I had a fantastic weekend. I spent it with one of my favorite people, a dear cousin and we ran all over this town.
I’m exhausted, but I’m happy, because we truly had a ball.
Saturday night, we went to the Kennedy Center (one of my most favorite places in all of DC) and we saw a show called New Orleans Bingo. This show had a Vaudvillian/variety show vibe with musicians, featuring the amazing and legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, burlesque dancers, aerialists, and even modern trendy acts that blend all kinds of music and art. There was an odd puppet show, and a talented MC/ring master wearing face paint reminiscent of what folks wear in the Zulu Krewe during Mardi gras (signature black and white make up).
I enjoyed the spectacle and this mish mosh of talented people coming from all walks of life, ages, races (as New Orleans is well-known for), but one portion of the show left me with my mouth open and this was after a burlesque dancer managed to strip down and exit the stage with a large rubber duckie strategically held to cover her breasts.
The performer was called Big Freedia, the queen of Bounce music. Big Freedia appeared to be a transgender person who was originally male. She captured the crowd right away and had amazing energy. I really dug Big Freedia.
Along with Big Freedia was her high energy DJ mixing beats that sent what would typically be a reserved Kennedy Center Crowd into a frenzy. This was also cool.
Big Freedia had a team of dancers. Two male and two female. The males in their style of dress reminded me of Lupe Fiasco or Frank Ocean. Their dance style was hip hop, but clearly totally the style of street dancers you often see on Bourbon Street or the French Quarter. They were fantastic, but I didn’t get to pay attention to them much, because Big Freedia’s female dancers stole the show. I mean, they stole the show.
They wore short shorts, sneakers and fitted tanks showing their midriff. They broke out dancing and twerking and popping their butts in a way that is probably more complicated and executed with such athleticism, you could admire them. And for a moment I did. But as time wore on, and that’s all they could do, sometimes balancing on one foot, or getting down on all fours or breaking into a split and being able to isolate butt cheeks and make them bounce, jump and jiggle, me and my cousin were no longer entertained.
We started to get upset. I started to say, I didn’t know how to feel about it. Here we were in one of D.C.’s most hallowed cultural centers and here are some black women, shaking their asses, over and over with such vigor, with such pride as a predominantly white audience looked on, cheering. Men being completely titillated at the show, in a way that was much different from the white burlesque dancer who added humor and props during her set.
The looks in the men’s eyes were more wild. And then I thought of Sara Bartman, known as the Hottentot Venus. She was carted around Europe as a side-show act because white folks had never seen a black woman with such a large butt and elongated labia. This woman was put on display, naked. And even when she died at the age of 25, they cut out her brains and vagina, but them in jars, made a cast of her body to put it on display.
People say she was the first of what we know now as video vixens. I told my cousin about Sara Bartman, and showed her a youtube video the next day, and we shook our heads.
I wondered how the older black gentlemen, who were a part of Preservation Hall felt about what happened. Were they upset? Did they see it as art from a new generation? Or did they have a strong reaction, knowing their history and the things they have had to suffer, their mothers, their grandmothers? It left a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.
One of my good friends who lived near New Orleans, as I once did, argued that there was cultural value in twerking and popping and that it is a part of the “underground.” I agreed that as far back as 1999, Juvenile’s hit “Back that Azz Up” featured NOLA neighborhood girls and women, doing the same exact things Big Freedia’s dancers were doing, but they were back in the hood, at a large block party.
Me and my cousin didn’t mind the twerking in the beginning. I found myself cheering, but when we realized that was the only style of dance these young women could offer, we became increasingly dissappointed. And you can tell because when they’d get tired, they’d slow down, pull their shorts out of their butt, step to the left or right, and when they got their wind back up, they proceeded to pop, jiggle, and shake some more.
Now, don’t get it twisted, Big Freedia, was right there with them in all her glory. It was a sight to behold the way she was able to move and shake, but Big Freedia was covered up.
My friend pointed out to me that my anger about the situation may also be the fact that Big Freedia, was not born an African-American woman, yet she is capitalizing and profiting off the sexualization of black women.
The male dancers did get a number of cheers, when they were featured, but they did not capture the attention of the crowd the same way those young women did. I looked around the room, and I found that a lot of my white neighbors were looking at me to see my reaction as well. An older white man sitting next to me was so thrilled, his knee was bouncing so much during the set in excitement, my chair was shaking.
After intermission, his wife was sitting next to me. She must have noticed his excitement too.
My emotions were so mixed.
While I do believe booty poppin and twerking and moving our bodies in a sensual, sexual way have been with us since forever, black women can’t seem to get the albatross of primitive, exotic, sexuality from off our necks.
