Dear Twerk Thieves & Ratchet Robbers:
No, I’m not about to spend 800 or so words ruing the day that Miley Cyrus took “twerk” mainstream and ruined it for those who, as Beyoncé recently put it, have “been doing this since the 90's with DJ Jubilee.” I’ve already come for her…twice. I would, however, like to talk about the folks who might not be sitting in first class with Billy Ray’s baby on Appropriation Airlines, but certainly have a seat on the plane.
I quite enjoyed reading the many, many Miley-themed thinkpieces about her disaster of a VMA performance, but a lingering theme in many of them reminded me of a longstanding problem I have with people who discovered the words “ratchet” and “twerk” within the last three years, or in some cases, three minutes.
Like one of my brilliant friends who articulated her frustration this week, as someone from a Southern, working class Black family who grew up with that terminology, it grates my nerves that certain folks – Black and white alike – write on what they don’t know with such authority. In some ways, non-southern Blacks who don’t know the culture view twerking and ratchet just as novel and trendy as many White people do.
To be fair, none of you are conducting “scientific studies” on twerking like ABC News, which made me feel as though my life has been lived within the confines of a zoo. Ditto for the “TEACH ME THAT TWERKING THING MILEY DOES” tone articles I’ve spotted here and there. Yet, amid all these works on mores and customs pulled from southern Blacks going mainstream, very few of them have been written from the perspective of southern Black people. That has lead to so many of these musings conveying both unfamiliarity and a continuation of the same kind of erasure that’s problematic for a variety of reasons.
For one, Southern Black people deserve credit for their contributions to African American culture. This includes our mamas and aunties who have been twerking for a smooth two decades now—with the gay uncles in tow. And I’ve been twerking for the 99 and 2000 for a good while, too. Pay homage, people.
One could most certainly trace twerking back even further if interested (the African influences are undeniable), but here’s the bottom line: there are actual people behind the contemporary history of all this and they’re being pushed out of their own creation— an all-too familiar pattern for Blacks in 2013.
Contrary to popular belief, upstanding Negroes, not everyone who has put their hands on their knees and proceeded to twerk should feel as though they are debasing themselves and embarrassing the race. That leads me to my other annoyance with the hijacking of twerking and ratchet.
What is this “ratchet culture” that many of you speak of? It often comes across as an amalgamation of the sort of “strip club culture” found solely in Southern rap songs and tempered with tropes from VH1 programming and other elements that all lead to a familiar talking point about not being that kind of Black.
We get it: Black people aren’t a monolith. Neither is Black culture. There are so many Black people who don’t twerk. Gold star for y’all. That said, while we may still be in search of representations of our middle-class life beyond The Cosby Show and the Obamas, we are also lacking a wide array of viewpoints from working class Blacks particularly in the region where you can find the lump sum of them.
But y’all aren’t advocating for that.
Now if you want to dissociate yourself from twerking and ratchet, fine, but spare me on the idea that if us less refined Blacks worry over "more positive" cultural assets and allow twerking to go by the wayside, “The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
It's poisonous to keep professing that mentality given it places the burden of “acceptance” on the wrong party. And alas, when has it ever worked anyway?
Besides, you can twerk and read! Just ask your buppie kids, who like to pretend to be like us southern country folk when convenient.
The same way Miley Cyrus has appropriated twerking and ratchet to fuel her agenda, the same can be said of the Talented Tenth types using it to further theirs. And again, many of these “apologists” don’t even know the culture they are condemning. As far as I’m concerned, all of the aforementioned can fall straight into the abyss.
Y'all are all late. Uh oh, look at that. I bet y’all didn’t even know that “late” has another connotation beyond timeliness. Don't even think to ask to me 'cause I’m not telling. You folks can’t be trusted.
Some of my friends have wished away both words. I'm not with that. That’s my culture and my experiences and I’ll be here to welcome it all back with open arms once white people find some other cool Black thing to steal. The same goes for the complaining classist Blacks ready to croon an Uncle Ruckus original.
It’s not perfect and not above valid criticism. But just like everyone else, I like that we Southern Blacks born of meager means can be as complicated with varied interests as any other group. Miley doesn’t understand that, but hell, neither do a whole lot of you.
Michael Arceneaux is the author of the “The Weekly Read,” where tough love is served with just a touch of shade. Tweet him at @youngsinick.