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Black Sororities: Moving Beyond a College Party

December 7, 2017

Portrait of Aisha Upton

Portrait of Aisha Upton
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

In December 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement and other concerned citizens met in Washington, DC, to protest the police shooting of Tamir Rice and the judicial decisions on the killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson. While tens of thousands openly spoke against police brutality, a different perspective on protesting made its way more quietly into the headlines. Two black sororities issued statements that their members should not  wear sorority logos or represent their sororities at any of the protests. 

Graduate student Aisha Upton--herself a member of a black sorority--began to think critically about this stance, about her own sorority, and the role sororities play in social movements. “The question becomes, what role do these organizations play? What is their place today, what are they supposed to be doing today? I think the idea of relevancy is important, especially with them [having] such a large role within the black community,” Upton says. 

Paving a Path To Achievement

Aisha’s research into black civic engagement and the social involvement of sororities can be traced back to her earlier schooling. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and originally graduated college with a bachelor in African studies. When Aisha wanted to continue her studies, her advisor suggested she pursue a master’s in sociology because of her interest in social dynamics within society. After her master’s, she transferred to the University of Minnesota and entered the PhD program in the Department of Sociology. Throughout her academic career, Aisha has had a personal connection to her work through her own experiences in a black sorority. “I’ve been in Alpha Kappa Alpha since my sophomore year of my undergrad . . . I think that as a member, I became more critical of my organization and what it is that black sororities do or don’t do.” With her newfound curiosity about the role of sororities, and the protests demanding social change happening around the country, Aisha was inspired to study the meaning behind black organizations. 

Researching the Role of Black Sororities in Voluntary Service

For the past year, Aisha has been the lead author of a research paper entitled, “‘Enhancing Human Dignity Here and Around the World: The Black Sorority As International Uplift Movement” where she analyzes the global role black sororities play through volunteerism. In her research, Aisha looked at four different black sororities that started chapters in other countries. Similar to missionary work or worldwide volunteerism, these sororities attempted to implement their organizational beliefs regarding civil rights within the black community. In order to analyze the outreach efforts, she interpreted archival work through the national organs, which are magazines and handouts that sororities create to describe their quarterly activities. 

She found that the sororities she researched “carried out what they see as racial uplift, which is the idea of having a responsibility to uplift the lives of others, [specifically] black people.” Aisha saw that many of these organizations had done service within maternity wards and AfriCare, a service that provides clean water to people in African countries. Ultimately, she concluded that the sororities were successfully implementing their organizational beliefs in the United States as well as on an international level. 

Continuing Research in an Uncharted Territory 

Along with her research article on black sororities as an international uplift movement, Aisha has been focused on her dissertation, which is a historical analysis of black sororities throughout black radical movements including the black feminist movement and black power movement. 

Ultimately, Aisha does feel that black sororities play an important role whether it be through volunteerism or making statements regarding members protesting. An important conclusion Aisha has made regarding the research she has conducted is that black sororities are often viewed as just a bunch of girls getting together and having a party, when in reality the organizations have an international role and the ability to shape the perceived values and goals of black women. She says, “We take for granted that these are international organizations and they aren’t just undergraduate chapters . . . they are much larger entities that we are dealing with.” 

In the future, Aisha wants to continue researching this topic area after she recieves her PhD this upcoming spring. Aisha plans on extending her cutting edge research regarding the social role of black organizations. “There’s little literature on black sororities and black women's volunteer associations, especially in sociology. So thinking about these organizations through this lens is really important” she says. Whether she is studying the role of undergraduate black sorority chapters or the international outreach movement, Aisha is sure to bring forth clarity about the impact these organizations have on black people worldwide. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.