Movement as a Tool to Remember and Resist
By Eva-Grace Bor Follow @evagracebor
If there was ever evidence of the need for self-determined narratives and alternative discussions on race identity and the freedom of sexuality, the contestation of the image accompanying Fannie Sosa’s Facebook event page for ‘Resistance is in the Cracks’ was it. This inclusive space offered a platform to the voices that are repeatedly silenced or spoken for; the voices of people of colour, women of colour, queer people. Through Sosa, a community gathered and celebrated identities that are united in their experiences living between constructed binaries.
The event page was illustrated with a picture of a large black ass perched upon two white faces, with sweat dripping and crack visible, representing white supremacy and patriarchy. This caused some offense and sparked debate about representation, before the talk even took place. Some felt the picture was reminiscent of colonial portrayals of black women such as Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in human zoos in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Was this any different from the sexualised images of isolated, faceless female body parts we see daily in advertisements and the mainstream media?
Others felt the radicalism lay in the crack itself. Surely an un-airbrushed image of a black body, used to promote discussion on liberating sexual repression, rather than sexualised to sell, was a subversion of mainstream portrayals of blackness? The refreshingly radical suggestion of her autonomy by one attendee challenged how normalised seeing the black female body as either oppressed or objectified has become.
My own discomfort with the image forced me to recognise that perhaps I had subconsciously internalised the white male gaze, it was through challenging my reaction to the image that I came to find the unadulterated representation of a black woman’s body refreshing and liberating. Even as I learn and grow into my cosmopolitan intersectionality through accepting the myriad influences that exist within my mind and body, my African-European descent often leaves me feeling as if I am straddling two worlds.
Empowerment lies in the hips
The student-organised event was an open conversation between activist and artist Fannie Sosa and London based writer and curator Ama Josephine Budge, on “twerk as a decolonial, open source, healing and sexually autonomous practice”. Followed by a three-day twerkshop led by Sosa, the discussion explored the importance of sistahood and solidarity, self-love, joy and compassion as a political stance and peaceful activism towards an evolution of consciousness.
Like blues and salsa, twerk is a diasporic expression imbued with healing and transformative powers, tools through which we remember and resist. To the beat of New Orleans Bounce and sex-positive tracks, Sosa uses the dance to guide through the journey of decolonisation. Originating in West Africa and spreading to Latin and Central America prior to, and during, the Atlantic Slave Trade, the origins of twerk cannot be traced to one particular place. Mapouka is a traditional dance from the Dabou area of southeast Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), known as “la danse du fessier” or “the dance of the behind”, performed mainly by women.
Similarly, the Gelede spectacle of the Yoruba, also originating in West Africa and spreading with the Slave Trade, functions to worship ancestors and mothers within the community,who hold spiritual power and are appeased with calls for beautiful children, to grow fruitful harvest, and become rich. In the Middle East, elements of this dance are also found in traditional Raks Balaadi (belly dance), and in the hula in the Hawaiian Islands. Ritual performances are central to life celebrations and rites of passage in many cultures across Africa, Oceania and the Americas and are thought to transform human consciousness and alter the social status of participants.
Almost unrecognisable from what we see on MTV, eh? That’s because the history of European fetishising of black and indigenous sexuality and, more recently, the trend of white millionaires gentrifying black culture, has made it cool to shake your ass and talk with a southern drawl all of a sudden, unless you are actually black.
Institutions are the new colonies
It is the media, politics and educational institutions that are supposed to represent and support us that are to blame. See, we are repeatedly told Britain is racially progressive. Celebrities of colour are the poster people of the supposed success of multiculturalism, but assimilation is not necessarily progress, and allowing people of colour TV airtime or billboard exposure does not equate with equality.
In our current state of purported liberalism, we’re all sitting on privilege built on centuries of violence against black and brown bodies in the global south, you’d be fooled to think colonialism is a thing of the past. Today, capitalism’s oppression is no less destructive, it is covert and has infiltrated deeper than we know. It’s the images in the media that marry blackness with crime, terrorism and hatred, while black success stories are linked to sport, music, or some kind of celebrity, rarely intellect or liberation.
Like many others who attended the talk and three-day twerkshop, I have made a conscious effort to retrace my paternal and maternal lineages, both of which are shaped by histories of genocide and colonisation. Contextualising my identity and relationships, within the framework of national politics, has given me an essential insight into the roots of my emotions and motives.
We cannot rely on institutions that structurally oppress to teach us about our histories. Non-European spirituality is cast aside as out-dated by neo-colonialism, just as it was labelled ‘primitive’ centuries ago by Europeans who rocked up, uninvited. The renewal of energy I have felt since reconnecting with my body through twerk is proof that healing processes are timeless.
The narrative of colonialism is one of theft and fetishisation, European domination over land, resources, people and culture is the reality of global politics. We’ve moved on from exhibiting black people in zoos, but current trends are just contemporary forms of exoticising. Black culture may be in right now, but only through the white gaze; lighter brown skin is preferable and twerk is seen as art when done by white women, and black and brown bodies doing it are still considered ratchet and ghetto.
During the first of the three twerkshops, Sosa explained how the hips are the receptacle of the Kundalini energy, which is vitality, enthusiasm and defiance. This isn’t purely about sexuality, it’s about being holistically present rather than absent, fluid rather than rigid, honest rather than censored, it’s joyful. The mainstream media’s fetishizing of twerk, on the other hand, is simply the new tool of the objectification of women of colour.
