(written in April of 2014, please note it is unfinished and lacks comparison notes about afrolatinamerican perreo and jamaican dancehall, and the links included may no longer work)
Black female sexuality has been a point of contention, taboo and shame in the Americas since the first slave ships touched ground. Its also long since been assumed that upon being seized, Black enslaved people lost all communion with their Indigenous sexual traditions. Assumption which can easily be turned on its head. In pop culture alone plenty examples of Black women performing modern diasporic versions of traditional African sexuality can be found.
Few mainstream accounts of history in the Americas ever dwell on whether Africans did or thought of anything differently sexually, other than to postulate them as less sophisticated or without sexual mores Vs. the Europeans who enslaved and colonized them. Implications that have inevitably lead to exorbitant amounts of recorded sexual violence against Black female bodies throughout centuries (I shudder to think of what has never been reported). Presumed hypersexuality and lack of humanity amount to Black female bodies that are deemed a free-for-all, open to touch, rape, abuse of all sorts, never able to set boundaries, devoid of agency.
One could venture to say, this goes back to the pre-columbian days of Arab slave trade, when Black bodies became inherently undeserving of humanity for simply being Black. Sexual exploitation and fetishization of Black bodies was found there and extended to Portugal and Spain where my Ladino ancestors (Black slaves who were latinized for generations before Columbus set foot in the Americas) faced the same fate. These dynamics carried over, when Black bodies were forcibly transported to the Americas for slavery and its results can be seen today as continued sexual violence against Black bodies (at least 60% of Black girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 18) (http://www.blackwomensblueprint.org/sexual-violence/) and hypersexual tropes such as the wonton Jezebel, among many dehumanizing aspects in all spheres of life.
Given such circumstances and context, Black female sexual agency should be a central part of liberatory discourse but there’s much resistance to it, including from so-called progressive circles.
Even within mainstream feminism Black women like Beyonce are shamed for demonstrating sexual agency while wearing a sparkly onesie, as Lena Dunham is praised as liberated and free for posing entirely nude. One is deemed “only for male gaze, a bad example”, the other “classy, a win for all women”, by the very same people.
Growing up in a tourism hub in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, this sexual double standard in terms of race was evident to me in how white women would go topless on the beach, sleep around with the locals and still be considered “ideal women” while I was assumed hypersexual and suspicious as a little Afrolatina with pigtails and told to cover up and close my legs. My hometown also doubles as sex tourism hub so I grew accustomed to men of all sorts coming to my country and making bee-lines to buy sex from darker “exotic” women, women who they could dominate with no one to interfere or answer for them, unlike those “uppity” whiter women back home. Women with who they could do dirty, abusive things they wouldn’t dare unleash in their own country, for cheap at that.
It never occurred to me that there was a legacy of mine beyond white victorian stiff-hipped womanhood, as I was robbed of self-knowledge via colonization. Post-colonization that convoluted concept of womanhood became the schematic for “all women”, schematic which no Black girl could ever really fit, given our race and culture, leaving us inherently outside the scope of valid, proper “womanhood”.
I knew that we could move our hips in ways gringos couldn’t and we took pride in it, but I also knew too much of it was deemed lascivious, indulgent, impure. Enter: Twerk. Now part of pop lexicon, it is of Southern African American origin and is also loathed and labeled trashy and vulgar or imitated badly by Miley Cyrus-alikes. The most notable authentic example may be Youtube sensation Mizz Twerksum’s incredible shows of rhythmic athleticism in the form of butt-muscle control and isolation. Twerk is devalued as an embarrassment to Black people, nevermind it is another version of African dances such as Mapouka, which have origins in spiritual fertility rituals but can also be done for just fun and sexiness, and are regularly enacted by grandmothers at weddings.
Compare “NSFW” African American Mizz Twerksum and Dominican Amara La Negra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3MiLqHPS2o) to Chantal doing Congolese Soukous (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=jVyw9g2qSsI&feature=youtu.be) and its not hard to surmise that for Black women brought to the Americas as chattel, this is a dance form that survived slavery, genocide, and cultural repression. It is a testament to Black womens resistance and agency on top of being a fairly difficult form of dance to get really good at. God forbid anyone admit it takes talent and body proportions most people do not have or that it can symbolize something of cultural and historical importance.
