I am a proud graduate of Florida A&M University.
However, my booming pride in my alma mater, my pride-soaked connection was temporarily wrung out when I learned of the hazing death of fellow Rattler, Robert Champion. It has been several weeks now since his tragic death after the Florida Classic in Orlando, and only now have I been able stabilize my emotional and intellectual roller coaster to intelligently share some thoughts.
My anger has been directed not only at the university, the band and band members, but also myself. I knew about the band hazing, but allowed the knowledge to recede when I shouted and danced to their thrilling performance at the Atlanta Classic in September. I knew about the band hazing, but still proclaimed again and again that it was the best band in the world. I knew about the band hazing, but I never once thought to expose it, never once thought to write about it, never once thought to publicly condemn it, never once thought to truly and intimately reject it.
Like many, I just rationalized hazing as part of the culture of the famous Marching 100, the culture of HBCUs, the culture of higher education, the culture of America. I sit here and write word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, article after article, challenging, ridiculing, opposing racism in higher education—racism that harms, racism that excludes, racism that dispirits, a vicious racism I continuously declare can and needs to be extracted from the culture of the academy. All the while, I am justifying, ignoring, writing off, being conservative and pessimistic about a culture of hazing that relentlessly harms, excludes, dispirits and took the life of a talented Champion.
The revelation of my own immobility and hypocrisy has saddened me, to say it lightly. There are those moments in life when we come down incredibly hard on ourselves with more force than we can bear, and for me it has been like that the last few weeks.
Before this tragedy, most people would agree that hazing was a problem, hazing was wrong, hazing needed to stop. But have we deemed it a crisis? Have we classified it on the same level as sexism and racism and funding inequities and budget cuts in higher education? Have we placed it on the first page of social justice concerns in the academy? Have we fought against it with the same amount of passion? Have we talked about it as much?
How many more students have to do die before we do? How many more students have to be sent to the hospital before we do? How many more students have to shy away from organizations that haze before we do?
Fortunately, I am speaking to the choir because the outcry against hazing has been strident, forceful, and unrelenting in the last few weeks, specifically from Rattlers, which has re-saturated my pride-soaked connection.
We know that blame should be placed on the band members who carried out this homicide. But it should be a cautious, understanding, historically grounded blame that remembers that they were doing what cohorts before them had done, while I (am sure many others) figuratively (and probably literally) looked the other way.
On the one hand, Champion’s death uncovered a culture of hazing, not student killers. It uncovered a culture of hazing that persisted long before James H. Ammons came to Tallahassee. It has harmed people long before Florida Governor Rick Scott ignorantly thought that the way to relate to middle-class FAMU students and Black state legislators was to reveal his upbringing in “public housing,” cared for by a father with a “sixth-grade education.”
The response should be about eradicating that culture, not finding whom to blame for his death. We can expel, arrest and jail the practitioners of the culture, but that does not automatically expel, arrest and jail the culture. We must expel, arrest and jail the culture of hazing. Now that the FAMU board of trustees has smartly rejected Scott’s plea to suspend Ammons, the blame game needs to cease and the construction of a new culture needs to commence.
On some level, many of us are to blame for the homicide. I know I am. Many of us fed this culture consciously and unconsciously, and it is going to be us that must consciously starve it and feed something new. The life of a new culture must come out of the death of our beloved Champion.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972(2012).