeles during summer 1996.
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This article, that we have excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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