By Phill Branch | Shadow and Act September 4, 2013 at 5:37PM
The moment Hoda Kotb or Barbara Walters grabs hold of some formerly underground colloquialism or dance move, I brace myself. Anything with a hint of Black coolness that crosses over too far into the mainstream, usually spells trouble. I don’t have a problem with Miley Cyrus twerking. I just hope it doesn’t lead to me being twerked at without my permission.
I find myself deflecting random acts of slang, exaggerated neck movements and chicken recipes on a regular basis. Thankfully, I’ve cultivated a group of diverse friends who would never do something like randomly pop-lock in my face, but that doesn’t save me from strangers and coworkers.
Coworkers and colleagues tend to be worse than strangers when it comes to “unsolicited ‘blackness’.” Strangers don’t quite know if you might slap the shit of them, but the people you work with think you’re a different kind of Black, because you laugh at their jokes and talk with them about Downton Abbey.
At a writing retreat recently, I joined some new colleagues at a cafeteria table for breakfast. Before I could adjust myself in my seat, one them asked me, “Do you think we’ll have fried chicken and waffles tomorrow?” I was confused. We had never had any type of poultry talk. I didn’t even have eggs on my plate.
In moments like this, I sometimes wonder if I’ve gone into a trance where I’ve recited lines from a Popeye’s commercial. Once I determine that I am, in fact, awake and being asked about fried chicken for no apparent reason, I have to make quick decisions. Is this person trying to get me arrested, or just trying to make a connection? I can’t even lay my burdens down while I eat granola.
Years ago at a public relations firm I worked for, my department often went to lunch as a group. My boss’ favorite place to go - Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Now don’t get me wrong; I get down with Roscoe’s. I order the No. 9 with a side of fries covered in gravy, greens and mac and cheese. I don’t go often and when I do it, I do it. That said, the first time we went as a group, I ordered a salad - with no chicken.
I had this vision of sucking on a bone and then one of my coworkers saying something like, “You love chicken, don’t you?” I feared that I would black out and then when I came to, I’d be handcuffed to a hospital bed. In order not to lose my job and to stay a free man, I ate lettuce. The truth is it that doesn’t really matter whether I’m eating leafy greens, or downing a pack of Nowlaters (I know that’s the incorrect spelling), folks who want to throw some “black” at you, will.
My earliest memory of “unsolicited ‘blackness’” was when I was in high school and J.J. Fad’s song “Supersonic” was all over the radio. If you’re unfamiliar, go listen to “Fergalicious” on your iPod. They’re essentially the same song, but not - kinda like “Blurred Lines” and ”Got to Give it Up.”
I was at the Burger King in Livingston Mall in Jersey, minding my own damn business and this white girl gets in my face and just starts with, “A-somma-lomma-duma-luma-lamalama-toomalama-hamalama- Aw, Yeah, that's it!” I stood there being rapped at for about 27 seconds.
I think I was supposed to be impressed because she knew the words. I never knew and still don’t know what J.J. Fad was saying at the end of that song. However, I wasn’t impressed and I wasn’t sure what to do. Her friends were laughing and clapping. It was like an 80s, suburban version, of getting served. I remember standing there with my Whopper wondering if I was supposed to rap back at her. Was this a battle? I really just wanted to eat and go to the Gap. She seemed disappointed when I just said, “Cool” and sat down. If I had rapped back, it wouldn’t have been J.J. Fad. It would have been KRS-One and then I’m an asshole for making the white girl uncomfortable. It was a no-win.
The expressions, dances and handshakes change, but the experiences are the same. Thanks to Martin Lawrence, I spent a good portion of the 90s being hit with “You go boy” replete with full neck rolling and if the assailant was aware of my sexuality, a clumsy finger snap. For a while, “You go girl/boy” lived comfortably nested as part of the lexicon of a very specific community, but then it leaked. These things always leak. I’ve lived through "jiggy," "bling," "dissin’," "holla," “Drop it like it’s hot,” “C’mon Son!” and so many more. As I watched Miley twerk, I braced myself for the onslaught.
It’s not so far-fetched to believe that I’ll have to fend off some well-intended twerking this coming holiday party season. If you’ve ever had drunk coworkers cabbage patch at you, you understand where I’m coming from. Even outside of work situations, I’ve been sitting at a bar and had someone get in my face and start doing the Robot. I’m not uptight, but by anyone’s measure that’s inappropriate behavior at a jazz club.
All that said, there can be harmony when all participants are willing. A few weeks back at the aforementioned retreat, a festive, wine-induced karaoke party broke out. People from all walks of life stepped to the mic and let it all hang out. There was some rapping. Sir Mix-a-Lot is a crowd favorite, but no one rapped at me. On the converse, I didn’t hop in anyone’s face spitting out Bon Jovi lyrics. It’s rarely discussed, but “unsolicited ‘whiteness’” is a problem too.
You ever been in mixed company and a black person - if female, hair askew and if male , in Crocs - drops every white pop culture reference they know for no reason? Oftentimes, the added bonus is the constant raking of non-moving hair behind one’s ears, as if it had fallen out of place…but I digress.
Over the last few days, I’ve read many pieces about appropriation and how Miley’s recent image shift is an act of cultural theft. I suppose my question is, who owns twerking? I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, Miley can twerk until she breaks a hip. I didn’t see anything that represented being Black when I looked at Miley perform. I just saw an awkward mix of youth and capitalism. Besides, nobody can perform my lived experience. You can twerk, do vocal runs, or get "jiggy" all you want, but none of it captures what it means to be me. It’s performance without full context. Historically speaking, this isn’t a new thing.
My main concern is that Miley opened the floodgates. I was just beginning to recover from the "turnt up" outbreak and now there’s something else. My only wish is that when some random person wants to drop it like it’s hot, then back that thang up on me and twerk, they’ll check-in first. You don’t know me like that and I will feel bad if I have to diss you.
Word to your motha.