Gazing at his right arm, Benjamin Nesbitt will never forget April 15, not even if he tried.
That day Nesbitt crossed the Alpha Eta chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, a childhood goal that had finally been achieved, and as a seal to his pledging process, he agreed to be branded with a hot iron in the shape of a Sigma.
“I was just so excited,” said the 19-year-old junior computer information sciences student from Washington. “I was like ‘put it on me.'”
While Nesbitt said his voluntary brand symbolizes his fraternity and its mission of service, scholarship and brotherhood, branding was once a forced practice used on slaves to represent oppression, bondage and ownership.
“Sometimes slaves were branded so if they ran away from the plantations, the owners knew who to look for,” said James Eaton, a professor of history and the director of the Black Archives. “And if the hunters found them, they knew who the slaves belonged to.”
Eaton added that not all groups used branding as a means of control or possession.
“Black people branded black people and white people branded black people,” Eaton said.
“One was a thing of beauty. Many Africans already had scars to show their tribal distinction and they were proud. It was considered a sign of beauty. The other (reason) was to keep slaves from running away.”
Many members of greek organizations who are branded partake in the process after pledging. The university’s anti-hazing policy prohibits branding as a pledging requirement.
“I don’t see it (branding) as ‘Sigma’s my master,'” Nesbitt said. “I see it as an undying love for my fraternity.”
Cassandra Black, the national president of the Pan-Hellenic Council, which covers nine African-American fraternities and sororities, said her organization does not have an official position on branding but she feels it is a personal choice for each member.
“We don’t allow branding as part of the intake process,” Black said. “Now after the fact, as a card-carrying member, if a person decides to get a brand as part of their embellishment signifying their letters, then that’s their choice.”
Levy Anthony, 22, a graduate business administration student from St. Louis, said he also made the choice to be branded.
“It’s kind of a tradition in my organization and it felt like a completion of the entire process,” he said. “People who criticize branding are often speaking from an outsider’s perspective. If they were in the organization,they would understand.”
Nesbitt’s mother understood. She suspected her son had been branded after he began scratching his arm. Nesbitt’s mother, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., has a brand on her leg.
“She saw me scratching and said, ‘What’s wrong? Does your brand itch?,'” he said. “I was shocked because I didn’t tell her, she just knew.”
Almost seven months after being branded, Nesbitt said he has no regrets.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Sigma since I was 3 (years old),” he said. “My father’s a Sigma, my mom’s a Zeta. It was like I was branded when I was born.”