On Nov. 4, the United States saw a shift in world history with its election of the first African-American president. The U.S. president, arguably the most powerful person in the world, has “historically” been an old, upper-class, white male. Many Americans never dreamed that the day would come when an African-American would hold this title because “historically,” minorities have experienced oppression and discrimination often supported by government officials and political leaders — including presidents. In fact, most of the early presidents were slave-owners themselves.
So should Barack Obama be exiled from the black community for accepting a position that has “historically” been racist against blacks? Of course not.
Yet, here on campus, one student organization has come under fire from some in the black community because its president chose to join an organization that was “historically” racist against students of color.
For over five years, the Black Volunteer Network has actively contributed to Black Welcome Week. But this summer, the community service-based organization found itself alienated from all Black Welcome Week-sponsored events because of its president’s membership in Order of Angell, a society of campus leaders previously known as Michigamua. This past summer, in a Salem Witch Hunt-esque town hall meeting, Gabrielle Sims — a senior in the Ross School of Business and the president of BVN — pleaded with several black leaders on campus to allow her organization to be recognized as a Black Welcome Week participant.
Eligible members of organizations participating in Black Welcome Week took part in a formal vote, and the final decision was that the Black Welcome Week committee would not endorse BVN.
The society formerly known as Michigamua has been a controversial subject on campus since it came under fire for its use of Native American rituals and artifacts in secret but integral parts of its ceremonies. Since then, the organization has repudiated such offensive practices, publicly disclosed the names of its members and changed its name in order to salvage its reputation and represent its move toward less offensive, more sensitive practices.
Cordaye Ogletree, the speaker of the Black Student Union and an LSA junior, explained his group’s criticisms of the group this way: “The Black Student Union does not support historically racist student organizations like Order of Angell because of their secrecy and their refusal to be a completely open and transparent organization.”
It is completely understandable that black students would be outraged by the disrespectful past of Michigamua, its successor Order of Angell and its members. But completely exiling a whole organization created to uplift the black community because of one person’s affiliation is divisive and detrimental to an already underrepresented community on campus.
In an evolving nation where a black man has been elected to the highest level of leadership in the country, it is disheartening to know that many black students often feel as if they are forced to choose between loyalty to their ethnicity and loyalty to their professional ambitions.
If black students at the University are ostracized for joining organizations that have past ties to racism and discrimination, then are black students at this school traitors to the black community because we opted to give thousands of dollars to a historically white institution rather than historically black colleges and universities? Are black families that move from the inner city into suburban areas selfish because their tax dollars are being spent to enhance an already advantaged community? Are black women who choose to join Delta Delta Delta over Delta Sigma Theta (the largest black sorority) any less black because of their affiliation?
Echoing Ogletree’s concerns about Order of Angell, Brandon Littlejohn, an LSA and School of Music senior and the president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., Epsilon Chapter, told me, “You cannot claim to serve us and we not have any say in how we are being served or how we are being helped.”
Brandon has a great point. But how do we have a say if we completely excommunicate ourselves from organizations that have been misguided? We miss out on teachable moments and opportunities to evoke change. We limit the possibilities to educate the broader society on the issues important in our community because we cannot simply expect to impact an organization if we don’t individually help make internal changes.
As Sims explained to me, this was the opportunity Order of Angell presented. “Order of Angell has given me a forum to improve campus by branching away from a segregated university community and by facilitating campus synergy,” she said.
At many white universities, black students were not allowed to live in on-campus housing and thus formed their own social organizations, like historically black fraternities and sororities, so that they could support one another. But now, as more and more leadership opportunities are opening up for black students in traditionally white institutions, we should use this as an opportunity to restructure a system that has negatively displaced African-Americans.
As black students, we should always strive to help progress the black community, but we cannot progress the community when we only discuss our problems among each other. The only way we can accomplish this is by knocking down walls and turning communal black issues into larger societal issues, even if this means we have to do it through organizations that have historically turned us away.
Shakira Smiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.