by: Robert Samuels / The Washington Post
It was October 2016, and this was the first step show that black fraternities and sororities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga had decided to do on their own. They took the show off campus, abandoning a glitzy annual homecoming event that had long included black and white students — and produced a program they felt was a more authentic reflection of stepping’s African American origins.
“For us to listen to those steps and chants and see the similarities, it just rubbed us the wrong way,” Kaitibi said. “It felt like they were disregarding us.”
Without telling any school administrators, Kaitibi and others decided to create Chattanooga Black Greek Weekend, a step show featuring only black fraternities and sororities. In case their intentions weren’t completely clear, their event was to be held on the same date, around the same time, as the traditional on-campus show.
As homecoming neared, Jim Hicks, the dean of students, heard rumors that black students were planning a step show of their own. By then, there was little that could be done to stop it.
Hicks, who is white, was still taken aback when he walked into the basketball arena and noticed the university-sponsored step show had become virtually all white.
The crowds roared and cheered as usual, but Hicks knew he had a problem.
“We can’t do this,” said Hicks, 47, who has worked in student affairs at UTC for nearly 20 years. “We can’t have a white homecoming and a black homecoming. That’s just not healthy. It’s not who we are. It’s not who we want to be as an institution.”
A part of UTC’s strategic plan, adopted in 2014, was to “embrace diversity and inclusion as a path to excellence and societal change.” Now, instead of becoming a lab to create solutions to the country’s racial issues, the campus became a microcosm of them.
Ten percent of the student body is black, and administrators say that most of the campus population comes from racially homogeneous high schools. Many white students with whom Hicks said he spoke did not recognize issues of race on campus; those who did were afraid they would accidentally say something offensive. Meanwhile, black students told him they were trying to find a balance between self-affirmation and racial reconciliation.
“I quickly realized this is not just about a step show; this was a symbol,” Hicks said. “It was a very visible symbol of responding to the hurt they feel on campus and in the world. . . . I certainly thought about the issues surrounding the police brutality, the Black Lives Matter and those issues, and how those movements have informed or created a sense of advocacy among young African American students.
“I thought about how we as an institution had not heard them,” Hicks said. “And I thought about what we could do to fix it.”
“We all had friends who were African American, and so it wasn’t a big deal to go up and ask how we could support them in the show,” Hudson said.
Harris-Gay, one of the Deltas organizing the StepDown, said her sorority was receptive to the idea, because “it was a special opportunity for the sorority to learn more about our culture.”
There was one little problem: The ADPi’s had no idea how to step.
So, one afternoon, Harris-Gay and the drum major for the school marching band, both Deltas, visited the ADPi house. Harris-Gay said she explained that stepping was a way to connect their sorority to their African roots. They started with easy steps, stomp-clap-stomp-clap on rhythm, Harris-Gay said. Once they ADPi’s started to get it, they taught them how each step, snap or stomp made a particular sound — though they refrained from sharing their signature steps.
Hudson said her sorority sisters would spend hours at a time practicing to get the moves right. Another white sorority began working with a black fraternity to join in, as well. A buzz began to build on campus.
“Everyone was just waiting, to see, okay, how are these white girls going to do?” Harris-Gay said.
Homecoming weekend 1991 came. Hudson and more than 20 of her sisters walked to the Boling Apartments, where a mostly black crowd had gathered in the quad.
The ADPi’s bent down to their knees, snapped and began to step.
“We probably looked a little silly,” recalled Hudson, who is now an optometrist in Chattanooga.
“The crowd was amazed,” said Harris-Gay, who lives in Atlanta and works in marketing for Delta Air Lines. “You could tell they worked hard to prepare these steps, and they didn’t embarrass themselves.”
A new tradition was born. By 1998, when Hicks arrived on campus, more than 2,500 people would show up for the show at an amphitheater built to accommodate 200.
“We would tell facilities to go clean up and make sure there were no ant hills or wasps’ nests or anything in the trees because students are going to be in the trees,” Hicks said.
Along the way, some of the black and white Greek organizations grew closer. In the early 2000s, after one black fraternity was suspended, a white fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, wore T-shirts supporting the members.
