My first introduction to the word “twerk” was on Usher’s highly anticipated 8701 albums. The album, released in the summer of 2001, featured the song “Twerk it Out.” A melodic tune, “Twerk it Out” features a rhythm and blues flow that has largely dissipated from the contemporary sound. Though sexual in undertone, Usher’s “twerking” references a sensuality absent from its contemporary use. Nevertheless, while this song marked my introduction to the word, it hardly introduced “twerking.”
Twerking, or the sexualized gyration in which one uses their waist and upper leg to thrust the derriere and pelvic region, derived from rhythmic motions that did not originate as sexual. In its European abduction, this movement became “twerking,” an act that seemingly centralizes and celebrates the derriere. For this reason, twerking appears a badge of glory for those who have the right attributes.
Twerking, however, does not place the derriere in an exalted position. So while it appears that many curvy black girls and women have accepted their bodies, those who credit twerking with this pride do so under the oppressive gaze of white supremacist propaganda. Twerking marks a commodified culture propagated for profit. Therefore, twerking designates the black woman’s derriere as exhibition, an exhibition reminiscent of the auction block culture that compartmentalized the African foremother.
Perhaps the most referenced foremother with regards to the black female body is Saartje Baartman. Baartman, a voluptuous Khoi-Khoi woman exhibited in a French circus during the 18th century, functioned as a line of demarcation between black and white women. Particularly, the French appointed Baartman as a symbol of an exaggerated and “freakish” sexuality that aligned black woman with animals. This alignment underscored European humanity. Though she did not twerk, Baartman epitomizes what results from twerk culture— a villanized imaging that delineates the black woman as an animal to be bought and sold. Simultaneously, this depiction illustrates a line of demarcation between civilization and chastity. Thus, by twerking, black women take a place beside Baartman, not as beautiful black women, but as powerful figures rendered powerless by the white gaze.
Yet, with a psyche severely distorted by disenfranchisement, Twerking appears to walk the fine line between appreciation and exploitation. This statement, contentious in both theory and execution, proves most evident in Normani’s recent video (and reception) for her single “Motivation.”
Motivation marks the first solo effort from Normani— the sole black woman in girl group 5th Harmony. During her time in the group known for songs like “Worth It,” and “Work from Home,” Normani was an obvious standout. Though not the first member of the group to go solo, Normani was the only member of the group to exhibit talent in both singing and dancing. Yet, while her talent made her hard to ignore, it is what Normani meant to the little black girls seeking to see themselves that proves most resonant. Normani planted a mustard seed of hope for the brown girl to see that the spotlight looks beautiful on brown skin. This evidences that we as a people still have a pertinent issue with regards to cultivating our children to see beyond the oppressive gaze. What I mean here, is that black children remain forced to look to the auction block for inspiration, to mimic our ancestor’s exploitation and not the parts of them that his story refuses to remember.
Normani’s new video “Motivation,” proves a contemporized version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” sixteen years after the solo hit transitioned Beyonce from girl group member into a solo superstar. “Motivation,” promises the same for Normani, but this foreboding fact poses an important query:
Do we really need another Beyonce?
For clarity, by “we,” I speak specifically to those of African descent displaced in America.
I also pose this inquiry as someone who grew up loving Beyonce. While her talent, beauty, and body was not something that I necessarily looked up to—it was something that I appreciated and still appreciate. Beyonce had a similar body to the women in my family, so as young girl becoming a woman, she subconsciously aided in my body confidence. However, Beyonce’s moves, which would make her into a global superstar, itemized not only her own physique, but the black female aesthetic that has went on to consummate a beauty standard autonomous from its black female origins. So, while it may seem that Beyonce twerked her way to the top, “Crazy In Love” marks the beginning of a contemporary trajectory where America fell crazy in love with an itemized black aesthetic but not the black woman.
What’s interesting about Beyonce is that though pegged as a light-skinned black woman, her rise to the top, highlights that though not a Kelly Rowland or a Grace Jones, Beyonce does not function as a Mariah Carey, whose voice and passable appearance made it so that her voice, not her body, proved enough for her stardom. Beyonce, however, twerked her way to the allusive top, and it is her “showmanship,” not necessarily her voice, that consummated her icon-status. Perhaps, the only black woman to reach international stardom without using her body is Whitney Houston, which is a large part of her irreplaceable legacy. Nevertheless, as black bodies under the white supremacist spotlight, both Whitney Houston and Beyonce symbolize the black woman on the auction block, bought and sold millions of times as an artist and as an itemized entity.
Similarly, while the world appears to superficially celebrate Normani’s voice, body, and dance moves at the moment, this enthusiasm would greatly dissipate if she were a black woman using her mind to lead her people away from anti-blackness. Normani’s reception is just another example of how America will always have a space for the black person who uses their body. America will always have a place for the sexy black girl, whose sex appeal comes to encompass what remains a woman’s most desired and profitable asset, her beauty. This video and its reception proves another example of how America will promote the belief that Hollywood is anything other than a stage for the black woman who can solely incite a superficial pride that cannot and will not inspire true change.
