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“I Bet You Can Twerk”: Reclaiming Narratives Around Black Bodies & Sexuality

·6 min read

In 2013, film and culture critic Zeba Blay was one of the first people to coin the viral term #carefreeblackgirls on Twitter. In this excerpt from one of the essays in her new book, Carefree Black Girls, Zeba seeks a path forward to a culture and society in which Black women, their bodies and sexuality, and their art are appreciated and celebrated.

I created my first online dating profile when I was around twenty-one, on OkCupid. The profile was made from a place of quiet desperation. I was a virgin who had never had a boyfriend or even been kissed. I was over it. I regarded myself as a perennially awkward woman-child, too afraid to flirt with, let alone talk to, anyone that I was attracted to in the real world. What stopped me from putting myself out there was a mixture of things. Low self-esteem, debilitating shyness, and a near-pathological fear of a very specific form of rejection: rejection for being a dark-skinned, not-skinny, 4C-natural-haired Black girl in a heterosexual dating scene that to my mind seemed to privilege anyone who was anything but.

But I came of age on the internet, an adolescent and twenty-something of the LiveJournal and Tumblr eras, back when social media still felt like a safe haven for me, a place where I could play and also where I could enact some control. And so an internet dating profile, I thought, was the optimal way to explore the potential of dating (and ultimately the potential of pleasure) on my own introverted terms. From my laptop, I uploaded a series of pictures that I hoped would subtly tell a story of me as a specific kind of person: an image of my twenty-one-year-old self, smiling coyly at the camera, wearing an intentionally holey David Bowie tee. Another image of me standing triumphantly over a large Thanksgiving spread that I hadn’t cooked. For my About Me, I wrote a carefully curated list of my favorite movies that was deliberately equal parts highbrow and ironic. “I love Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee, and Titanic.”

I was satisfied with what I had come up with in thirty minutes. I saved the profile. I waited. Five minutes or so passed before I received my first message, which felt surprisingly fast, and promising. Based on the pictures on his profile, the message was from a thirty-something-year-old white dude who owned several pairs of cargo shorts. If I had a type, he was in no way it. But I opened the message anyway, thinking, “Well. Maybe?”

“Is it true what they say?” The message read. “Are you a freak? I bet you can twerk, too, huh?”

For years I never fully grasped that we hold on to memories and hold on to traumas long after we’ve experienced them and felt them, deep in our flesh and our bones. We dissociate during sex, or have panic attacks when someone touches us the wrong way, or lean into reckless hyper-sexuality and mistake that for autonomy, or deny ourselves sexual pleasure and mistake that for discipline.

I tried to discern whether or not he was being serious and which would actually be worse: intentional or oblivious ignorance. I stared into the blue-white glow of my phone, dejected but mostly just annoyed by the banal offensiveness of the message. It was something that I had experienced in so many ways before, this condition of being whittled down, seen not as a person but the approximation of a person, a collection of body parts that just happen to make up a human being.

Reclaiming narratives around our bodies and reclaiming and owning the language and words we use to describe our own bodies is a kind of alchemy. But how can you reclaim something that you cannot even name? For years I never fully grasped that we hold on to memories and hold on to traumas long after we’ve experienced them and felt them, deep in our flesh and our bones. We dissociate during sex, or have panic attacks when someone touches us the wrong way, or lean into reckless hyper-sexuality and mistake that for autonomy, or deny ourselves sexual pleasure and mistake that for discipline.

If you asked me to tell you the specific history of trauma etched into my body, I wouldn’t be able to. There is a chasm where my past should be. I have little memory of it, but I can feel it. A violation that you cannot articulate beyond general brushstrokes of pain is frustrating in so many ways, but perhaps most of all in the way that it makes you question your body, your mind, and the narrative of your own sexuality. Sexual assault victims are expected to know exactly what happened to them and how, to offer up a clear and uncomplicated portrait of their abuse, despite the havoc that trauma wreaks on our minds. For Black women especially, this delegitimisation of our experiences shows up in the world in profound and tangible ways. The fact that one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of eighteen, that one in five Black women are survivors of rape, and yet for every fifteen Black women who are assaulted just one reports her rape comes as no surprise. I imagine we are less likely to report our abuse because we feel we are less likely to be believed, to be held.

In referencing Sarah Baartman, I wonder, is Beyoncé reclaiming and reframing her tragic narrative? Or is she merely further, in a sense, commodifying her image? Can both of these things be true at once?

These connections between knowing and not knowing, the inheritance of sexual trauma, and the repression of pain are visceral and real and ever present for so many of us. All of these histories are etched into our bodies, and we often carry them without even fully understanding these histories.

In all of this I think of Sarah Baartman, whose story you probably know even if you do not know her name. She was a South African woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction to white audiences across Europe in the nineteenth century. I think of how she was dubbed by whites as the “Hottentot Venus.” I think of how, after she died, her genitals were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and put on display. I think about The Carters’ song “Black Effect,” the part where Beyoncé proudly sings about her “Sarah Baartman hips,” how her booty is so fat she has to jump to get into her jeans. I think about how surreal and how sad, how full circle that is. In referencing Sarah Baartman, I wonder, is Beyoncé reclaiming and reframing her tragic narrative? Or is she merely further, in a sense, commodifying her image? Can both of these things be true at once?

Here’s the thing about reclaiming these words and reclaiming these bodies, our bodies: it isn’t easy. It isn’t simple. It doesn’t mean that the words we redefine can’t and won’t continue to be weaponised against us. This is a reality, but one, I think, that exists in tandem with an equally potent reality: that Black women have the power to define and redefine who they are, always and forever. The thing I love about definitions is that they are not static things, they constantly shift, change, take on new meanings.

A while back, while scrolling through Twitter, I came across a meme someone had posted, pink words against a white background. It read “I’m a THOT. Trustworthy, honest, outgoing, thoughtful.” I read it, and chuckled, and marvelled at how a word can mean so many things at once.

Carefree Black Girls is out now from Square Peg

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