Branding, or burning symbols into the skin with a heated object, is a tradition in black fraternities. Many members of black fraternities choose to get the brand as a symbol of their permanent allegiance to the fraternity -- a brand doesn't come off and is more ritualistic than a tattoo. Some black sorority members and some white fraternities engage in branding as well.
Unlike fraternities, secret societies keep both their activities and members secret from outsiders. One of the most famous secret societies, Skull and Bones at Yale University, claims both John Kerry and George W. Bush as members. Skull and Bones rituals are said to be inspired by the Freemasons, and the society is also said to have stolen Geronimo's bones [source: The Independent].
Pledging a Fraternity
In some fraternities, pledging is a process with multiple stages that can take up to a year and a half. In other fraternities, pledging takes place over a matter of weeks.
A big part of pledging is becoming familiar with the fraternity: learning about every single member, bonding with pledges, and learning about the founding members, the history of the fraternity and the Greek system as a whole.
The other big part of pledging is proving oneself worthy of being made a brother. Will the pledge uphold the ideals of the fraternity? Will he be someone they're proud to call a brother?
Pledges in black fraternities and some other fraternities spend much of their pledge period learning how to step. Stepping is a highly choreographed dance that involves stomping, clapping and chanting. The tradition rose out of the white fraternities' history of singing in glee club-style competitions. Each fraternity has a unique way of stepping, and many sororities now step as well. An initiated member's first step show is called a probate show.
Fraternity brothers often involve pledges in exercises of loyalty and trust. Pledges and brothers may also have a pledge project they work on together (building something for the house, for example) and be in charge of tasks like cleaning up after house parties. Pledges may do things for brothers, like serve as a designated driver on weekends.
If the brothers feel a pledge has completed his pledge education to their satisfaction, he can be initiated into the brotherhood. The actual initiation ceremony is shrouded in mystery. It may take several hours and involve chanting, robes, blindfolds and candlelight. The pledge will be initiated into the secrets of the fraternity, from secret mottoes and grips (handshakes) to passwords and the meanings behind rituals. He will be sworn to secrecy.
In the next section, we'll look at the dark side of fraternities -- hazing.