In ”Osunality” (or African eroticism), Nkiru Nzegwu said:
“Cultural dances and contemporary dance moves, such as makossa, mapouka, ndombolo, soukous and ventilator speak of this power in fluid, circular gyrations of the hips and quick forward and backward thrusts of the pelvis. These dances can be energetically or slowly enacted, delivering the osunic or sexually charged moves that suggest the penis will be devoured
[…] The idea of the vagina as a devouring agent comes from the penis’s invisibility during copulation. The engulfing of the penis by the vagina reverses normative Western sexual wisdom by positioning the male in a subordinate position…because severe damage can be done from the underside, as evidenced in the penis being enveloped, swallowed and made to disappear. This concept of intercourse as an enveloping act grants the vagina great power.”
The story pop culture tells alone proves we carry that legacy as products of the transatlantic slave trade but its rarely acknowledged. When I came across the above quote on thefemaletyrant’s (http://thefemaletyrant.tumblr.com/post/35269236339/cultural-dances-and-contemporary-dance-moves-such) blog, many things clicked for me. After a very pentecostal christian sexually repressed upbringing, I eventually learned on my own that it was the best for my and my partners pleasure if I took control of some of the hip action, using motions I’d learned through cultural dance, hip motions for which we Dominicans have no distinct name but that are very much akin to aforementioned dance forms. How that translated to my conception of sexuality is something I never would’ve fathomed at church or in Cosmo’s “98648 ways to please a man while never getting off” tips.
Yet we need only look to popular Black music to find pedagogic examples of African sensuality. Lady’s “Yankin’” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvN9YwiveXc) speaks to inverting the white colonial-imposed norm of vagina as passive receptacle, and affirms it as active agent in her boasting how “my pussy be yankin’ …I throw the pussy like I’m famous” (referring to her ability to clench her kegel muscles and move her hips in an enveloping motion, respectively) . In “Twerk” she describes her prowess at the dance and how “the best part about it, I can do it on a dick”. Ciara’s “Ride” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp6W4aK1sbs) is more Black girl braggadocio re: hip motions, as she proclaims “I can do side to side, I can do circles…They like the way I ride the beat like I’m a freak”. And Tyga’s “Do My Dance” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7xJaGZCy2E) while problematic in other ways, features a Black woman repeating “Do my dance on your dick, Ooh you know you love dis shit”.
All just so happen to be deemed ignorant and ratchet despite how they are acting on the inherent knowledge that these dances can translate to the sexual realm and so, vagina is NOT a passive receptacle but, as Nkiru Nzegwu said, active devourer. It is an innately feminist and very African concept. One that is quite radical in relation to the white patriarchal stiff-hipped “only penis can be active” notion of sexuality foisted upon us as “acceptable”. It is a conception that allows and even focuses on female pleasure as seen in traditions such as one among the Swahili where girls are taught to dance and worship their bodies as practically a single, integral act:
“[…] The candidate is also instructed on how to take care of her body in a symbolic manner. She is taught to love and to take care of her body.
[…] in Unyago the women revere the beauty of their bodies and by means of their dances seek to develop a body that is perfectly proportioned and graceful in movement, balance and tone.
[…] More notable is this training of the girls to seek harmony between their mind and body. The girls’ bodies are trained to respond to the expressive power of the mind. Further, the girls are taught languages of the body. The girls are forewarned to treat sexual encounters with their partners as dialogue between bodies.
They are therefore prepared for all types of dancing, especially in the marital chamber. Ability to dance in the marital chamber is foreseen as the symbol of the girl’s victory through her body. . She learns to dance (including the dance on the marital bed) to exercise by rocking and swaying, and to sing. The dancing movements are tests of skill, some relate to domestic chores, others to sex, while others to graceful walking.
The dancing styles also differ. For instance, there is that which should make the girl’s waist very flexible “chakacha” and that which makes her move pleasurable during love making, msondo. Chakacha is danced in an upright position and msondo in a lying position. Generally sexual practices like the bed dance are carefully taught for they are believed to drive the husband wild with lust, while knowledge of herbs, miti, and correct spices, to keep him faithful and sexually active by awakening his desires, when low, are disclosed.
The candidate’s ability to swing the waist, kukata kiuno, can be said to be a ticket to marriage. Whoever acquires the skill faster, gets a suitor sooner. This is because word about her flexibility and agility goes round and soon, her hand in marriage is sought.”.