“We knew we had a link going years back,” said Clarence Shields, a 2009 graduate who was in Kappa Alpha Psi, the black fraternity that was suspended. “And it was cool to have that support.”
But by 2008, the fundamental nature of the StepDown was about to change. A woman pledging Delta Sigma Theta accused its members of assault in a hazing ritual, and the sorority was suspended from the university. Its signature step show was left without anyone to organize it.
The campus was in an uproar. Minority students at UTC responded by saying that support for a wall was illustrative of the wall between races on campus.
Administrators thought the incident could finally present an opportunity to pry open lingering concerns about inclusion, so they began holding town halls about diversity.
The student who wrote the messages explained she came from a small town and didn’t understand how supporting Trump might be offensive.
This thinking only made some black students more skeptical, according to Simone Edwards, 20, who is vice president of the Black Student Alliance and editor of the online minority newspaper, the Torch:Reborn.
Whenever an issue is brought up, she said, white students plead ignorance. And black students, it seems, are asked to move past it.
“I just wonder why people don’t do their research before they say something,” Edwards said.
During that period, Kaitibi began raising the idea of retaking ownership of the step show. He challenged black Greeks to look to their history. Black fraternities had been founded after members were denied entry into white societies and used that experience to create powerful social networks of their own, dedicated to uplifting the community. Stepping could still be a way to show off their identity and share their history. They could even fundraise for community centers in Chattanooga’s worst neighborhoods.
Kaitibi’s classmates had demurred a year earlier when he made the same argument. But this time, they were ready.
Unable to bring all of the fraternities and sororities back together after last year’s split step show, Hicks canceled this year’s on-campus event altogether.
When the decision was made, Hicks convened another town hall for diversity and inclusion. About 70 students — mostly black — showed up, but others said they skipped it because they had grown tired of discussions about diversity.
At the meeting, a white student asked Hicks why the university would cancel something so meaningful to them.
“Stepping isn’t yours,” Hicks recalled responding. “This experience was so essential, and it’s so tied to the history of [black Greeks], and I think it just became something you have stolen and you are using it as your own.”
Kaitibi told the audience that the black Greeks wanted to do something to “preserve our heritage and honor our traditions.” It wouldn’t necessarily be bad if a white group wanted to do the same, “but we have to wonder: What traditions are you honoring?”
(Photo Credit: Melissa Golden) The Alpha Kappa Alpha contingent of the audience reacts as their sorority represents them on stage at the second annual Chattanooga Black Greek Weekend.The white students thanked him for the explanation, and their leaders encouraged their chapters not to protest the changes. They partnered with black Greeks on other events through the year. Instead of stepping, the university encouraged white Greeks to participate in a lip-sync competition during homecoming weekend.
“Let’s put our energy into that,” Jared Ryan, 22, a white UTC senior and current president of the Kappa Alpha Order, recalled telling his brothers. Ryan’s fraternity was one of those that had been accused of stealing steps, which he said embarrassed him because it was “not meant to step on anyone’s toes.”
Grace Buford, 22, who is white and had learned step as a part of a majority-white dance team growing up, helped organize the on-campus step show in her last year on campus. Stepping on campus had become one of her favorite events, but Buford said she wanted to stay away from defending the event when it became so racialized. She didn’t want to offend someone. As a white person, she said, sometimes it’s better to be quiet. Still, she harbored disappointment.
“I think if you say to someone that you believe in equality and you want to make that happen, you should do everything you can to make it happen,” said Buford, a member of Alpha Delta Pi, the sorority that first started stepping at UTC. “I don’t think [canceling] is going to fix anything. It’s not going to make us all be best friends. It’s not going to alleviate the tensions that are there.”
Ignoring the problem didn’t make the deeper issues disappear. The Thursday before homecoming weekend in October of this year, thousands piled into the basketball arena to watch predominantly white fraternities and sororities perform choreographic dances for the lip-sync event. Groups dressed in elaborate makeup, and shimmied and twerked to songs by Yo Gotti and Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Edwards, the editor of the Torch, took to Twitter and wrote:
“I love how y’all use black music for every performance but y’all voted for Trump lol.”