Ethan Robinson is a man who loves his fraternity. Mind you, he hasn't been a college student for a number of years, but he's still an active fraternity brother. If you shake his hand, you might notice a faint impression on his wrist. If you look closer, you'll see that it's a scar that seems to be in the form of an Omega, and you'd be right. He calls it his his "business brand." It was designed to be barely visible so that "when I shake hands you get the subliminal Omega." Brotherhood, and its ideals of "Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance and Uplift" are important to Ethan. Eleven brands on various parts of his body are there to reinforce and remind him of these ideals.
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. is an African American organization founded at Howard University in 1911. The organization itself doesn't condone the practice of branding by its members. None of this, however, changes the fact that many choose to get branded of their own volition. For those that do, like Ethan, the experience can be a meaningful one.
"Branding usually came to pass over an emotional type thing," he says. "I would get a brand on the anniversary of my crossing, the anniversary of the fraternity, maybe on my birthday. If I ran into another bro and we had a big party and all the bros were there, started talking about pledging, singing the hymn, gettin' emotional-- 'Oh man, let's get branded man.' That's all it took for a branding party [to start]."
Formerly a member of the U.C. Berkeley basketball team, Robinson got some of his brands "specifically so when I hoop and I was gonna be playin' on road trips, bros would know me." In uniform, these body modifications were often the only way in which two fraternity members could identify one another. When two Omegas did recognize each other on the court via their brands, rather than being easier on one another, "we might go at it more so because of the fact that I'll know that he's a person whose supposed to exemplify masculine courage, perseverance and resilience [and] afterward we'd be huggin'."
Eventually, Ethan began creating these seared marks for others and he found brands took on new meaning. "If you were one of the ones that I branded," he tells me, "we have a bond that no one can ever take away. . . . 'Cause that's the one you entrusted to let 'em lay hot metal on your flesh, and that's not something you just do lacklusterly or halfheartedly. You got to be serious about what it is."
In being branded and branding others, Ethan has to deal with the fact that not only do many strangers misunderstand his motivations, but that his own fraternity doesn't necessarily even agree with him about the value of the practice. But then, Ethan has always been an individual. As a college student, he converted to Buddhism. Being a Buddhist is unusual in the largely Christian Omega organization, but Ethan feels the two share similar ideals: "In Buddhism everybody has the power to attain Buddhahood in this life and reach a level of happiness where irrespective of their circumstances they can find happiness in their daily life from within." Just as Buddhism was addressing his concerns about fair treatment and the "uplift" of his fellow men, so too was his involvement in Omega Psi Phi. On national and local levels, Omega men act upon their ideals through scholarship programs, voter registration drives, high school essay contests, boys and girls clubs, summer camps, literacy campaigns, and other means. National initiatives have included aid to poor in South Africa, and most recently, a partnership with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in the U.S. The organization annually donates substantial sums of money to the United Negro College Fund; in 1992 alone they contributed $150,000.
"From a fraternal perspective," says Ethan, "brothers consider me a little eccentric no matter how you cut it. I'm by no means a mainstream Joe Blow." Not all Omegas get branded, but many do. Those I've spoken with emphasize that either way it's a decision they made on their own. Ethan may or may not be unusual in his faith or his choice of body modification, but he's not unusual in his commitment to the group, and for him at least his brands serve to tell the story: "First it's a sign to the individual. For me. I love my brands. But second I would say its an outward sign of my inward love of Omega."