– L. Arthalia Cravin


I have a confession to make. I actually did not know what “twerking” was until yesterday. Or, let me put it this way, I never knew there was an actual name for THAT. I found out what twerking is from reading an article on The Grio about Hampton Institute presenting a slide presentation during freshmen orientation that said this: 1) “Hampton ladies do not twerk.” 2) “Hampton men don’t take women who twerk home to their mothers.” I understand that the presentation also said that employers don’t discriminate between the person doing the twerking and the one on the business end of it.

A little history. Hampton Institute, located in Hampton Virginia, sprung from the Civil War. In 1861 shortly after the Civil War began, the Union Army took control of Fort Monroe in Hampton. In May of 1861, the Union Major General Benjamin Butler issued an order that any escaping slave that reached the Union lines would be considered a “contraband of war” and would not be returned to slavery. The result was thousands of enslaved people rushing to Fort Monroe in search of freedom. A camp was established to house the newly freed slaves that became known as “The Grand Contraband Camp.”

In order to provide the masses of slave refugees some kind of education, Mary Peake, a free Negro, was asked to teach, even though an 1831 Virginia law forbid the education of slaves, free blacks and mulattos. She held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, on September 17, 1861 under a simple oak tree. This tree would later be known as the Emancipation Oak and would become the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. (The Emancipation Oak still stands on the Hampton University campus as a lasting symbol of the promise of education for all, even in the face of adversity.) In 1863 General Butler began using government funds to continue the work started by Mark Peake, renaming the camp-school, “the Butler School for Negro children” where children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and grammar, as well as various housekeeping skills. On April 1, 1868 another man who had been named superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau for a part of Virginia, obtained funding from the American Missionary Association to establish a school next to the Butler School. On April 1, 1868, Armstrong opened Hampton Normal and Agriculural Institute with this mission: “The thing to be done was clear: to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character.” Booker T. Washington graduated from Hampton Normal, which became Hampton College in 1929, and in 1930 the name was changed to Hampton Institute.

Back to twerking. Twerking is now defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a sexually suggestive dance “involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.” I didn’t know “that” was twerking because we called it “Da Butt.” One woman posted this comment about her own twerking: “I did The Butt, I got low, I put my one leg up, I have percolated, leaned with it/rocked with it… I have been ‘Bout It, Bout It’, gotten Jiggy with it, and certainly many other things that I just can’t recall off of the top of my head at this time. I will admit that ‘shaking that laffy taffy’ evoked feelings of absolutely NOT in my soul. I am a product of a Hampton University education, card carrying member at that.” Okay we get it!! What we also get is that what Miley Cyrus did was not twerking—what she did was just plain “skank nasty,” because she didn’t have enough butt back there to “work it.”

So why would Hampton give any advice to women about twerking? Some are saying that Hampton is trying to get its new students, men and women” to honor the history of the school’s “up from slavery” roots. Some of the comments were supportive saying that twerking is just trashy and that no “self-respecting” woman should twerk, especially in the age of cell phone cameras and the Internet. Some of saying that your “twerking behind” might end up on some site where your future employer, business partner, or some other professional organization will “make you remember” you butt shaking ways. Other comments said that twerking is simply unacceptable behavior given Hampton’s history. Someone asked whether Harvard would ever advise its freshman class of women not to twerk. Someone else posted that Harvard didn’t have to “forbid” twerking because twerking is “outside the norm” for Harvard women but not outside the norm for Hampton women. Well, after Miley Cyrus, Harvard might want to ban “dancing like a skank.”

What do you think about twerking?

Copyright 2013 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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