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‘Burning Sands’ And Why I’m Glad I Pledged

I do not like the term “slave mentality.”

I believe it is a phrase used by people who have overdosed narcissism and hubris. I have never been a slave, and no matter how many slave journals I read, movies I watch and history I consume, I will never fully understand what it was like inside the mind of someone for whom freedom was a fictional idea.

I should preface this piece with two facts for the sake of openness:

  1. I spoke with the writer/director (Gerard McMurray), and Trevor Jackson,  the star of the Netflix movie Burning Sands a few days before it was released.
  2. I pledged.

Both things color how I viewed the movie, because the director is a member of my fraternity (Omega Psi Phi) and I value the lessons I learned when I pledged.

I liked the movie. I grow weary of the same slave narratives and white saviors that are often our only choices in movies. I liked that a black director was afforded a platform to make a movie that didn’t seek to explain itself or appeal to whiteness. I appreciated the fact that the movie told a story that is embedded in the black experience and shows black people as intelligent, diverse human beings without trying to fit in the context of whiteness. This is a story about us.

But it is just a story.

The filmmaker had a story to tell, and in all stories, there must be an antagonist–someone for the audience to root against. Simple-minded films usually make caricatures of the antagonist and present the foe as a nasty adversary with an evil laugh. We hate Deebo in Friday, White people in Get Out or the whoever the dark-skinned characters are in Tyler Perry movies. In more complex movies, the antagonist is more complex. Denzel was was hateable, but pitiful in Fences. In Moonlight society was the villain.

In Burning Sands the writer made pledging the antagonist. Hazing was the heinous adversary waiting in the dark to destroy the beloved protagonist. I understand this choice, because it made for a complicated theme. While I watched the movie, I hated everything they did to the characters, and it brought me closer to Zurich the protagonist. Whenever anyone tells me they didn’t like a movie because it made them angry, upset or sad about what happened in the movie, I tell them “but you cared, which makes the movie better than you think.” If you get emotionally wrapped up in a movie, then the movie has done its job.

There has already been much debate about the themes in this movie, specifically pledging and hazing. I have always believed that Greek-Letter organizations need to have this conversation. There is value on both sides of the debate.

On one side, many people feel that pledging is a remnant of a bygone era and has no place in organizations that touts service and leadership as their intent. They wonder why any of this extracurricular activity is needed to accomplish these goals. They view it as an unnecessary, dangerous tradition.

The other side believes that everyone has the choice to enter these organizations, and always have the opportunity to leave if they don’t agree with doing what it takes to get in. They believe pledging is a valuable tool for teaching and part of a centuries-old standard.

Both of these positions have merit and can be argued for days on end, but here’s the thing:

You shouldn’t use this movie for that debate.

The view of pledging that Burning Sands presents is a stereotypical, outsiders notion of what pledging is about. It is the equivalent of a sharp-toothed monster hiding under the bed in the conjured-up imaginings of a toddler. It is not real, and it does not belong as a citation source in a debate.

I pledged.

Hard.

Although I’m sure it has happened (and I bet the comments on this article will be rife with anecdotal stories), I have yet to see or meet anyone who was spit in their face as a pledge. This movie was about enduring torture and had nothing to do with the vast majority of pledging at fraternities around the country. It was intentionally brutal and reckless, for the sake of the movie. No one pledges a fraternity because of job opportunities or because the women like the frat brothers, and if they do, beatings don’t weeds these people out. That idea presented in this movie is an oft-perpetuated notion that has no basis in reality.

I actually don’t know why I wanted to be an Omega. When I was asked years ago, I’m sure I said something about service and brotherhood, but the truth is, I can’t answer that question any more than anyone can tell their soul mate why they love them. It wasn’t because my high school coach was a Que (he was) or I hated the color red (I always have, ask my mama). I just always wanted to be an Omega, so I did it.

And I pledged.

I’ve always believed that a pledge process is the physical manifestation of the trials of life, and that’s what most organizations try to do. If I go to class without studying for a test, I get an F. If I go to a pledge meeting  without studying, I do pushups. If I mess up at work, I will be reprimanded. The same is true for pledging.

I won’t lie and say there are misguided, brutal incidents of hazing that happen every year, because that would be disingenuous. I don’t even know if I agree with placing the life of young men in the hands of 18-22 year-olds and hoping everything goes right. I understand the arguments against hazing and pledging, and I know I am biased, but I think using Burning Sands as an example in the debate about pledging is like talking to a professor about the historical and psychological implications of the institution of slavery, and when the professor asks where you got your information from, you respond:

“I watched Roots.”

Pledging as an undergraduate is spending  24-hours a day, 7 days a week focused on one goal. It is pushing your physiological and psychological gas tank to “empty” and realizing you have a little more left in the reserve tank. It is learning to balance school, work and life inside of an all-consuming objective. It was my basic training and my personal gauntlet. It gave me a bond with friends that I will have for the rest of my life. It was fun, difficult, exhausting, trying funny, exciting, scary and satisfying. Most people who have been through it will say it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done in life, they are glad they did it, and they would NEVER do it again.

And:

It kills people. It is stupid. It is unnecessary. It is dangerous. Every organization who does it needs to re-examine itself.

I know those statements sound hypocritical, but they aren’t. As a child, my mother whipped my butt whenever I did something wrong and it made me a better person. Yet I couldn’t lay a hand on my child and I don’t believe in corporal punishment. Both things are true–even if they seem diametrically opposed to each other.

We should have this debate. I even think that people outside these organizations have a right to their opinions. But, just as I don’t give weight to the opinions of people who give legal advice based on the fact that they have watched 2,029,202 episodes of Law & Order, I cannot have a fact-based dialogue based on a fictional character in a made-up movie. I look at the people debating this online with the same skeptical side-eye I give when white people give me their opinion on what black people need to do to help themselves. Yes, I am biased, and I admit that.

But my biases comes from real life. I have hiked 75 miles and climbed 2 mountains in the hot Mexican wilderness for weeks with nothing but the 50-plus pound backpack on my back. When I am harshly criticized or reprimanded, I don’t take it as a personal attack, or whine about how they “must not like me.” There are many days when my family, professional and artistic commitments overwhelm me and I have to perform without rest or sleep in over 48 hours. I remember when Darren Wilson was cleared by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, and I believed I had an obligation to go there. I went there to talk to the protesters, citizens and angry people. It was a day before Thanksgiving, and I wanted to get back to my family. I shopped for Thanksgiving groceries less than a mile from where Mike Brown was killed. I put them in my trunk and headed home. When I was a few miles outside of town, it began blizzard snowing. I couldn’t tell the road from the white, Missouri and Indiana fields. Only one lane was passable, and it was icy. Every few miles I would skid, I had no sleep, and then… the heater stopped working. I was so cold I had to alternate driving with one hand while I kept the other in my pocket. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of the car, it was skidding on ice, and I had a ten-hour drive in front of me, and I hadn’t slept since two days before. But I love spending time with my family, so I had to get home and make Thanksgiving dinner. When I arrived home, I didn’t think I deserved any applause or praise. I just thought of it as the path I had chosen, and though it was scary, cold and tiring as fuck, I didn’t whine, or focus on how daunting or difficult the task might be, because I knew one thing:

I pledged.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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