And the Winner Is….
“What do you think?” asked a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. who stopped me as I walked up to the balcony. I hesitated to field her question because I was ready to finish watching the Epsilon Chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) perform their step routine, which was drawing incredible applause from the crowd at the Atlanta Civic Center.
This young lady was convinced that the first National Sprite Step Off competition was rigged, that ZTA was drawing all of their excitement simply because they were white. So as I contemplated my answer, I knew the truth wouldn’t be well received.
“It’s a step show,” I responded, “and as long as you realize that stepping is all about promotion and recruitment, then it doesn’t really matter if they win or lose.” She quickly responded, “No, I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta baby, we don’t recruit. If they let these white girls win, I’m turning in my membership card!”
My first thought was “so… you’re telling me that a sorority, which is the largest of the Divine Nine Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) with a surplus of 350,000 members, does not recruit? Not one member?!” My second thought came two hours later. “I hope the DST membership office gets that young lady’s card like she promised.”
Zeta Tau Alpha is actually not a sorority, but a women’s fraternity, with origins in Virginia. Founded in 1898 and older than any current Divine Nine (D9) organization, ZTA’s is currently the third largest organization in the Pan Hellenic council with over 187,000 initiated members. Never the less, few students thought that ZTA would compete in the Sprite Step Off, nor did they think they would out step the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Tau Chapter, to a first place finish and a $100,000 grand prize in Atlanta, Georgia this past weekend..
Reactions were mixed. Blogs, Twitter, and Sprite’s Facebook page have since been overrun with messages about the travesty of this event. A white sorority winning first place? During Black History month? Wow. Most people look at the situation from afar and wonder what happened. For those of us who attended the Atlanta event, we all know exactly what happened. We saw a great show from both the Indiana AKA’s and the Arkansas ZTA’s. Appropriate that these two teams tear up the house considering it was a local Arkansas chapter of AKA’s who originally taught the ladies of ZTA how to step.
I was able to speak with the ladies of ZTA at the show. They were nice young ladies, well prepared, and very conscious of what they were doing in Atlanta: competing to win a stepshow. They even asked to take my picture with some of their girls, calling me “pretty eyes.” Yeah take it how you want to, but their grace and mission entertained me. As the final teams and Drake performed, the house awaited the results.
What you probably won’t see on TV when the finals air on MTV2, is the in house reaction. People in the Civic Center went nuts. Hip-Hop artist and Step Off host Ludacris took the stage with the second place check of $50,000. Even Ludacris (whose mother is an AKA) knew what he was about to do and the implications it would have on BGLO culture. “This is the judges decision…not mine,” he stated, “second place goes to the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha, University of Indiana.” The shock that filled the room felt like cold flakes of salt had instantly made their way into the arena, falling like beautiful snowflakes, racing to settle on everyone’s tongue. I stood in awe then turned my cameras to the crowd who were booing at the decision.
I think it was at this point that the celebrity judges were instantaneously escorted out of the building. Luda handed the oversized cutout over as the ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha accepted the check, still smiling but internally a little disappointed.
Then, the first place announcement.
Ludacris shook his head walking onto stage and made the announcement reluctantly, telling the crowd that they “had to understand”, that their first place prize was awarded to the ladies of Zeta Tau Alpha. The building shook with disgruntled boos from the stands. The first row of the crowd didn’t seem to mind as mothers, sisters, and fathers alike cheered their ZTA girls on. Disgusted comments flooded every social media outlet as the civic center emptied. BGLO members and non-greeks alike have threatened to boycott another Sprite Step Off (which Luda made reference to in his thank you to the fans), Sprite, and Coke in general. It got me thinking; responses to the outcome were so symptom oriented that we dare not speak about the true problems that infect all D9 organizations.
Just as that young lady who swore she didn’t recruit for her sorority; the symptom and problem have grossly been mis-identified for a number of years in the mentality of BGLO members. The issue is not that she didn’t want to recruit, but rather that her collective ego had expanded so much, that she saw no value in the process of cultivation. Many would claim that BGLOs have reached way past their own usefulness, that BGLOs have no place in today’s society. This single comment has bothered me for a couple of days. It made me think: What are the main symptoms surrounding this show, and thus affecting D9 organizations who have been so outspoken about the results?
Symptom: “…we don’t recruit.”
