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The Sorority Behind Black Feminism : IN SEARCH OF SISTERHOOD: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the BlackSorority Movement by Paula Giddings (William Morrow: $16.95; 336 pp.)

July 31, 1988|Margaret Edds | Edds, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot/Ledger-Star newspapers, is the author of "Free at Last: What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics"(Adler & Adler).

In 1965, as Patricia Roberts Harris was on the verge of becoming the first black woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador, she observed: "While there are many things in my life that have prepared me for what I am about to do, it is largely the experience in Delta Sigma Theta which gives me the most security."

The sisterhood to which the future ambassador and Cabinet member referred may be unknown to many whites, whose familiarity with Greek organizations often turns on memories of pledging rituals and springtime dances. But for thousands of black women in the United States and abroad, as Paula Giddings makes clear in her latest contribution to the literature of that group, the sororal experience has been more central, more complex, and more lasting.

"In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement" is a 75th-anniversary commemorative, exploring the evolution, contributions and challenges of what Giddings says is the nation's largest black women's group--and one of the largest in the world.

With 125,000 members, Delta's rolls are a veritable who's who of 20th-Century black feminism, including such prominent figures as Harris, Mary Church Terrell, Sadie T. M. Alexander, Mary McLeod Bethune, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Leontyne Price, Lena Horne, Roberta Flack and hundreds of other leaders in politics, education and the arts.

The sorority's overriding contribution to those women, suggests Giddings, herself a Delta, has been a psychological strengthening in an often hostile environment. "The underlying ideas of Greek-letter life, which were scholastic, inspirational and fraternal, had a peculiar appeal and urgency among black students whose opportunities made them exceptions in their own communities and the object of neglect or hostility in the majority society," she writes.

And again, "It struck me that black women may be at their freest, their happiest and their most fulfilled when they are together in their organizations."

Giddings, who has been an editor of Random House and Howard University Press, as well as Paris bureau chief of "Encore American and Worldwide News," sounded a similar theme as she described the black women's club movement in her much-praised earlier work, "When and Where I Enter . . . The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America."

That book ambitiously and successfully charted the convergence of black women with the modern societal movements toward female and civil rights.

"In Search of Sisterhood" is less sweeping in design and result. It is an adjunct to the earlier work, one in which much of the detail--lists of national officers and early chapter members, for instance--will interest only Deltas. What lifts the book beyond its narrowly focused subject are anecdotes and historical notes that illuminate the broader experience of black women in America generally.

For instance, Giddings writes that when the Deltas first tried to organize at the University of Pennsylvania in 1913, the year of their founding, they were unable to do so because the entire undergraduate campus had only two black women students. It was not until five years later that the university's black female population grew to five, the minimum number for a chapter.

The experience of the Delta chapter at the University of Nebraska two decades later underscored the limited access of black women to higher education. A chapter officer complained that two members had to teach that year and another was called home because of family illness, "thus our ranks are reduced to two."

Even when black women were enrolled in classes, they were often excluded from dormitories, making a sorority house more than a frivolity. At the University of Iowa, for example, the women's dorm was described in the 1910s as a "dream home," luxurious quarters for all but black students, who were not allowed to live on campus.

Organizing chapters at some schools was a struggle, Giddings writes, because "administrators were often wary of black students forming associations, especially if there was the prospect of more than one such organization on campus."

A major focus of her work is Delta's sometimes ambivalent but ever growing involvement in social causes. The sorority's first public act, after its 1913 founding at Howard University, was to march in a massive women's suffrage parade on the eve of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. (Deltas were, of course, required to join other black women at the rear of the line.)

In subsequent years, the sorority would leave its imprint on dozens of projects, from library services in the rural South to relief efforts in Haiti and Kenya. By the mid-1970s, the term sorority was dropped from official usage, and Delta Sigma Theta became known as a "social service organization."

Delta's role in the civil rights movement is more ambiguous, and it is one of the strengths of Giddings' work that she does not shirk from that fact. Describing the failure of the sorority's president to speak out on school desegregation in the 1950s, for instance, she writes: "One must wonder at a lack of decisiveness on an issue that meant so much to the constituency."

"In Search of Sisterhood" succeeds as a detailed study of an organization that has touched the lives of some of the most prominent black women in America. What it lacks is an intimate glimpse at how--and whether--Delta Sigma Theta helped make them the stars they have become. I would like to have heard from the Barbara Jordans and Shirley Chisholms, speaking in their own voices about the impact of the sisterhood. Patricia Harris' tribute to Delta Sigma Theta two decades ago whets the appetite.

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