by Johnnerlyn Johnson
Flags twirl with precision. Smiles cannot be swiped from the faces of the dancers if they were paid huge dividends to be sad. Knees made of elastic snap to chests from stilted legs of marching statuesque figurines. White shoes are suspended in the air for what seems to be a full minute. Polished, glimmering brass has blinding effects. A head-bobbing cadence and thunderous bass from the percussion creates a sonic boom. Plumes and capes sway with authority. Calculated, robotic movements are the result of hours of practice.
Anywhere from one to ten drum majors gallop ahead of the band onto the field as if escaping the scorching flames of a burning building. The audience remains enamored as they absorb the rhythmic movement of these drum majors who salute the crowd to signify that a human music machine is seconds away from mesmerizing all within earshot. They twirl the baton, hope and pray they catch it, and then thrust the batons into the turf. It’s showtime!!
Most members of a college marching band will admit that fans come to the games to take in the athletic competition, but they remain glued to their seats for the half-time show. Concessions wait until the third quarter.
This is what the audience sees. The dramatic irony of this scenario is that, more often than not, membership into certain organizations (i.e. sports teams, Greek-lettered organizations, musical organizations) sometimes requires behind-the-scenes secretive rites of passage designed to make potential members “earn” their membership. It is called hazing. Hazing may occur in various forms and usually involves veteran members coercing “newbies” into certain borderline abusive practices. The premise is that some veterans feel since they had to endure these rites of passage, the rookies should “be broken down to be built up.”
Having pledged membership to a Greek-lettered organization in college, I am keenly aware of the polar extremes that may be associated with gaining membership. Learning history and paying the monetary dues associated with the business side of membership is but one factor. Good-natured banter once may have been the intent; however, civil individuals on both the giving and receiving ends should know when to say when. When there is no differentiation, the following occurs.
Robert Champion, the deceased Florida A&M University (FAMU) student, was living his childhood dream of becoming a drum major. He died on November 20th as a result of what law enforcement has identified as hazing. Apparently when he boarded the band’s bus to return to the hotel after a performance, he had to walk through a “gauntlet of fists” that pounded his body leading to his imminent death.
This FAMU drum major’s death hits close to home. During a conversation last Friday with Dr. Michael Magruder, the Band Director of Winston Salem State University’s “Red Sea of Sound,” he said, “Although I do not know Mr. Champion, we will ask the audience to keep both Robert and his family in their reflections and meditations during our halftime performance against the University of New Haven (Connecticut) on Saturday.”
At Robert Champion’s funeral, there was a call from many to end hazing. Who knew that Robert Champion’s dream of becoming a drum major since age five would, twenty-one years later, result in the loss of his life because, according to Ernie Suggs of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, during Robert’s final performance, all this drum major did was drop his baton.