To celebrate 113 years of service to all mankind, a new documentary highlights the history and legacy of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Twenty Pearls tells the story of the oldest Black-Greek letter sorority, founded in 1908 on the campus of Howard University, which boasts nearly 300,000 members across 50 states and 55 nations.
“This is such an incredible moment in our history as we look at Black women,” says Deborah Riley Draper, the documentary’s director. “History and sisterhood, in the context of 113 years of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., has not appeared on the screen like this before and I think the world needed to understand what Black women looked like from 1908 to this moment and what all of the iterations were that allowed us to get here.”
Draper says the documentary doesn’t just chronicle the history of her sorority but it serves as a love letter to all Black women. “This is for all of us because we are beautiful and strong. We are formidable but we don’t always get a chance to see or hear that.”
Chronicling moments such as when founder Nellie Quander wrote to Alice Paul explaining why Black women should be included in the women’s suffrage march in 1913 and founder Norma Boyd’s work to push President Franklin D. Roosevelt to integrate the military, Draper says the documentary rightly situates the story of Alpha Kappa Alpha–and to a larger extent, Black women–within the larger context of our nation’s unfolding. “Telling this story against the backdrop of World Wars 1 and 2, the women’s march, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, we get to see our story against the backdrop of American history because it is an American story.”
Twenty Pearls serves as the first feature release on Comcast’s newly launched “Black Experience on Xfinity.” The platform aims to provide viewers with authentic Black stories. “When we launched Black experience, the intention was to find and discover powerful stories and to partner with emerging content creators like Deborah to tell these stories,” says Keesha Boyd, the Executive Director for Multicultural Video and Entertainment at Comcast NBCU. “It’s amazing that a story this huge is still hidden to so many Americans.”
Yet Boyd says being a part of people learning Black History, in this moment, is the purpose of the platform. “For people to have the opportunity to discover new nuggets of history and have a greater understanding of what was going on during the time that the film covers is really the point of having a platform as big as Xfinity. It’s about bringing these stories into the homes of our customers across the nation.”
The presence of Twenty Pearls on “Black Experience on Xfinity” marks the third time Boyd and Draper have worked together. In 2012, Boyd assisted with the distribution of Draper’s debut film, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution. They also partnered together to distribute Draper’s 2016 film, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, which is the story of the 18 African-American Olympians who defied Hilter and Jim Crow during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
For Boyd, the choice to bring this documentary to the Xfinity platform was also a personal one. “As a Black woman and as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, I am inextricably linked to this story and it was poetic to be able to partner with her again to help bring this story to life.” And while some on-campus rivalries would seem to pit the two sororities against each other, Boyd laughs and says that the sisterhood among Black women has always been more powerful than trite competition. “This is just what we do. Working together and helping each other rise is always who we have been as Black women.”
Notable actress and icon Phylicia Rashad was selected to be the voice of Twenty Pearls, narrating the documentary. Rashad, who was inspired to join Alpha Kappa Alpha after her aunt, Betty E. Allen, pledged at Texas Southern University, fondly recalls the “yard” at 1 o’clock on Fridays on the campus of her alma mater, Howard University, where the Greeks would stroll and sing. “I saw them and they were beautiful,” she says. “They were smart. They were self-directed. They did not appear petty and it was glorious to see.”
Not only does Rashad believe Twenty Pearls is essential to the scope of Black history, she also sees it as a true gift to the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha. “Even with what we learned as pledges, we did not learn this information. And it’s important now like never before that sorors and young women who would think to pledge understand this legacy.”
In a moment where the national conversation seems to be centered around Black women, especially after the historic win of Vice President Kamala Harris, who also pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha at Howard, Rashad says Twenty Pearls also highlights the beautiful story of Black women learning to trust and show up for each other. “Listen, Lord knows there’s a lot of fun in pledging. Going to parties, hiding from people, meeting up with your boyfriend when you knew you weren’t supposed to. We had fun.”
But, more than the fun, Rashad says membership in these organizations serves a greater purpose. “It’s really about bonding and learning to be dependable. You’ve gotta show up for people and know that people will show up for you,” she says. “At its core, our pledge and membership experiences ask a fundamental question of us: can you trust and can you be trusted?”
And when “Trust Black Women” seems to just be an internet catchphrase, Twenty Pearls proves that it’s not. “Black women have been doing the work in our communities and really across the world for a very long time to ensure a better future for the next generations,” Draper says. “I’m proud this story gets to be told and is part of the legacy of that work.”
Twenty Pearls premiered on March 26 on Xfinity and is currently available nationwide on demand.