CWR Student’s Forum
Branding – A Burning Passion
By Dervedia Thomas
Branding is an undeniable part of the experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Everyone has either seen someone with a brand and been mortified, thought of getting one or felt the heat themselves. Senior history major Genesis Peterson who is part of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc, has felt the heat 19 times. He has brands on his back, both sides of his shoulders, his hips and both his wrists; one of which is dedicated to a deceased member of his chapter.
Many persons see this act as barbaric or simply gross. Most of the National Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO’s) including the Omegas have even publicly distanced themselves from this practice and underscore that it does not form part of their official rituals. Fraternity members however, say it is a personal choice that shows their devotion to the organization and that legitimizes their membership.
“When I first came out I was just so excited to be an Omega,” said Peterson. “It was a goal that I always wanted to attain, and once I got here, I crossed, had my coming out show; I was wearing the shirts and doing everything I was supposed to, but it just didn’t feel real to me until I made it legit. The brand to me signified, OK Genesis; you’re really an Omega now.”
Students pledging Greek organizations gain not just membership, but a new family which they often refer to as brothers or sisters. This bond is something he says he has never experienced.
“Before I pledged, I knew a lot of people, but I never really had any close friends. Omegas are about friendship. When two Omegas see each other, were just ecstatic, the way we greet each other and we just saw each other yesterday. It has also enabled me to become friends with people that I would probably have never talked to.”
Branding is a second degree burn inflicted by a heated iron. In this case, it is a clothes hanger twisted in the form of an Omega that is pressed on the skin for about five seconds. The person inflicting the burn is often called a Hit Master and many fraternity members even have parties where branding is done.
“My first brand was on my chest,” he explained. “This one actually hurt and right before he branded me I could see the hair on my chest burn and then I saw all the smoke from my skin come up to my face and I smelled my skin burning. It puts you in the mind-set of all the atrocities that happen in the world like people being burned by the stake or just being burned period because of dumb stuff people did then.”
When asked if he had any second thoughts before the brand was placed on his skin he said, “I was like, why the heck am I doing the dumb s@&#, but I was thinking this is actually something I want. It’s just like with anything in life, you’re going to do some stupid stuff to get what you want but at the end of the day you’ve got to think is it worth it, and to me it is.”
After getting the brand, many persons try to intensify the scar by itching it lightly or gently rubbing it with a loofah sponge as it begins to heal. Peterson, who became a member in the spring of 2008 said he used to hit them despite the excruciating pain that it caused to intensify the scar. Healing isn’t easy either. The brands on his hip forced him to sleep sitting down for a month and even interfered with his ability to have intercourse.
Critics of procedure are not limited to non Greeks. According to the book “African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision” by Clarenda M. Phillips, members are often confronted by other members with the idea that branding is associated with cattle and slavery. The author cites the Black code of 1685 which states that slaves were punished by branding for unlawful assembly or escape. A few fraternity members including Ulysees Horn who emphatically stated that he disagrees with the practice, were interviewed in this book. “These guys take it on themselves,” he said. “They think that that’s the only way you can be a real Q which is asinine…I just don’t believe that you need to disfigure your body. But if it’s something that people get a kick out of, fine.”
Men are not the only Greek members who engage in branding, while it is more taboo, Phillips explains that there has been a marked increase in women being branded after the 1990’s, with the upper thigh and bikini line being the more popular locations.
Despite the criticism, branding has a history of its own in the Omega culture. According to the ’08 member, [Peterson] during World War I, members could not be identified when their bodies came back from war. As such he said, many were not given the Omega funeral as is customary. As a result, “brothers” were branded on their torsos in case their limbs were blown off. Peterson also pointed out that branding was a ritual done in Africa to symbolize manhood.
To avoid discrimination in professional settings, his 19 brands which coincide with his line number, are not visible in a long sleeved shirt. He acknowledges that his brands could cause discrimination from potential employers and also deter other people from approaching him.
“If you look back in history, we as human beings, what we don’t understand we fear, but if you have an understanding of Greek life you will know; we love what we love.”