Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
If I never hear the word “twerk” again, it will be too soon. I’m all twerked out. I want to bury the “T-Word.” I’m so done with everyone writing about, making jokes about, and over-analyzing a simple dance move, as if it is a revolutionary act of political dissidence or the hidden cure to a generations-old disease.
Yet, here I am, writing about … twerking. So I take that back, just like I wish I could take twerking back from every clueless person who has claimed the right to pontificate on its social value and criticize what they believe to be the negative implications of some imagined twerking movement. While twerking isn’t something every African-American embraces or condones, it is certainly born of African dance traditions and is most closely associated with African-American women.
I happen to be one of the people who sees nothing wrong with twerking, as a stand-alone dance move, and I do feel a sense of ownership, especially because it has been in the spotlight in recent months. The more people write about twerking, the more I feel that they are writing less about the dance itself and more about the places and people with whom twerking originated. And I’m troubled by what is being said.
Twerking is a style of dance and is neither new nor inherently wrong, so let’s get that out of the way first. While hosting the 65th Emmy Awards, Neil Patrick Harris was encouraged by comediennes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to take his pants off and twerk. Harris said, “I am not twerking. I’m not gonna do that. That would be degrading.” Poehler then responded, “It might be degrading, but we would be de-grateful.” This exchange struck me as I watched the show because I am tired of people who had never heard of twerking before a few months ago publicly dismissing and ridiculing it as some negative phenomenon and making it the punch line of their jokes.
Not only are people making it out to be a degrading, horribly objectifying thing, they are mostly associating twerking with Miley Cyrus, who has done more than her fair share of appropriating elements of black American culture lately. The former star of the popular Disney show “Hannah Montana” has morphed into some kind of hybrid of wannabe hip-hop gangstress and punk rock rebel, who thinks bending over and awkwardly shimmying is twerking. Because she is an internationally known white female celebrity, people who had no clue about the dance before now think she is some kind of groundbreaking twerking queen introducing the world to the hottest new trend. Unfortunately, Cyrus’ attempts to be black and “cool” have translated into hypersexualized, mocking performances that have brought negative attention to a dance trend that remained tucked away in clubs, parties and, in recent years, YouTube.
While Mitch Albom writes in the Chicago Sun Times that he feels sorry for kids today and considers twerking grounds for punishment, I find myself reflecting back to the year 2000, when I was in college and first heard the song “Whistle While You Twurk” by the Southern hip-hop duo Ying Yang Twins. It was then when I attempted my first twerk at a campus party, after watching my Southern female classmates twerk with skilled perfection. The dance reminded me of dances I was more familiar with — I’m from New York City and had West Indian friends who did the Butterfly, the Pepperseed or “Dutty Wine.” I caught on rather quickly and before long, I was twerking like a professional.
For me, twerking was fun and never once did I feel like I was degrading myself. Could an onlooker say the dance was provocative? Of course, but provocative doesn’t automatically mean wrong. There have been times when I’ve done the dance because the rhythm of the music compelled my body to do it, and there have been times when I’ve done the dance to be seductive and elicit arousal from an onlooker. Again, I don’t see anything wrong with women doing either. I can’t help noticing that much of what is being said and written about twerking has a negative slant — perhaps because it is most closely associated with African-American women, who have been on the receiving end of an onslaught of negative media portrayal in recent years.
It appears to be open season to criticize a dance that many people consider harmless fun, because a former white American media darling has been hanging out with black people and picking up (read: appropriating) bits of their behavior (see also: Justin Bieber). This is nothing new, though, as America has perpetually feared its “innocent” young stars (and their own children) being tainted by trends that originate in black culture. Arguably, black youth have been the driving force behind most “cool” popular trends of the last couple of generations, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable when juxtaposed to persistent negative images, stereotypes and assumptions about black youth. From rock ‘n’ roll music to hip-hop culture, white American youth have been drawn to whatever we deem is “cool,” and they’ve more often than not gone on to appropriate, exploit and/or profit from a bastardized, inauthentic interpretation of “Black Coolness.”
Behind the castigation of twerking by older white Americans, however, is a not-so-subtle criticism of black culture and a rejection of its influence on larger popular trends. Twerking is being cast as shameful and degrading, in large part, because it is a dance that puts the focus on black women’s backsides and America’s treatment of (and ignorance about) black female sexuality has not supported black women’s affirmations of sexual agency.
Is it so hard to learn about the history and background of something you’re unfamiliar with, and give credit where it’s due? You don’t have to know a thing about twerking to leave it be. If it isn’t yours, you don’t have to touch it. If you don’t understand it, there is no need to form an opinion about it. If you’re curious, do the research, ask the respectful questions, and if you feel compelled to write about or report on it, do your best to do so with respect to cultural nuance and context. Making negative assumptions about parts of cultures to which you do not belong is never a good idea, and making bad jokes about those things in front of millions of people is even worse.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. She is a columnist for Ebony.com and section editor at BlogHer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones. More Feminista Jones.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)