Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance and Uplift

Illya Davis on the roots of what it takes to be a member of Omega Psi Phi


This is an occasional AJC Sepia series that looks at black Greek letter organizations

 

It is often difficult to provide meritorious remarks about those people, events and things that are so close to your heart that potential distortion of “reality” is always lurking with countervailing accounts. So, there is nothing left to do other than let the heart represent its reasons that reason may not know.

One way some social theorists descriptively account for our interpersonal social affiliations is by giving an account of our tendency to buoy social intercourse by means of volunteer associations (clubs, schools, churches, etc.).

A signature example of such affiliations, particularly in many African American communities, is to be gleaned from the formulations and instantiations found in fraternal interactions afforded by Greek Letter Fraternities (and Sororities). My personal pronouncements regarding such fraternal interactions has been rewarded in and through my own fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated.

The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. was organized at Howard University in the office of Biology Professor Ernest E. Just, on November 17, 1911.

Omega Psi Phi Fraternity was the first African American fraternity founded on an historical black college or university (HBCU). The gathering was convened by three students in the College of Liberal Arts, Edgar A. Love, Oscar J. Cooper, and Frank Coleman. The fraternity chose the motto, Friendship is Essential to the Soul, as well as four cardinal principles to organize and guide its brothers: Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance and Uplift.

Our motto, Friendship is Essential to the Soul, encapsulates both possibility and actuality. The motto is illuminative of what Omega Psi Phi Fraternity believes to be the raison d’etre of the fraternity. Friendship is an extremely meaningful encounter for the development of personhood and character. The value of friendship to the cultivation of being human is too often undervalued and marginalized when compared to other social engagements, e.g., our social obsession with romantic love as the sine-qua-non of human interactions. Romantic love is indeed one of the great beauties and goods of life. (Friendship and romantic love are not necessarily mutually exclusive.)

But true friendship is a phenomenon to be distinguished from mere intermittent social relationships and acquaintance. Friendship is forged in mutual assent to purpose and aim. A good and true friend knows your heart and relies on its honesty to unite and enhance the friendship. It is in friendship that a “we-two” attitude maintains a dialectical identity, an identity that is singular and corporate without usurping either’s autonomy and legitimacy. The fraternity’s motto captures the reality of a descriptive notion of friendship and simultaneously makes implicit projections about the possibilities inherent in its cultivation. Friendship and Omega Psi Phi are synonymous. It is here that our social intercourse begins and ends. Discontinuous perspectives regarding a range of issues is a guarantee when one is a part of an organization. But the prevailing notion that the friendships of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. preclude any lasting or significant animus is redemptive of our human interactions and serves as our organizing principle of engagement.  

Manhood, the first of these cardinal principles is fundamental and is cultivated and refined through the assiduous application of the later three. It is an accurate, yet complex truism that a non-problematic conception of manhood is often illusive yet the acquisition of a coherent perspective in this regard is nonetheless invaluable. However, a clarification of manhood has been impoverished by structures that have assailed any such accomplishment. It would not be profanation to subsume a thoroughgoing notion of personhood within an explication of the meaning and substance of our cardinal principle of manhood. Socially conscious and politically responsible men who embody these virtues of personhood within the structure of manhood in their daily lives have represented to me a coherent and plausible rendering of the content of what one may understand by the manhood principle. Manhood so understood in this vein exemplifies the rich tradition of men of Omega who have propounded these core virtues with integrity. Although a substantial presentation of what is meant by manhood is not free of the encumbrances of social conditioning, one must nevertheless consistently massage this principle with the hope of an ever yielding presentation that uplifts and builds bridges of support. An attempt at a progressive articulation of manhood is not a uniquely African American quandary; it is indeed rendered a more complex excursion into self-discovery primarily because such self-making has been historically denied to African Americans. A thoroughgoing view of what manhood can be is possibly more interesting than what it has been.  It has been my privilege to experience Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s commitment to aspire to present an exemplary human being before the world who embraces both his human frailties as well as the fecundity of a critical self-analysis that enhances the cardinal principle of manhood both existentially and communally. This openness to recalibrate the notion of manhood to comply with the needs of community and society are primary.

Scholarship, or a fidelity to the insights yielded by research and reasoned analysis regarding the best social, political and economic practices that strengthen the fraternity’s bonds of brotherhood and its commitment to building strong communities of support and care, is a type of stewardship for the others. How one thinks about their reality, social or natural worlds, will be informed by their understandings of the nature of the things that occupy it. Whether the occupants are living or inanimate, the involvement of the insights of research will be action-guiding and informative. The results of scholarship should lead to improved action and revised practices. Toward this end, the fraternity is steadfast in its encouragement of its members to pursue high standards of academic success in college as well as attendant graduate and professional studies as means of demonstrating sustained allegiance to our first cardinal principle.

The third cardinal principle, Perseverance, is a virtue. Aristotle entreats us to habituate all virtues and incorporate them into our character development. To persevere in the presence of overwhelming odds in light of potential failure demonstrates visceral fortitude and determination, and is an attribute of character that Omega Psi Phi Fraternity prides itself on exemplifying. Perseverance signals a tenacity to be single-minded in the pursuit of one’s goals. Failure is dwarfed by clarity of purpose. A fitting word in this regard is offered by physicist Marie Curie: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

Our fourth cardinal principle, Uplift, represents our fraternity’s disposition to enliven and inspire one another irrespective of ideological differences and social location. The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity is buttressed by this fundamental cardinal principle. To be sure, whether in times of joy or pain, it is the duty of each brother of Omega to extend himself in the service of that which is greater than any singular notion or person—The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.   