Problem: I see it everywhere I go: people, who have the talent and drive to be productive members of any BGLO, go un-sought for petty reasons. In fact, the young Delta’s reason to not recruit new membership could be easily taken as an excuse; an excuse that would cause any BGLO’s quality of membership to deteriorate over time. This is a false statement that can be easily settled with the reality of honorary membership. Organizations actively search for prominent people to add to their ranks. If one should want their organization to thrive, would you not want to hand pick the elite of your campus, putting your organization and personal collective identity in impeccable shape? People who do not feel their organizations worth supersedes personal or chapter ego are sadly mistaken individuals. I am not saying that we give out sign up sheets and take people on a first come first served basis, but I’m stating that for people to think the D9 are not relevant is saying that YOU are not relevant. You should take that personally, I do. I know as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., that I want every Alpha man I run across to be the best they can be, to dare to be perfect. “Dare to be perfect,” a message one of my prophytes would instill in me and that I would pass on to my neophytes. Yea, so you don’t recruit? Well, then you need to market the hell out of yourself, fast. It is just that Sprite has beat us to the punch and now we’re mad about it.
Symptom: Stepping belongs to Black culture
Problem: What will be the single most important thing that comes out of the Sprite Step Off has yet to be determined. I would think and hope that collectively, BGLOs from all across the world were impressed with the creative entertaining shows that our members can put on. I agree, stepping is a Black thang. It’s ours, Black culture’s. I think it was an impressive display of the art form that has evolved after so many years, but Sprite was extremely clear that they were not limiting ethnic specific teams. No one is crying foul at the fact Chi Upsilon Sigma, Alpha Theta Omega, and Lambda Beta Alpha who all participated, did well in the competition. So is it a problem that a non-Black organization can now say they are the best step team in America?
Many outspoken people on blogs and Facebook agree that they are not upset with ZTA winning the $100,000 and first place accolades. This means that we are really mad at……at, uuuhhh….nothing? Yes, nothing. What? Are you mad at Sprite for having the competition? For giving Black people obscene amounts of money for stepping? Come on Black people. We should really be mad that we have no clue what the history of stepping is. Sure, anyone can say “stepping is a combination of African traditions and BGLOs’ traditions”, but what does that mean? Why do we step? Why was this competition so important? Rhetorical? Maybe. At this point, it doesn’t matter what your answer is because ZTA answered all of them in silencing fashion. We step for expression? Check. We step for love of our organizations? Check. We step to win money? Check.
Symptom: Money Matters
Problem: Nikki Giovanni, one of Delta Sigma Theta’s most prominent (and recruited) members has this to say in Lawrence C. Ross, Jr book, The Divine Nine: “…we as adults have much more in terms of monetary resources, and maybe we should do more together. It would be lovely to have a Black Greek building which we all got together and built. We’ve just not taken those steps.” Steps huh? Like the same steps that earned Sprite and MTV major revenue? People are rightfully upset about the financial implications of the Sprite Step Off. In reaction, I can say that Sprite deserves a pat on the back for doing what all of the D9 organizations and its members haven’t been able to do in years: financially support undergraduate chapters. So often undergrad chapters are pushed to provide the general organization money to continue insurance coverage, fees, and obscene charges while suffocating chapter funds to be put towards funding service and social events. Individual members who work hard for their chapters are sometimes financially burdened by the current archetype of the Black college student: involved in multiple organizations, has a job or two, is a full time student, and wants a bit of a social life. I’ve experienced the extreme pressure these students face when dealing with their personal financial burdens; some turning to illegal or personally demeaning activities to earn money for school. Giovanni is right. We have NEVER supported our BGLOs like we should financially. Even as membership dues, conference registration fees and initiation rates skyrocket, we are void of financial support of our undergraduate chapters. Did it really take Sprite to take this out of our hands? Yeah, but you can thank the creator of the idea, an Alpha who is a Coke-a-Cola executive, and decided to help promote/recruit people to the idea of BGLOs. So, people are right to be mad at Sprite, who will use the event as a tax write off, but who can blame the idea?
The idea that a BGLO could win $100,000 in a step show was freaking amazing. My chapter (Mu Eta) struggled to give a $5,000 first prize and that was a lot of money. Not to mention that along the way to the Sprite Step Off finals, teams were awarded prize money for each round for a total prize pool of $1.5 million dollars. That is 1,500,000 U.S. currency. It would seem the financial empowerment era of Black Greekdom would commence, but were we ready for it? No.
The second place AKA’s from Indiana earned a total of $77,000 during the competition. Where does that money go? Well, according to my sources, it is paid to the University in the form of a scholarship that is applied to every individuals account. The money that hits the account makes up for the students fees and tuition, but wait! What happens when the student only accumulates $2,000 total tuition and that check for $10,000 hits? You guessed right. It results in the sexiest refund check in higher education history. Undoubtedly, the members will place some of the funds in a chapter account, but then what? I hope no one is running around with new kicks and rims next semester. You will and should be put on blast by your community if that money doesn’t go to help your university and especially your local community.
