How the history of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. shaped my Peace Corps decision

By LoRen Burroughs
Feb. 1, 2018

“He (the American Negro) now becomes a conscious contributor and lays aside the status of a beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization.” –Alain Lockeprominent literary figure within the Harlem Renaissance (1925)

The late decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century proved to be extremely consequential to the African American narrative. From the end of chattel slavery to the Reconstruction Era to the Red Summer of 1919 to the Harlem Renaissance, Black Americans throughout this era strove to actively reposition themselves in the minds of their fellow countrymen and even amongst themselves. The psychological effects of slavery on man, those of inferiority and inadequacy, slowly began to come into question as African Americans went from being categorized as 3/5ths of a person to, in theory, equal members of society virtually overnight. As African Americans slowly saw new legislative freedoms unfold for the collective, the conflict between the law and practicality of the law created an unsettling feeling; it caused a movement to redefine equal representation. It caused a movement that chanted, “I, too, sing America."

It is within this context that Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated was birthed. Founded in 1908, the 16 original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha were among “the fewer than 1,000 Negroes enrolled in higher education in 1908.” The mission was quite simple, one of women’s empowerment, social change and racial uplift. Yet the women who founded Alpha Kappa Alpha found themselves asking a similar inquiry of their recently-freed forebears: “What does equal representation in American democracy look like for me? And how best am I to contribute, for myself, my countrymen and my people?”

When I arrived in Botswana as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I didn’t yet understand how relevant my presence would be to the understanding of American democracy or the conceptualization of the American people. As an African American woman, I have had to constantly challenge internationally held stereotypes of racial identity in America and abroad. The range of emotions I have often felt when my identity comes into question range from confusion to exhaustion to relief. 

Yet this phenomenon is not new for members of the African diaspora in America; the struggle between identity acceptance and representation is the tie that binds so many Black Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world. As we serve our communities as representatives of America, we fully understand the dichotomy.

Alpha Kappa Alpha means many things to me. She means fellowship, kinship and sisterhood; she also means an undying call to contribute to causes that are larger than myself. It has been my life’s work to answer that call, not for the sake of Alpha Kappa Alpha but because I owe it to those who came before me, for those on whose shoulders I stand. The Peace Corps has allowed me to create my own definition of representation and contribution.

“I am because they are” and I am truly grateful to be in the number. 

LoRen Burroughs