Branding continues with college fraternities
ORLANDO, Fla. - As his fraternity brothers heated a wire hanger shaped in the form of a Greek letter, Matthew Mitchell felt sick to his stomach.
For about 10 seconds, as the metal touched his skin, Mitchell gripped a fraternity brother's arm. It was the worst pain he had ever endured. But he chose to feel this pain, and later he was glad that he had.
Mitchell, a Phi Beta Sigma member at Florida A&M University, was going through a ritual known as branding, a burning of the skin that results in a scar.
A graduate of Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla., Mitchell had considered being branded for three years before going through with it.
Ultimately, he said, he wanted a physical representation of his bond with his fraternity - a symbol that would be with him forever. So he decided that it would be only fitting to have the letter Sigma branded on his left upper arm, close to his heart.
"I'm going to be a Sigma for life, until the day I die," said Mitchell, 23.
Branding has long been a form of body art, and in the past century it has emerged as a tradition among some black fraternity and sorority members. Some Greek organizations have policies banning the practice; others don't prohibit it, but don't condone it, either.
Fraternity brothers say it comes down to an individual choice of expression.
"It's just like a tattoo," said Aaron Brown, 23, Mitchell's fraternity brother at FAMU. "It marks a time and a life, a milestone in your life and a commitment to the organization."
The practice of branding dates back thousands of years, says Sandra Mizumoto Posey, a folklorist and professor at California State Polytechnic University who has researched the subject.
Branding is most commonly associated with slaves and cattle. But secret societies and religious orders, such as those in ancient Greece, also used brands throughout history to mark followers, Posey said.
As for the college Greek system, the earliest recorded incidence dates back to 1931, but because of the secretive nature of fraternities and sororities, it is difficult to determine an exact timeline, Posey said.
Although the practice is associated with black fraternities, there are exceptions. President George W. Bush is rumored to be branded with a symbol of his Yale fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon.
Some believe that the ritual was inspired by African scarification traditions. And while branding does have ties to slavery, fraternity men with brands dismiss that connotation.
It's hard to determine exactly how many black fraternity members have brands, but Ricky L. Jones, University of Louisville professor and author of Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities, estimates that more than half do.
Members acquire brands for a number of reasons. Brands can display a sense of belonging, a mark of the successful completion of a challenging pledgeship. And they can be a symbol of manhood, of toughness.
"It's one of the most prominent and personal ways you can adopt something into your identity," Posey said. "You are physically changing the shape of who you are."
"It's an indication: `I am a member, I'm proud of that fact,'" said Tamara L. Brown, editor of "African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision," a book that features Posey's research on branding.
Brands often appear in discreet places such as the chest or the left upper arm. But when they are visible, bearers often display them with pride. Posey points out that on the cover of the sports book "Rebound: The Odyssey of Michael Jordan," Jordan appears shirtless, showing off his Omega brand.
Louisville professor Jones is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, and has two Kappa brands: one on his left arm and one on his chest.
"I saw it as something nothing more damaging than a tattoo," Jones said.
A brand is different in character than a tattoo, however.
It is achieved when a hot iron or piece of metal - often a hanger shaped like a Greek letter - is pressed to the skin for about 10 seconds. A wound forms in the shape of the metal and eventually becomes a scar, explains James Spencer, a St. Petersburg dermatologist and professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
No treatment can completely erase a brand, Spencer said.
"You're killing the skin," Spencer said.
And in doing so, there's a risk of infection and keloids, puffy scars that are a particular risk for African-Americans.
Unlike tattooing, branding is not regulated in Florida. The Department of Health's Board of Medicine views it as an extreme procedure that should be performed by a licensed physician.
In fraternities, a brother usually performs the branding, and it is sometimes a ceremonial event. Members say it hurts, for sure, but opinions on the pain level range from excruciating to a little sting. Some say tattooing is more painful.
Most fraternity brothers say branding is voluntary, but "certainly there is peer pressure," said Hank Nuwer, author of "Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing and Binge Drinking."
Hazing researchers say they haven't heard of involuntary instances of branding. Still, even some fraternities dislike the practice
"We frown on it," said Tyrone Patton, international grand executive secretary for Iota Phi Theta, a black fraternity. "Why would any human being sit still and allow someone to burn and sear his flesh with a hot iron?"
Fraternity brothers counter that the brand reflects loyalty to their organizations.
When Brian Jenkins first arrived at the University of Central Florida, he viewed fraternities only through hard-partying stereotypes. Yet when Jenkins was introduced to Phi Beta Sigma, he changed his view. He saw the organization as a way of life and wanted to show his affiliation with a brand.
"It shows I'm part of something big," Jenkins said.
William Madison expressed a similar sentiment.
The brand "represents the lifelong commitment to the ideals of the fraternity," said Madison, 20, a University of Florida junior and Omega Psi Phi member who received his brand at the beginning of the semester. "It makes me feel like I'm closer to living what our fraternity stands for."
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