I was so hype for this possibility. I hoped that NPHC would strike a deal with Sprite that would have a portion of the proceeds go into an NPHC account to help generate revenue for the support of undergraduate members. Lets say 1/3 of the ticket sales go to NPHC. The Atlanta show was sold out, bringing a total of 4600 people and this is at just one venue! This is money that could be used to help generate scholarships for NPHC members. Additionally, why have a $1.5 Million dollar prize pool? Lets say we have a tournament worth $800,000 in total prize money with another $700,000 being put up by Sprite, awarded to NPHC if the show generates at least $1.5 Million in revenue (which I’m sure this show will do and then some). I’m sure those teams would have stepped just as hard for a $50,000 finals first place prize as $100,000 because of the sheer novelty of that type of financial investment. That money could be put in a long-term investment to be capitalized on every year as the funds grow interest. We would have effectively empowered our D9 organizations to create their own scholarships, buildings, NPHC leadership academies, etc. You get my point.
Now I do find it interesting that members of the D9 have called out Sprite mainly for its decision to award an organization like ZTA money that should have/ could have been placed in the Black community. While this decision may seem like a popular defense to the results, I would argue that the real travesty is in the historical records of ZTA. In 1967, the Beta Tau chapter of ZTA (at Albion College in Michigan) was put on suspension and finally terminated by their national body for pledging an African American woman. Their national organization was told that Albion College would no longer be affiliated with the national body “as a result of the national organization’s national procedures which conflict with Albion College policies…” To this day, ZTA doesn’t acknowledge Beta Tau chapter’s existence, and neither did Epsilon chapter of ZTA during their quest to the championship. If they were aware of this fact, would Black people be happier if they vowed to place all of their winnings back into the community? I wonder. The same organization that didn’t allow Black membership just 43 years ago is supposed to care about the Black community now? Don’t think so.
This is another reason that D9 must support our own fundraising efforts. You mean to tell me that the likes of Bob Johnson, Michael Jordan, Earl Graves, Tom Joyner, Don Thompson, and John Singleton (the list can go on of Black Americans who have the resources to contribute) cant put together the same show that Sprite did? We can’t raise over $1.5 or $3 Million dollars in scholarships to support BGLOs and their membership? It is estimated that African American spending power in this country will exceed $1 TRILLION (With a “T”) in two years. If we can’t support ourselves, boy are WE in trouble and THAT’S a problem.
Regardless of your feelings on the Sprite Step Off, I have to point out one thing. Amongst the crowd of observers last Saturday was a particular group we should pay special attention to. I must have seen a ton of kids from ages 3 to 9 in attendance all decked out in their “I’m a future AKA” or “I’m a future KAPPA” shirts. One young man in particular had a shirt which read “Future man of AFA”. I mean this kid even threw up the hand sign and had AFA scribed into his bald fade. I don’t know about you, but I know that I will do everything in my power to make sure that Alpha is around when that young man needs it.
“What do you think?” asked a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. who stopped me as I walked up the balcony of the Atlanta Civic Center. “It’s a step show,” I responded, “and as long as you realize that stepping is all about promotion and recruitment, then it doesn’t really matter if they win or lose.” I lied….I wanted the AKAs to win…but not because I wanted to see ZTA lose…because I wanted to see Black people take this moment. I wanted to see people rid themselves of symptoms, excuses, doubt for once and start considering solutions for problems; problems that have plagued our community for far too long…problems that we can solve if we refuse to let our image benefit everyone else but ourselves. Best described in the poem “Invictus” is this idea: “In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud, and under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloodied, but unbowed.” 5 days later, my hope was realized. Sprite released a statement saying that “we got together to do our post-competition review and found a scoring discrepancy in the sorority results…Because the scoring discrepancy can’t be resolved and due to the really tight margin between the first and second place sororities, we feel that the only right thing to do is to name both Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Chapter & Zeta Tau Alpha, Epsilon Chapter, co-first place winners of the Sprite Step Off.” Sprite ended up awarding both ZTA and AKA $100,000 and named them co-Sprite Step Off Champs. I wondered how many people were happy about this decision, and in just 7 minutes, people had flooded Sprite’s Facebook page….AGAIN.
To my expectation, people are still mad. Citing that their pride and integrity can’t be bought and that we (BGLOs) think Sprite is still full of it. You want to see symptom driven culture? You can find it here, proving our issues are more than a simple $50,000 fix.
If we turn from the power of serious self-examination, financial empowerment, the dismantling of false egos and problem solving, I am afraid we will all fail. I am also confident that BGLOs will find their purpose and renewed dedication to the aims of their organizations to truly embody the meaning of service in the coming years. The results of one competition should do little to dampen the sprit of the D9, but should inspire it to challenge our own beliefs and charge our members accountable for the salvation and preservation of our legacies.
And the winner is…..Zeta Tau Alpha…oh, and Alpha Kappa Alpha…..for now. 🙂