As a potential “new Beyonce” that is darker-skinned, Normani suggests that things have changed. Normani resumes the distorted American story where the black woman who has twerked her way to the top proves that the country loves black people and appreciates black women.
This, of course, could not be further from the truth. For if the country truly loved and appreciated black women, there would be no Beyonce or Normani. Instead, black women would see images that encouraged them to use their minds, their creativity, not their bodies that act as a boat that continues to transition black female humanity into cargo.
Thus, the answer to my earlier query is, of course, no. The black community does not need another Beyonce, or another image engineered by white supremacy that delineates beauty and aesthetic superiority. What we do need more of are black thinkers that can appreciate the Beyonce’s and the Normani’s without the desire to imitate.
This transition is exciting to consider in juxtaposition to a rather important trend. Here, I speak to the parity between the black female twerk and phallic instruments. In the Motivation video, Normani twerks to a trumpet. Similarly, singer-rapper Lizzo adds to her tokenized presence by twerking and playing the flute. This parity garners notable media attention as black women display their physical abilities amidst simulated sex scenes. These graphic, yet celebrated, images work to subconsciously teach black women to view their beauty as consummated in provoking sexual enticement. These simulated sex scenes of course “sell,” but more problematically, they reveal black women sold to a record industry and a lusty white supremacist gaze that employs their body as a bridge to social and economic superiority.
In considering the black body as a bridge to their oppressor’s economic franchisement, it is imperative to note that one does not have to use their body to twerk. Twerking, like enslavement, was never about the body. The body functions as a medium to obtain and exhibit cognitive control and build dependency on a pernicious oppression. The dependence manifests itself in the oppressed’s continued quest for an economic opportunity from their oppressors. So whether acquiring a recording contract, or employment at a lauded establishment, black women (and people) remain subject to the normalized expectation that they perform, or work (werk) for a price. Sometimes this price is millions, other times it is just enough to pay the rent, but regardless of what the price affords the black woman, it will never afford her the self, or esteem necessary to circumvent cognitive bondage.
The ubiquitous auction block culture propagates that, for the black woman, the road to the top begins at the bottom, or as seen in auction block culture, with their bottoms. The black woman simply cannot and will not twerk her way to the top; this behavior only secures her place at the bottom of a society that keeps her looking up.
This image makes me think of the late Toni Morrison’s novel Sula where the black population occupies the top of a hill that the whites name “bottom.” The whites occupy the bottom of the hill, in which they name “top,” of course. We see parity between these concepts and the body. Notably, the top, or large breasts, which traditionally corresponded to the white female physique, consummated the “top” or apex with regards to Western beauty. A shapely derriere, on the other hand, constituted the “bottom” or a base attribute. Auction block culture reinforces this ideology, an ideology seemingly complicated by the black female physique now copied and pasted onto African-adjacent women. Here, we see that the black female body, detached from the black woman, is literally bought and sold for the benefit of a white supremacist society that has done nothing to negotiate the “top” “bottom” concepts, but have dismembered the black woman on the Hollywood auction block and sold (and continues to sell) her temple to anyone willing to pay.
Black blood continues to translate into white money, and twerking merely helps our oppressors to advertise their product. Their product, remains the commodified black body and the black mind as long as we look to the African adjacent hoping for them to accept or acknowledge what they can never be. For a black woman’s body was never a “bottom.” Rather, a black woman’s behind illustrates her cultural apex.
Here is where I should say something like, let Normani’s video be a “motivation” to fall “crazy in love” with a definition of blackness autonomous from Western influence. For this post, however, I wish to ask you a question. Twerking has become the picture that accompanies the the black female narrative, but if the black women at the “top,” be it Normani who twerks her way into a point of reference, Beyonce who twerks her way into international stardom, or Michelle Obama who socially twerks her way into American status, how is this different than the black woman who twerks in places seen to constitute society’s base, like a street corner or in a strip club?
The black female pop star is no different than the black female street walker, just as Michelle Obama is no different than the academically decorated black women seeking a seat in the corner office in a corporation founded on her ancestor’s blood. Commonly, the pop star and the corporate superstar twerk to emerge as “something,” or to be seen as “someone” in this white supremacist society. There is no “top” for us in American society. Every turn in this labyrinth is to employ black people as workers in their own destitution.
While twerking may yield different results and prices, twerkers continue to pay with their souls—an irretrievable loss for the black collective and a sustainable win for the African adjacent.
Twerking is what you do when the sound of your oppression sounds like a beat.
Black Power ❤
4 Comments Add yours
Reading this really hurt me because it’s true. I really do wish more black women were celebrated in the media for their intelligence and talent and not their bodies. Being praised just for the body and being oversexualized is VERY destructive to black women and our image.
I read no lies. Excellent post, C.C.
Thank you. I also consider the proliferation of Black woman/White man pairings on TV, ads, movies, etc., as a manifestation of the auction block. That’s also offensive to me as a conscience Black woman. Especially with the tract record of rape and violence against Black women during slavery, segregation, second class citizenship. Why would any Black woman date a group of men who oppressed us for centuries? I wouldn’t. Never will. Ever.