The opening scene of Netflix’s newest original film Burning Sands, shows how extreme college fraternity hazing can be, particularly at a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). Six young Black college students drive into the forest at the crack of dawn to get beaten and verbally abused by an older member of Lambda Lambda Phi, the fraternity the men are pledging at the fictional Frederick Douglass University. Not even five minutes in, the film's main character, Zurich (Trevor Jackson), is on the ground being kicked, where his "line brother" drops to defend him and is kicked off the pledgee roster for doing so. Zurich's experience leaves him with a fractured rib, which slowly becomes more severe over the course of the film. It's a terrifying tale, and as a graduate of an HBCU and short-lived pledge prospect, it's a scary reflection of what I know to be a reality for many participants in Greek life.
Burning Sands, available to stream now, shines a light on the scary, dangerous world of underground hazing, which is experienced by many people pledging at HBCUs. Although I never was a full Greek life member, I did experience part of the pledging process at my own HBCU, Prairie View A&M University. It was fall of 2009 when I, then a junior, decided I wanted to be in a sorority. The initial sorority I wanted to be a part of could not have any new pledges on campus due to issues with the university, so I reluctantly considered pledging to a different sorority that was still active on campus. This group seemed interested in me, so I subsequently became more active in my decision to pursue pledging.
Yet soon, I saw that there was a dark side to the pledging process. "If I said 'Bitch, slit your wrist,' is that hazing?" one sorority member asked me during an early meeting. I answered yes, and then was asked how I considered the question abuse. While my heart raced, I said, "Because if you are suppose to be building me up, why would you say that?" I was then asked to sit down. At the time, I didn't understand why I was asked that question, but I knew I had reason to be nervous. I could be terminated as a pledge for being a potential "snitch" and not playing along.
A couple days later, I found out that I was chosen to be a prospect "on line" and would soon become a pledgee. But I never made it to actually joining, as my university halted all Greek life processes in the fall of 2009 — due to hazing. As it turns out, the question I was asked by the sorority member might've just been the start of a severe hazing process I would've experienced.
Now, seven years later, I'm reminded of my near miss due to Burning Sands and the conversation it's starting about hazing at HBCUs. Since the movie's release, members of Black Greek organizations and non members alike are buzzing on Twitter with opinions on the hazing process — or the denial thereof — in the Black Greek community.
Clearly, opinions about the movie and its depiction of Greek life are varied. To me, Burning Sands doesn’t feel like it's necessarily shaming all of the things that Black Greek organizations stand for, but it does seem like a call to reform the pledging process. Hazing happen at HBCUs and other universities all too often, and while the subject rarely gets talked about, it's a good thing that a movie is tackling it head-on.
Still, from my experience, I believe that Black Greek life members don’t tend to want to discuss hazing or any downsides to pledging because they believe that Black folks are already all too criticized and marginalized for their actions. Black Greek members might not want people who know nothing about the system to provide their opinions about what they believe it's doing wrong.
For me, being a product of a HBCU, I view Greek life culture as being primarily about creating brotherhood and sisterhood for those who want to partake in organizations made of people who look like them. That's why it's so appealing — it's for us, and by us. We have the same love and respect for our Black Greek organizations as we do for our HBCUs themselves.
Black fraternities and sororities aren't all about hazing — they function as service organizations used to empower communities, and many of the members serve past their college tenure. But Burning Sands doesn't show that part of the community, only the areas that need reform. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as hazing is a huge problem. The Pan-Hellenic system is suppose to be under a "non-hazing" discipline since 1990, but, like many systems, there are cracks and gray areas that can become a playground for the unseen and unspoken.
“This movie puts a mirror up,” director Gerard McMurray told The Undefeated in a recent interview.“ It questions, why are we hazing? We need these organizations, and hazing is threatening them.”
That's to say the least. The day after I found out that I made it "on line", I learned that a pledgee of my school's Phi Beta Sigma chapter had died suddenly while out with other prospective pledges. Donnie Wade Jr. died of complications of a rare disease called acute exertional rhabdomyolysis, a condition that became exacerbated from strenuous activity. According to officials, Wade Jr. collapsed after he and other prospective members participated in physical training that included pushups, situps, running bleachers, and other exercises. Officials reported that instead of calling emergency personnel when Wade collapsed, pledges took him and to a hospital 30 miles away, where he was found dead upon arrival.
The following spring, my university disbanded Greek life entry, alleging that members of the Phi Beta Sigma chapter had attempted to cover up their involvement in Wade's death. It's a tragic situation, and Burning Sands, coincidentally, features a plotline that's similar to Wade's case. Both the real-life situation and the storyline featured in the film emphasize the dangers of hazing and the pressures of pledging, and the movie will likely strike a chord with many people. I remember hearing about Wade's death and weeping, replaying my mother's voice in my head telling me how I shouldn't enter the pledging process because anything could happen. Sadly, that proved to be true.
I don't regret my short lived pledging experience, and I will will always love Black Greek culture. But Burning Sands acts as a reminder that we need to talk about the dangers of hazing at HBCUs. Is hurting pledges really needed to uplift one another and emphasize sisterhood and brotherhood? I think not. There are many ways to encourage solidarity without beating students to the point of unconsciousness or forcing them to do things against their will.
We as a community can't act like hazing doesn't happen. Thankfully, Burning Sands will force people to take a close look at pledging and the extreme behavior it can sometimes enforce. Greek organizations are meant to promote unity, not pain, heartbreak, and loss.