To subvert this, an element of the process of decolonisation discussed during the twerkshop was the necessity for women of colour not to censor themselves, for fear of leading the white male gaze on. This links back to the issue of male entitlement and is reminiscent of rape apologists using a woman’s clothing choice as a justification for sexual violence against her. Sosa emphasised that sexual expression of any form is a dialogue, not an invitation for penetration.
The attitude towards women as sexual objects, by both men and women, is proof of how indoctrinated by patriarchy we all are. Cultural appropriation provokes an examination of intention and consent, both of which are at the core of decolonisation. Reclaiming autonomy and agency are essential to undoing the deep-rooted suppression and control of colonialism.
Sat in a large circle, rather than in a formal speaker/audience divide, we collectively discussed the historical processes that have led to the way we define ourselves. We all know that racial divisions have no biological standing, and white superiority is a social construct, but this makes the ideology behind white supremacy no less potent. We need a radical rethink about the foundations on which we form identities and as the debate became positively heated, it was suggested that decolonisation needs to be aligned with re-indigenising, as we let go of the binaries and definitions that have been placed upon us all.
Neo-liberal discourse disguises political agendas with false efforts of inclusivity; secularism is not necessarily about equality or inclusivity, often its agenda is to dilute and suppress. The attenuation of any ideology that does not support the hybrid force of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, is a continuation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hegemony.
The oppression of indigenous belief and practice during enslavement and colonialism was integral to the west’s ‘civilising’ mission. De-humanising African people as primitive and backwards, in need of western-guided development, was simply a justification for expansion across the continent and the exploitation of land, natural resources, labour and a market.
Black and brown women’s bodies are no bodies
The social position of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has rendered them marginalised from historical accounts, which mostly homogenise blackness, as if it were some un-gendered multiplicity. However the oppressive tools used against men and women differed. As nurturers and the bearers of children,but dehumanised based on skin colour, enslaved women carried a double burden. As matriarchs, they were subject to tactics to weaken the psyche by plantation owners in the southern states of the US and in the Caribbean. Instilling fear in mothers to bring up subordinate sons was the master’s strategy of maintaining control and avoiding rebellion.
The internalised inferiority we struggle with today is a manifestation of the trauma that has been passed down for generations. Deeply rooted mental, physical and sexual repression is the heavy load carried by the descendants of colonised and enslaved people.
As the body has been, and continues to be, used as a site of destruction, subject to every kind of violence, twerk is a way of re-politicising the body, on our terms.
The arduous task of decolonisation lies within the connection between the mind, hearts and bodies of each of us. Despite what it looks like, this isn’t solely about race. This is about the deathly grip of White Supremacist Capitalist Hetero-normative Patriarchy (thanks, bell hooks) that we’re all being strangled by. Twerk, when done for expression rather than commodification, empowers bodies and free minds. This is a threat to the powers that be.
You see, such vulnerability is emotional, and emotion gets in the way of empire building, capital accumulation and environmental plunder; it interrupts capitalism. Hence the use of ridicule and sexualisation to shame emotional expression into silence.
There was no definitive outcome to the talk; that was not the aim. Minds were opened, a community was brought together and fires were ignited and if we realised anything collectively, it’s how much we need spaces for these discussions. British politics do not represent the people of Britain and we can’t wait for the issues that affect us to miraculously appear on the agenda — they won’t.
We will continue to build a supportive community and organise spaces to facilitate discussion to dismantle the very institutions that oppress and dominate. These are not debates to be settled and left alone, they are to be meticulously worn down, built back up and torn apart again. They require voices that represent the diversity and reality of the twenty-first century; they require compassion and radical self love. Antagonism and bigotry must be left at the door, because liberation movements are often at risk of getting lost in semantics, with tireless debates on “who has the right to liberate who” detracting from the fact that ultimately, we all live in a repressive society.
That’s not to undermine the importance of constructive discussion within movements. Our intersectional identities enable us to come at this from different perspectives, and that is a good thing. But often ego battles turn into shaming, and whilst we squabble amongst ourselves, capitalism rages on pertinaciously.
Like our ancestors we found community, transformation and identity by embodying a beat and allowing it to moves us freely. The mind and body was unified as we talked openly whilst twisting and jerking, unblocking the channels that have been clogged up with patriarchy and white supremacy’s toxicity. Release and expression is the key to freedom, it really is that simple.
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Eva-Grace Bor is an Anthropology student and BME students officer at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has written for ZERO Magazine, Smiths and The Leopard, on decolonisation, art and activism, music as a tool of political resistance and student politics. Twitter: @evagracebor
This piece was edited by Désirée Wariaro
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2 thoughts on “Decolonising my gaze through Twerk”
Oh for goodness sake, some of these so called intellectual pieces are such a load of baloney! They are now more guilty of putting it out there that black is seen as inferior and lighter blacks preferred etc Times have moved on and while there is still a lot of racism and there will always be how is intellectualising and repeating negative stuff about black women in
Particular helping? How about writing a piece that talks about how sexy and attractive black women are, how they are desired and envied and copied by others instead of trotting out the usual…enough if all this bull.,.
… “isn’t purely about sexuality, it’s about being holistically present rather than absent, fluid rather than rigid, honest rather than censored, it’s joyful.” … Absolutely.
Thanks for writing about this, it sounds like an amazing workshop. I’m a fifty-something white woman who has been dancing with her hips since as long as I can remember, in spite of the way it’s viewed through the lens of pornography and objectification in my own culture. I’ve also been lucky enough to see & learn African dance in slightly more traditional contexts so I’ve always been able to understand it as joyful and liberating in the way you describe, although other white people sometimes raise a cynical eyebrow when I try to explain that. So good to see essays such as this one reclaiming twerking and drawing out the issues of colonialism & racism.