Twerking Makes the Oxford Dictionary on the Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

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.

Black people on a rooftop, with the phrase

 

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.

Katey Red

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 America becomes aware of them.]

 

 

crunktastic

26 thoughts on “Twerking Makes the Oxford Dictionary on the Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

  1. Thanks so much for this piece especially these few, precious lines:

    “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.”

    I saw someone refer to “twerking” as something that shouldn’t be viewed as black culture or embraced by black people but identified for what it is, “poverty culture”. I shudder at what stands to be lost by distancing ourselves from this inheritance — what will no longer survive.

  2. I appreciate this piece so much. Premature Black death, is happening in the memory, before it happens in the spirit. I feel like we are dying mentally by not being able to remember our contributions, culture, and legacy.

  3. I’m confused. Are dictionaries only used by white people? Do they only contain white words and white cultural references? Is black culture being brought to its knees because “twerk” might be printed in a dictionary? OED is a company, they track the popularity of words spanning all cultures and topics and add new words every year like “google” a few years back. White people didn’t go out and vote for that word to be in the dictionary. You seem to know what all white people are thinking and feeling, its like your in my head saying all the things I think but can’t wrap my ignorant white head around, I’m probably too busy raping and destroying your culture. I apologize for us all. Sorry that some white people enjoy hip hop and blues, shake their asses to music, adopt urban styles of clothes and enjoy African American style cooking. I guess we should remain completely separate. Take nothing from each other. So the next time I see a black person in a suit, listening to rock or country, carrying a dictionary on their way to a lobster bake I’ll tell them to stop stealing and co-opting my culture. But then again I’m not really allowed that. Because white people don’t have a shared culture where we all meet up and talk about being white and doing stuff to further white blah blah blah well maybe the KKK and republicans do but fuck them. Just stop lumping all white people together. I like watching women twerk, all types of women of all types of races, you guys started it and perfected, thank you but learn how to share and relax. There are greater issues in the world then the VMA’s, Miley Cyrus awkwardly trying to break away from her disney imagine and twerking in the dictionary i.e Syria.

    • Yay! White dude solves racism! All you have to do is share the love. Or, don’t worry be happy. Or something. Basically, just relax, sheesh.

      • But he is right. Btw I am glad the Italians did not go hysterical en masse when we all “culturally misappropriated” their pizza. Ditto Japanese and their sushi. I guess they are just more mature.

    • You don’t get it.
      Since you are a white guy, why are you on a black, feminist site?
      No problem, if you actually want to learn something, but I feel you’re just hear to put us in our place (ex. telling us what we should be worried about, because we’re too feeble-minded and need your ‘help).
      Someone summed it up best when they said “Our culture is a punchline until its a trend.”
      Poor, black, urban women are looked down on for something and when a white person does it, suddenly it is okay and ‘revolutionary’ or ‘rebellious’. Meanwhile, the same poor images of black women are firmly intact.
      And this happens over and over and over again, and for black people in general.
      You have black children in schools thinking blacks did not contribute anything to society at all, when a lot of black contributions, even those more important than just ‘music’ and ‘dance’, are repackaged as white inventions and thought.
      It’s unfair and its wrong.
      That’s the point.

  4. “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?”

    O: Why should he have? He wasn’t POTUS back then, and the event he did speak at didn’t have anything to do with Katrina.

    Moreover, on the general topic of twerking – what was its purpose? Are you seriously going to argue that its proponents there in Louisiana had heavily researched twerkin’s African antecedents and were trying to impart this cultural knowledge to everyone else? Or was it only intended to be for Black folks? If the latter, how could they expect such a thing, in the Internet Age?

    It seems to me that chaps some Black Womens’ hides about this whole “Miley controversy”, is 1. White folks noticed what some Black Women were doing all over the Internet (keep in mind please, the Twerk Team out of ATL, have been putting all kinds of videos on YouTube about their exploits for years now; and who can forget Ms. Carmel Kitten’s “twerkin’ in WalMart” YouTubes?)

    and

    2. That White Women can twerk all they like and still be respected.

    If that is indeed the case, it seems to me that Black Women have some real soul searching to do…

    O.

    • 1.) He’s POTUS NOW and people are still struggling.

      2.) Why is it that white women can twerk and still be respected as you say, and Black women are looked at as the hypersexual, immoral scum of the earth for doing so? #thatisthequestion

  5. @Crunktastic:
    “1.) He’s POTUS NOW and people are still struggling.”

    O: And whose fault is that? Black people voted for Obama TWICE, to the tune of nearly 100%(!) – higher than Clinton, Gore, or Kerry(!!).

    “2.) Why is it that white women can twerk and still be respected as you say, and Black women are looked at as the hypersexual, immoral scum of the earth for doing so? #thatisthequestion”

    O: No, #therealquestion is WHY do Black Women twerk in the first place? Let’s try this again:

    Are you seriously arguing that twerking got its start in the States, because its early Black female (and/or Gay) propigators did exhaustive research on the African early versions of it and wanted to impart its cultural significance to the rest of the American population?

    Really?

    What was the point of the Twerk Team, or Carmel Kitten, then?

    You were saying…?

    O.

    • Obsidian:
      First of all, I would say that the Black women who twerk do so because they want to. I think that’s generally why anyone of any race does any dancing, don’t you?