Some could argue, the white burlesque dancer did what the black girls did and the black girls didn’t strip down to pasties at the end of their set. Some can say we’ve evolved to the point where black and white women can flaunt their sexuality as they please, but as a black woman, it’s not that simple.
The world has not evolved that much.
Just up the street from the Kennedy Center, we have First Lady Michelle Obama, who knows that everyday, she has to watch her step. She has to be perfect. Even with all of her accomplishments and achievements before marrying President Obama, she knows if she wears a certain dress, or carries herself less than perfect, she is holding the image of American black women on her shoulders for the world stage. Her existence has to counter all of the damn video vixens, and basketball wives and Real Housewives of Foolishness, that folks who never have to see or deal with black women may believe as truth.
Even though it shouldn’t matter. Even though I am an individual, and can argue, these young women can do what they please and they don’t represent me, I felt like they do. We represent one another and people do lump us all in the same category. When those girls popped their asses in the Kennedy Center, it made me feel like while the masses of white people seemed to enjoy it and take it for entertainment or culture, if a lot of them may not have black friends or really interact with black people, and I don’t want that to be their lingering image of what young, black women are. So in my mind, Big Freedia and her camp did have some level of responsibility, whether they think so or not.
I don’t care if they do represent the Big Easy, where anything goes and that the wild life and open sexuality go hand-in-hand. The same rules of sexual freedom do not apply to Black women. It is a complicated situation that black feminists have been discussing for a very long time. My favorite group that dissects these types of issues is the Crunk Feminist Collective. I’d love to see what they’d think of this situation and if I’m over thinking it or crazy.
I dug a little deeper and found out that Big Freedia and her folks have become sensations in the artsy/idie communities and have performed in NYC at Moma, and SBSW.
I can’t help but wonder if people are truly accepting them as art and people who do represent their truth– booty popping is real, but are the smiles and accolades truly that of acceptance and appreciation, or are they a freak show in the minds of some of the audience, that hasn’t quite evolved? Do people not see them as people, but as a sub-reality?
Booty popping is a truth. I’ve done it in the clubs and at parties, myself. It is a release. You do feel hot, and sexy while doing it. But is it an art form? There are a lot of youtube videos, one called Twerkology, where a gay, Asian man is instructing others how to do it. You can put twerk on youtube and find a gazillion videos. One parent landed in the news for using physical discipline on his two young daughters for making a twerk video and posting it on youtube. I get his anger and frustration. People can argue about spanking, I’ll leave yall to it. But as Chris Rock once said, this man is simply trying to “keep his daughters off the pole.” He may have been extreme, but he knew all too well, how black women are perceived and he wants better for his children. And while doing some freaky dancing is a huge part of growing up, Lord knows people have rubbed up and shook butts at many a party, his daughters openly going doing this for the World Wide Web was probably much more than that brotha could take. Lessons had to be learned about just how serious and powerful the perception of sexuality is for black girls. Period.
Miley Cyrus was applauded for her attempt at twerking, but she cleverly put on a silly unicorn onesie to desexify it. Even Miley knew, that as a white woman, if she put on booty shorts and made it clap, she would get herself into a whole lot of trouble. Making it seem almost silly, helped her become a talking point on Good Morning America where they were trying to define “twerking.” I nearly spit out my water that morning. If she was in booty shorts, best believe folks would say she was being vulgar.
But black girls popping in booty shorts, eh, they are vulgar anyway. Doesn’t matter. What else is new? They are the ones getting pregnant. Who cares? This is the stereotype. We are not Miley Cyrus. We are not Kim Kardashian. There’s another set of rules.
I really hope Big Freedia and his dancers enjoy their moment, sharing their culture on such grand stages. They straight up made history, I’ll give them that. But I hope that they also for real for real understand the history and complexitites of the image of the Black woman and sexuality and how they are included in that. I hope they understand that they are not only ambassadors of their local culture, but for a larger culture when they go outside of New Orleans and expose their art on these platforms, where there are often not a whole lot of black folks. I hope they understand the weight of the situation.
I don’t expect them to change. And if by any chance they may come across this blogpost, they may totally disagree with me, and that’s fine too. But this is the honest reaction I had to the performance.
In a certain context, I don’t think there is anything wrong with booty poppin, it’s honest, it’s how we’ve expressed ourselves in Africa or in Carnival in the Carribbean since forever. It’s a very real part of how women expressed themselves, using their bodies in response to music. But I do hope, that maybe the twerk girls can incorporate a variety of dance into the program, like their male counterparts, who I thought were great, but I had a tough time concentrating on them. I wonder why…
I leave you with the video about the history of Sara Bartman.
Miley Cyrus “twerking”
Juvenile Back that Azz up.
Big Freedia Explains Bounce Music. (May not want to watch at work, FYI)