On March 10, 1996 I had the privilege of crossing into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated at Loyola University of New Orleans. I was a freshman and did not realize how this event would affect my life. I am a proud member of the first black Greek letter organization which boasts famous brothers in its membership such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. Dubois just to name a few. Both of my older sisters are members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and love their organization. I've got cousins that are members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. and others that are AKAs (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.) and Kappas (Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.). As you can guess, our reunions are very entertaining.
It is also fun when I meet other brothers and sisters in ministry that are part of BGLOs (Black Greek Letter Organizations). If they are in a sorority, they rock their paraphernalia with pride. If they are in another fraternity, usually we get into a boasting contest of whose organization is the best. It is all out of love and respect for what our organizations were created for - uplifting the community.
But in recent years, popular culture has looked, and popularized, only one aspect of the BGLOs, and that is our stepping (or stomping as some people refer to it). Since I was at a white university for my undergrad years, I always found myself explaining to my peers that there is a history to our stepping and it is not just "entertainment." Even now, I have a step team comprised of high school students from our various Catholic parishes and high schools and I have to let them know to take what we do as serious ministry and not just fun and games.
When many of my former youth ministry kids go to college, I usually get a phone call saying that they saw some of my frat brothers on campus or another group of Greeks stepping. Well, for any youth, or young adult, reading this, please know that there is a cultural history to what you are witnessing. It is our history and our culture being shared. That is why stepping is unique to our BGLOs. Now other fraternities and sororities have started stepping in recent times, but it is something that originated from our ancestors, and you should be proud of that.
Stepping can be traced back to the African Gum Boot Dance as a way of stomping, clapping, and singing to convey a message in the mines that these men were working in. In this country, many of our ancestors that suffered through slavery used forms of claps and stomps to share important, and secretive, messages to one another since other forms of outright communication were banned between slaves. During World War II veterans of war added military chants and during the Motown era, songs and other movements were added as well. It wasn't until the 60's that stepping started being shaped and molded into what we know today.
Although stepping has become more mainstream (i.e. in movies, TV, YouTube, etc.), we must always remember the root of where something comes from and why it should be respected. The same is true of all of our cultural contributions, especially our Catholic faith, if we don't know where we come from then we don't know where we are headed. To the youth and young adults that are reading this article and may be considering joining a fraternity or sorority, I give you the same advice that I give my former youth group members that ask about joining a BGLO, "Do your research, and remember, joining these organizations is more than just stepping, partying, or wearing paraphernalia. These organizations were created to uplift us as a people and by knowing the history, you know the importance of carrying on the legacy. RESPECT YOUR ROOTS!!"
For more information about stepping, check out the following links:
Ansel Augustine is the Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries. He has also served as the Associate Director/Coordinator of Black Youth & Young Adult Ministry for the CYO Office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is also on the Faculty of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Ansel has served on the board of directors for the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (NCYAMA) and presently serves on the board of directors for the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM). Ansel has worked in ministry for over 13 years and has his Master's in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University's Institute for Ministry and his certificate in Youth Ministry from Xavier University's Institute for Black Catholic Studies. He has presented workshops and keynotes around the country and has written various pieces related to ministry. He is presently working on his Docotrate in Ministry (D.Min.)