-Nurturing Multiple Intelligences through African Indigenous Education: A Case Study of Unyago, a Swahili Girls to Women Nuptial Institution by Professor Wangari Mwai
The above quote I found on one of my favorite blogs of all time, diasporanbootyshaking (http://diasporanbootyshaking.tumblr.com/post/79818526202/at-the-onset-of-puberty-the-girl-child) which focuses on assorted media and info on booty dances from all through the afro diaspora, and surfaced after we had discussions on Tumblr on the subversiveness and similarity of Twerk to dance forms throughout our communities, when it was being trashed as meaningless and something to destroy. The need for a concise record was made evident.
Around the time these discussions were being had, StrugglingToBeHeard posted a mothers day Twerk video , as a symbolic homage to mamas and well thought out, thoroughly explained act of resistance. #TwerkForJustice was born. Soon the video ended up posted on WorldStarHipHop without consent, with StrugglingToBeHeard being ridiculed, harrassed, threatened and verbally abused for daring to dedicate the now-villified fertility dance to maternal figures, in very modern take on what is still for all intents and purposes, ancestral tradition. Worldstarhiphop refused to take down the video in a classic denial of Black womens consent and agency. Even MTV wanted in on the kill, and offered scraps to air the video and be ridiculed and publicly humiliated on global television, for what is a traditional dance no less valid than Tahitian hula or Middle Eastern belly dance. Strugg, not surprisingly, declined. Several blogs picked up the story and offered more ridicule, others were supportive. In the wake of the controversy, Strugg was interviewed (http://strugglingtobeheard.tumblr.com/post/47725678074/in-defense-of-twerking) and had this to say, cementing the stance that this was, in fact, a concerted act of subversion:
“We twerk for justice, liberation and solidarity because: justice, as defined by marginalized people, is different from the dominant ones in society and so our own acts of justice will be defined by ourselves. Liberation because we have been restricted, tied down and abused by the societies we’ve lived in for too long and we will liberate ourselves through acts of dance and loving oneself and owning our bodies. Solidarity because we know some people have to twerk to survive, some twerk for their emotional health, others form bonds of friendship through twerking, some can release energies that they’ve been forced to hold in for too long. So basically, when we say we are twerking for justice, liberation and solidarity, we are twerking for ourselves and our sisters. We are twerking to say F**K YOU to the politics of respectability that say you are only worthy if you do x, y, z when we have learned that in a white supremacist patriarchal capitalist society, we are worthless to the dominant groups even when we do do x, y, z. We twerk because we will not be tamed, shut up or told what to do. We twerk because we want to and we are tired of people telling us what to do with our own bodies.”
Just a couple months later a video surfaced of young Black teen girls twerking and subsequently being beat for it by their father who “wasn’t raising whores”. Black feminists online erupted in defense of the girls as hoards clamored “they deserved what they got” for having the audacity to move their lower bodies to the beat. Right around that time Diplo made it “cool” for white hipster girls to twerk badly at his shows, and Miley Cyrus’ cardboard rendition of twerk was being touted as original and “just a phase” and vehicle for her “finding herself and her sexuality”. That is what antiblack misogynist hypersexualization looks like today. It is being deemed vulgar and worthy of abuse for simply partaking in your own culture, as others are “hip”, “sexy” and “liberated” for doing it.
And while I have focused on Black women, its not to say Afro booty dances are only done by women; it spans all genders. It is a steady presence in the queer ballroom scene and we can catch Le1f doing his own version in his video for “Wut” , a little Dominican boy booty-popping in the video for “El Baile del Perrito” back in 1992, and the entire family butt-bouncing in Big Freedia’s “Yall Get Back Now” . Or we can watch Denise Belfon’s co-ed crew get down in “Wining Queen” as she demonstrates plus-size woman bravado rarely, if ever, seen in U.S. Media, and that body positivity and enjoying your body and its free movement are inextricably linked.
That is to say, “booty dances” can have many different purposes and are part of not just African sexual tradition, but Black life, in general, as sexuality is not a separate vein of existence but integral to it and dance can express many things. It is an art after all, but the reluctance to recognize Black womens cultural apportations as a worthy and valid art form is directly tied to the devaluation of our bodies, culture and labor through history.
In terms of Black womanhood, free range of bodily movement, receiving, giving pleasure at will and taking the reigns to allow yourself more of it? Are all faux pas. Meanwhile, classes have cropped up promising white women a liberating experience via learning afro booty dances. Liberation, it seems, is not something people can conceive of on Black womens bodies, even as they note how Black womens cultural product is above and beyond their constricted norms and bank on it, spiritually and financially, staying true to the cycle of exploitation. But make no bones about it, whether or not the rest of society acknowledges it, we have and do enact our own tangible forms of freedom and anti-establishment resistance, regularly, against all odds.