What do twerking and Hurricane Katrina have to do with each other? Absolutely everything.
I know that y’all have been inundated with discussions of twerking since Miley’s unfortunate, insidious, and downright bad performance at the VMA’s earlier this week. There have been some really great pieces about all that is wrong with her performance here and here. So I will not retread this ground.
But when I woke up this morning to discover that the word “twerk” is now being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, I felt some type of way. I felt the same type of way years ago when “bling” was added to the OED.
When words get added to the OED, it means that white people have started using them, and therefore, they rise to the level of the Oxford brand.
But as is the case with both bling and twerking, and twerking much more so, these are words I grew up with …literally.
I am from Louisiana, and I came of age there in the 1990s. Back then, before local radio outlets were all coopted under the banner of Top 40 stations, twerk music from local New Orleans based musicians DJ Jimi and DJ Jubilee was always played on the radio. These songs were the soundtrack to every party I went to in high school, and were frequently played on the local radio during the “top 8 at 8.”
So this morning, just before I discovered that “twerk” is now Oxford worthy, I had an unsettling feeling that there was something significant that happened on August 29th that I needed to remember. I sat and thought hard for a few moments, but only remembered that this is the 21st anniversary of my great grandmother’s death.
Then I proceeded on to my usual morning Facebook routine wherein I commenced a snarkfest about all that is wrong with twerking being coopted by white people. I talked about the need to write a piece about how disturbed I am at the historical erasure of Louisiana from the narrative of twerking, even though the contemporary iterations of this African ancestral dance are indebted to New Orleans local bounce and sissy bounce music cultures.
Then one of my friends from New Orleans posted her own remembrance of Hurricane Katrina. And I realized that I had forgotten.
Now, I’m from the Northern part of Louisiana, a place that often feels like it is in a different country from the Southern part of the state, and my family members were not heavily impacted by the storm. But I think the thing that connects Black folks throughout the state, particularly those of us of a certain age, is a love for New Orleans bounce music.
So many of the local cultures that make New Orleans the unique and valuable city that it is were nearly washed away in the unrelenting waters of Hurricane Katrina.
How dare we forget? How dare I forget? Bodies being stranded on rooftops, having written, “We are Americans.” Waving the flag. Hoping that Black lives mattered. Hoping anyone would care.
This white cultural fascination (really fetishization) with a “new” aspect of Black culture makes our forgetting all the more egregious.
(H/T to DivaFeminist for sharing this vid.)
First, “twerking” ain’t new. Second, twerking would not be a part of the national imaginary right now, if it weren’t for New Orleans.
(Consider these two videos.)
(In this one, a few things are noteworthy — men of presumably all sexual orientations danced and twerked, joyfully. Black college bands [Southern and Grambling] did routines to the music. And the DJ interpellated call and response culture through the use of “stop…pause…now.”)
Neither would terms like “ratchet” and “bling” and the various cultural practices associated with them.
Moreover, New Orleans has been a model for embracing queer music cultures through folks love of Sissy Bounce. I know everyone talks about Big Freedia, but Katey Red is the one I remember; she used to be played on the radio. Name a Black trans artist that you can hear on mainstream radio now.
And since we are remembering women’s contributions to this art form, we cannot forget Cheeky Blakk’s “Twerk Sumthin’”
Even while the country decries Black low culture (mind you, all low culture ain’t Black and all Black culture ain’t low), white folks steadily play in the dark, hoping that the quickness with which they coopt and assimilate the lingo and gestures of Blackness into their cultural repertoire will confer on them unfadeable street cred.
This has been a week of remembrances for Black folks, and for the most part it hasn’t been done well. Did President Obama even mention Hurricane Katrina in his speech yesterday?
But on this week, we celebrated the 50th March on Washington, the anniversary of Aaliyah’s death, the anniversary of the lynching of Emmitt Till, and the anniversary of Katrina. Perhaps all this premature Black death, made the ether too heavy, because I surely felt uninspired by the March on Washington commemoration. It felt more like a funeral for Civil Rights and a death knell for Black dreaming.
This is the kind of moment in which Black folks might throw a party and twerk until the wee hours of the morning, to dance away pain, to remember joy in community. Despite the respectability politics that had many Black folks clutching pearls at Miley, this is just one more reason why her stuff is so disturbing. Ratchetness and low culture are a part of a multi-faceted repertoire for Black people. I usually am not being ratchet on my day job. But I recognize ratchet cultural forms as part of my own cultural heritage that I can draw upon and enjoy in the appropriate cultural context.
There is time and place for sexy gyration with wild abandon, and Black folks should never concede that this isn’t a part of our inheritance. We recognize as we participate that ratchet is a part of who we are, but not the whole picture. And it is a part of our experience that made the blues and jazz and hip hop necessary, not just for entertainment but for survival.
Yet, it is amazing how Black people themselves float away in these remembrances, while the spaces in which we have lived for generations (Brooklyn/New Orleans — North/South) and have produced art and culture become gentrified, taken over, and unappreciated. White people want the cultural products, but not the cultural producers. They want Blackness to be the backdrop against which their whiteness in all its complexity stands out in stark relief.
So even as we call for the genealogies of twerking to be properly named, we also resist the impulses of needing an official narrative (no thank you wikipedia), precisely because these practices are beholden to different forms of authority, accountability and knowledgemaking than those that inform the OED, academe, and even the VMAs.
I’ll stop now. But I simply ask that you remember, recognizing that the history we tell, is always a mashup of memory, archive, and storytelling. If twerking and the place that (re)birthed it, is not a part of your memory, your archive, or your story, (in other words, if forgetting doesn’t cost you anything) perhaps you should leave it be.
[Update, 11:57am — a reader let us know the word twerk has been added to the Oxford Dictionary Online, but not the OED. As yet anyway, since entries from the ODO inform what is put in the OED. Moreover, I think the original point holds — there is something imperialist about putting black cultural references in the dictionary (whatever their form) when white American becomes aware them.]