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For some black fraternities, body branding is a symbol of devotion

When Kenny Curtis got his first brand, he wanted to scream because of the pain, but he couldn’t because of the towel in his mouth.

Curtis, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. He has the number 1 branded on his right arm and the symbol for Alpha Phi Alpha on his left.

The tradition of branding, which is a third degree burn on the skin that results in a scar, is a complex practice in black fraternities. To its supporters, branding is a visual aid that shows commitment to a Greek organization. To critics, it is a barbaric act.

Curtis, who is the only branded undergraduate Alpha in the state of Wisconsin, doesn’t regret his decision at all: “I love that it has been done because it makes me a different individual in my society right now,” he said.

On the surface, branding seems to have more critics than supporters. The practice is not sanctioned or endorsed by any black fraternity or sorority.

“We view branding as a detestable practice and not as an act of exuding pride in the organization,” said Darryl R. Matthews Sr., general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.

Matthews added, “Branding and ritual scarification is not a part of our intake process or a part of any procedure to be a member of the fraternity. This act does not accurately reflect the high ideals and principles upon which our organization was founded.”

Colleges across the nation also oppose branding, saying that it falls under the category of hazing. The state of Florida passed a law in 2005 that makes hazing a felony. Last month, two college students were sentenced to prison for two years in the state's first prosecution under the law.

The act of branding in black fraternities usually occurs in one of two ways: at the hands of a professional brander or a fellow fraternity brother, called a “hit man.” The brander uses devices like a coat hanger to brand the skin. Occasionally there are “branding parties,” where more than one person is branded at the same time.

Most people are usually shocked when they first see his brands, Curtis said. “My family thought I was crazy for getting branded, but they all knew that I loved to be different,” he said.

Lawrence Ross Jr., author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities," is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. Ross, who resides in Los Angeles, said the culture of branding was “too strong” to be stomped out by critics.

Branding itself has a negative history. It was often used as a form of punishment for criminals. However, fraternity members who choose to brand themselves see it as a positive experience. Some fraternity members who have brands say it is a way to link themselves to their slave ancestors who were also branded.

However, the practice of branding slaves was not common—-in fact, it was illegal in many states after the American Revolution.

“The occasional sadist might brand slaves, but most masters would not have risked the health of valuable slaves in such a manner,” said Paul Finkelman, a law professor at Albany Law School who has studied American slavery and race.

And there is no guarantee that a brand will turn out well. Because a brand is a third-degree burn, each body heals differently.

Some ways to intensify the scarring of a brand is to scratch the scab lightly or gently rub the brand with a loofah sponge once it begins to heal without tearing the new skin.

“Branding has become popular due to the scarring ability of some people of African descent," said Hollis Gentry, a researcher in Washington who specializes in African-American records. The ability to form a keloid scar, or an overgrowth of scar tissue, sets many African-Americans apart from whites and other ethnic groups.” Due to that scarring, “some brands look ghastly while others look like enhanced tattoos.”

But the decision to get branded is a choice, Ross said. “It's their body, and they make the decision," he said. "I have an Alpha tattoo, and the decision was strictly a personal decision to demonstrate my pride in Alpha that way. I think for most members, the choice of brand or tattoo comes down to the same thing.”

E-mail: alb2145@columbia.edu