      Secondly, New Orleanians do not have to do “exhaustive research on the African early versions of [twerking]” because New Orleans is still a very African-influenced city. New Orleans has had a strong, coherent African culture since as early as the 1780s, long before anywhere else in the US. Additionally, there is a cultural through-line that was eradicated in almost all other Southern Black communities. This has nothing to do with the fact that the majority of our population is African-American, and everything to do with history.

      In New Orleans, many Black people can trace their ancestry back to a particular African nation, and sometimes a region within that nation. This is not the case of many Black folks in Virginia, the Carolinas, or damn near anywhere else in the South. It’s because of a few reasons.

      The French and Spanish slave importers kept records of who they purchased and from where they arrived, so some Black New Orleanians still have a specific sense of origin, and pride associated with that. Slaves in Louisiana were sometimes (possibly even often) kept together with others from their ethnic group, and so were better able to maintain family connections, cultural traditions (such as music, dance, religion, and other ceremonial traditions), and languages (or fragments of language). England did not keep such records as part of their aggressive deracination policies under which they actively split people from their families and members of their ethnic/linguistic group, and, of course, banned the slave trade once they had established successful breeding programs of Black folks. African culture was severely damaged (and sometimes destroyed), as a result.

      In Cuba (more than Haiti), African traditions remained phenomenally intact (given the circumstances) and had a direct line back to Africa, as newly-imported Africans were frequently held in Cuba for a period of time while they were “broken.” (I apologize for the terminology, but I do think that “breaking” is exactly what must happen to one’s body-mind-spirit in such a situation. Thank the heavens that any of those spirits were unbreakable, or at least, highly resilient, else we wouldn’t have jazz, or bounce, or hip hop, or second-line parades, and so on.)

      During that “breaking” period, newly arrived Africans were able to interact with the long-term slaves in Cuba, and impart their knowledge of songs, languages, dances, and ceremonies. Most (if not all) Africans who were sold in New Orleans’ slave market had spent time in Cuba.

      More enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba than to the entire United States, so Cuba had a constant update to those old ways (until the last slave ship arrived there from Angola in 1873). New Orleans received a last few waves of Africans, first, after the Haitian revolution which sent many French-Haitians (and their slaves) fleeing to Cuba, and then again after Napoleon’s busy itinerary resulted in the French going to war with Spain, which meant that the French (and their slaves) got kicked out of Cuba ten years later (1808), sending 10,000 people to New Orleans, including over 3,000 Black slaves and over 3,000 free people of color. *Free* of course means that they had more time to dance, play music, do ceremony, and share those things with others, such as the New Orleanians they lived among.

      Also, slaves in New Orleans (and Cuba, and perhaps other Spanish colonies) were given a day off, allowed to have jobs, and were able to buy their freedom. Once free, they could own land. This is a pretty good way to establish cultural continuity and flourishing.

      No one in Cuba has to do “exhaustive research” to know what they grew up with. Neither does anyone in New Orleans. Culture and history gets celebrated every day here, often in public, and definitely does not require that one exhaust oneself in libraries or museums, though those places are nice, too.

      Two fantastic books by Ned Sublette, one called Cuba and Its Music; the other, The World That Made New Orleans, are my sources for the specifics; my life as a New Orleanian is my source for the rest.

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  8. I know twerking-esque dances from my childhood in London since before you were born.

  9. I am not able to comment on American culture because I am British. Suffice to say as the white descendant of a black British family whose UK roots go back to the 18th century our history and culture with respect to non-white people is very different to yours. And as a nation we looked on aghast in the days following Katrina.

    I can however comment on how words end up in dictionaries. Let’s just say the football (soccer) team I support is Oxford United.

    Lexicographers are passionate about words and the language. They collect new English words from everywhere in the world. English is no longer solely the language of England or the USA, instead it’s a global language. I read somewhere that there are more people who speak some English in China than there are in the UK, for example. And as all these worldwide English speakers coin new words or incorporate words from their own languages into English those words are noted by lexicographers and put on a watch list.

    A new word does not enter the dictionary when it is first spotted, nor does it do so at the whim of an individual lexicographer. Though they wouldn’t describe themselves as such lexicographers are word scientists who apply a rigorous evidence based process to their work. They continuously collect billions of words of real English text and monitor the usage of new words. For them to include a word in their dictionaries it has to have reached a point at which it has demonstrated either a widespread use in the language or a longevity, it’s a word with staying power.

    So yes, sometimes words whose origins lie in African American communities will enter dictionaries because they reach widespread use through being appropriated by people outside those communities. But it is their statistical prevalence that earns them a dictionary entry rather than how they reached that prevalence, and that is by no means the only way in which they do it.

    Speaking personally I am glad that my language absorbs words from all corners of the world and I am grateful to the people who coin those words. A language whose words were rigorously vetted to ensure that they only came from white British people would not be one I would like to speak.

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  12. “There is something imperialist about putting black cultural references in the dictionary (whatever their form) when white America becomes aware of them.” Yes! Thank you for naming this for me. When dictionaries need a white endorsement for the inclusion of words, they’re dictionaries for white people. Imperialist and racist.

  13. It’s all a distraction from the REAL SHIT that’s about to hit the fan. My grandma use to say “mark my word”. Well, MARK MY WORDS.

  14. Thank you for redirecting the cultural current back to something that is actually relevant. It’s rare to read something that comments on the media, puts it in its place and then offers something actually worth looking at, and you have done all of these things here. After all what’s scary about Miley Cyrus doesn’t really have anything to do with her, it’s the fact that so many people act like she matters, while forgetting the things that actually do.

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