Why I joined the brotherhood?

There were two key moments in my pursuit of affiliation with Omega that prefigured my relationship with the fraternity—an initial motivation and a subsequent confluence of meaningful reflections and experiences that clarified my commitment to the union with Omega.

The initial motivation was nurtured sometime between 1978 and 1979 when I was introduced to Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. by one of its very distinguished young men, Julius Evans, a student at Clark College.

He was a friend of my eldest sister who was herself an honor student at Clark College. He was an amiable young man with a stalwart disposition, and his immaculate sartorial presentation made a lasting impression on my burgeoning perspective of the fraternity. It was this image of an Omega man that indelibly forged my perspective of the fraternity. It was serendipitous that I would become a professor of philosophy and religion at his alma mater, now Clark Atlanta University, and was in place to have occasion to encounter Brother Evans at one of the annual homecomings at the university in 2009. It was upon this occasion that I was given the opportunity to thank Brother Evans for his public display of dignity and for his overwhelming influence on an impressionable twelve-year-old 30 years earlier. I was elated to re-introduce myself to him as a brother who had entered the coveted familial bonds of Omega having been initiated into the brotherhood through the Theta Lambda Lambda Chapter in the Spring of 2009.

The second motivating event was something of a watershed moment. It was presented shortly after I had been graduated from Morehouse College and subsequently during my graduate studies. While a graduate student at Harvard I studied American pragmatism with the well-known contemporary philosopher, Hilary Putnam.

The course was primarily focused on the philosophy of William James, but ancillary reading in the history of American Pragmatism was encouraged, and I found the writings of George Herbert Mead to be quite illuminating and rewarding.  Mead, a leading pragmatist and progenitor of the tenets of what would later become known as symbolic interactionism (a term developed by Herbert Blumer), wherein it purports to give interpretations of social formation and interaction among individuals, friends.

Mead noted that the development of the individual is a social process as are the meanings individuals assign to things. These words clarified my decision to investigate the tenets and aims of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. insofar as it had now become clear that the meanings I would eventual ascribe to my life were in progress and that my development would be enhanced by the reciprocal interaction shared by me and the brothers of Omega.

Blumer averred that an individual’s associations/interactions with others in groups was given meaning by the participant and attendant interactions. Therefore, meaning here is pragmatic. That is to say, what one gets by way of definition and value in association with a fraternity in this instance, will be commensurate with the quality of social exchanges.

Blumer’s last point was probably most revealing. The meaning of the interactions will be different for each participant because meaning is particular and contextual. These meanings are not static by in flux.

These salient features of social interaction assuaged any trepidation of affiliation with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. to the degree to which I was given clear and coherent articulation of how “I” would express my relationship with the fraternity.

I had been acquainted with the laudable honor roll of exemplary men of Omega: Ernest E. Just, Percy Julian, Bayard Rustin, Langston Hughes, Benjamin E. Mays, Sterling Brown, James Nabrit, Carter G. Woodson, Charles Drew, Charles Bolden, Ronald E. McNair, Walter Massey, et al. It was also clear that the meaning of Omega for me would be partially garnered through a sincere engagement with its community based programming and institutional commitments.

These social and political alignments are represented in the fraternity’s Internationally Mandated Programs:

ACHIEVEMENT WEEK - is observed each November and is designed to recognize those individuals at the local and international levels who have contributed to community uplift. A High School Essay Contest is to be held in conjunction with Achievement Week.

SCHOLARSHIP - promotes academic excellence among the undergraduate members. Graduate chapters provide financial assistance to student members and non-members.

SOCIAL ACTION PROGRAMS - Chapters participate in activities that will uplift their communities. Some of the activities include: voter registration, Assault on Illiteracy; Habitat for Humanity; mentoring; and participation in fundraisers for charitable organizations.

TALENT HUNT PROGRAM - provides exposure, encouragement and financial assistance to talented young people participating in the performing arts. Winners are awarded recognition and may be given college scholarships.

MEMORIAL SERVICE - March 12 of each year chapters conduct an appropriate service to recall the memory of those members who have entered into Omega Chapter.

RECLAMATION AND RETENTION - A concerted effort at the international, district and local levels to retain active brothers and return inactive brothers to full participatory status.

COLLEGE ENDOWMENT FUND - Each year the fraternity gives at least $50,000 to historically black college and universities in furtherance of Omega's commitment to provide philanthropic support.

HEALTH INITIATIVES - Chapters facilitate, participate and coordinate activities that promote good health practices. Some of the programs are the Charles Drew Blood Drive and partnership with the American Diabetes Association.

VOTER REGISTRATION, EDUCATION AND MOBILIZATION - Chapters facilitate and participate in activities that uplift their communities through the power of the vote.

 NAACP - Every district and chapter of the fraternity is required to maintain a Life Membership at Large in the NAACP. All members of the fraternity are encouraged to join the NAACP.

The relationship one has to Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. is indeed reciprocal. My desire to imbue the world with added hope in the possibility of extending the integrity and dignity of humanity have been animated in and through my fraternal interactions and my vocation as a college professor is enlivened by a fraternal support system that has consistently renewed my commitment to the service of Black peoples throughout the diaspora, as well has to humanity in general. To be sure, I view my fidelity to the high precepts of the fraternity as action-guiding principles desirous of implementation and seriousness of mind.

“Omega Psi Phi ‘til the day I die.”


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