“These are the times that try men’s souls.” This simple quotation from Founding Father Thomas Paine’s The Crisis was the response that my own father gave when I called him to ask what he thought about the current situation going on at Florida A&M University (FAMU). Dad was the first Rattler I knew. And I grew up, daily, staring at a 6 ft rattler that is cemented to the back door of the house, and hearing stories about his days at “A&M” (as if there was no other A&M). I grew up in a home where stories about and odes to Jake Gaither, former head coach of FAMU Football team, were weekly occurrences. Until late Spring of 1996, I was primed and ready to become a Rattler. Had my dorm assignment (Diamond Hall), my roommate, and my tuition had been paid. I then got a full scholarship to Clark Atlanta and my desire to get thee heck out of Florida superseded by innate love for FAMU. But the love has always been there. And always will be. Because I was raised by a Rattler. It is this love, among other things, that has caused me great consternation with the recent headlines regarding FAMU and the hazing that allegedly caused the death of Robert Champion and the injuries of many others. And until now I’ve been silent about how I feel about the whole thing. And to be honest, my feelings have changed throughout the weeks since the band-aid was ripped off of this sore that festers in schools across the nation.
Let me start with a little full disclosure. I matriculated (big, HBCU word) at a Historically Black College/University. I also pledged a Black Greek Letter Organization (BGLO) at this school. I’ve also travelled to and spoken at HBCU’s and majority schools across this country. I have seen hazing. I have known hazing. In 2002, my friend Kristin High drowned in the Pacific Ocean as part of a pledging ritual while pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha. I am intimately aware of hazing. IT IS A TRAVESTY. But it is not NEW. And it is not particular to FAMU. I keep hearing these sounds bites about “FAMU-style hazing”. Um, hazing is hazing. Period. And it has no special merit or designation because of where it occurs. A brave man, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece about the “Brutal Side of Hazing” and although he didn’t say what school or fraternity he was in, Google told it all for him. He vividly described the brutality of hazing by telling his own story about crossing the burning sands. Many of us have these stories. Few of us will share them. Fewer of us will fight to make sure they don’t repeat themselves and will instead live by the “do unto others as was done unto me” philosophy. Hazing is ugly and it is wrong. And unless drastic measure are take, it isn’t going away. I’ll get back to that.
Bottom line: Sad to say but President James Ammons must go.
I made this decision after hearing Florida Governor Rick Scott call for the suspension of FAMU’s President and at that time was totally against it. How dare you suspend this man for something he couldn’t possibly have prevented. But after talking to my father ad nauseam, a classmate of Band Director Dr. Julian White, I changed my mind. He asked me, if Joe Paterno and the President of Penn State had to go amidst the allegations of sexual molestation of young boys on campus by Joe Sandusky, why doesn’t President Ammons have to go? At first, I was like that is SOOOOO different. But as I began to talk about it, I realized they weren’t so different. Abuse was reported to the President of the University. The President did nothing. He did not suspend or expel the abuser(s) from school. The abusers remained on campus to abuse again. To discuss the differences between sexual abuse and hazing gets into a story of semantics which as I began to do, immediately cheapened and disrespected the death of that mother’s son, Robert Champion. And so I stopped.
In a letter from his attorney to the University, Dr. White’s 20 year history with FAMU Marching Band is peppered with reported incidents of hazing, the creation of policies about and against hazing, and attempts to curb the culture of hazing at FAMU. As recent as one week prior to the Florida Classic this year, Dr. White suspended 26 students from the band for hazing. As a part of this suspension, he also went to the administration (READ: The University President) to suggest the band not be allowed to participate in the Classic because of the poor behavior exhibited. President Ammons made what will probably be remembered as the worst decision of his life and allowed the band to participate due to the financial implications of participating without them. He was in a no-win situation. If he didn’t let the band go, there would be hell to pay from students, parents, alumni, sponsors, board members, and supporters. So he let them go. Not knowing it would end in the death of a student. But to whom much is given, much is required. It was an impossible decision that he was forced with making and good bad or otherwise he is responsible for what goes on at his University. And it isn’t fair. But it’s just. This incident, along with others, happened on his watch, on his campus, in the name of his institution. And he must take a BIG one for the team.
The thought of many is that a new broom sweeps clean, and that is why a new President must take the helm and help eradicate the culture of hazing at FAMU. Well, I say sometimes a new broom just pushes around old dirt. Hazing is not something you wake up and wave away with a magic wand. It is born out of a thirst for power and a quest for acceptance into a world of silence and secrecy. And unless every extracurricular activity, club, and greek letter organization is retired, you will never eliminate hazing. Unless you create an environment where there are no have and have-nots, you will never eliminate hazing. As long as there is a caste system where the GDI’s or Interests are always seeking to be included in a membership-only organization or group, there will always be a divide. How does one “cure” a culture? I don’t have that answer. And I definitely don’t think that firing the University President solves the problem. He didn’t create the culture but he was charged with maintaining the University that inhabited it. And perhaps the calling for the suspension of President Ammons isn’t about hazing at all. Riddle me this. Since the late 1960’s FAMU has literally been fighting for its life as a separate, distinct university. In 1983, then President Walter Smith fought a merger bill led by State Rep. T.K. Wetherall in what he described was a desire for “efficiency” with the Tallahassee schools. Again in 2007, the same State Rep. used the same argument to try to get FSU to gain 100% control over the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, claiming that FSU would be better at managing the money. (Lets all say it together in a whisper: HIDDEN RACISM). Year after year, FAMU has to fight to maintain its history and culture and institutional status. Maybe the folks at the Capitol have finally found a hook to hang their hat on and it’s called hazing. And President Ammons is a means to an end. The end of FAMU. I fully expect the next legislative session to include a new merger bill and for the presentation to include a discussion of the past few weeks and the horrors that have occurred on that campus. And again our friends in the legislature will again have to fight to save FAMU.
The good thing is that this time, FAMU will not be alone. The eyes of the world are watching. And those of us who are paying attention to the drama unfolding at FAMU will be primed and ready to fight. The entire HBCU Family will be behind you.
FAMU you will not fail. We won’t allow it. We cannot allow it. You will live to march another day. You will remain the school on the hill that you always were. And you will be restored to the glory for which you so greatly deserve.