Social media sites lit up when a picture of a Hampton University slide presentation made its way onto the Internet recently. The slide, most likely shown at one of the university’s freshman orientation seminars, made three proclamations about twerking, newly defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a sexually suggestive dance “involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”
It stated that Hampton ladies do not twerk, Hampton men don’t take women who twerk home to their mothers, and employers don’t discriminate between the person doing the twerking and the one on the business end of it.
Twerking has garnered significant media coverage as of late, especially in the wake of actress and pop star Miley Cyrus’ nationally-televised exhibition of it at the MTV Video Music Awards. But the dance itself is not new and has been through several stages of evolution over the last few decades.
Clearing the air on Hampton’s call
Much of the criticism levied on the university’s presentation centered on the school putting boundaries on what a woman is permitted to do to be considered a lady, attempting to calibrate women’s behavior to the desires of men, and asserting that such behavior invalidates the employability the university’s degrees proffer. These are undoubtedly problematic judgments, but they are only part of the story.
First, here is what is certain: the presenter at Hampton University (which happens to be my undergraduate alma mater, so I speak from experience) is using humor and colloquialisms to do one of the most important things to be accomplished in a student’s first week at college: connect. This is especially important at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) where low teacher-student ratios and close-knit campus environments remain two of the strongest points of their appeal.
The pop culture reference to twerking was an attempt at connection with the students – a technique that has proven benefits on retention and graduation.
Why HBCUs teach more than facts
More importantly, the university was attempting to provide the sort of life education that HBCUs take pride in offering. At their founding, these schools were deliberate in their mission to provide an education for black students that they had been denied elsewhere. This education extended beyond mathematics and liberal arts. It also included practical skills like specialized trades and business acumen, along with normative behavior instruction like social etiquette and grooming.
This special mission has evolved into advice to students on proper dress and acceptable behavior in certain environs that will make them competitive in the national economy, instead of just in the agricultural localities that most blacks once lived in. In this way, the school serves as a sort of community elder training up the next generation. It is ingrained in the DNA of HBCUs and they take the mission seriously, and rightly so.
Certainly, Harvard University is not following the Hampton model of telling its incoming freshman that its women do not twerk and their boyfriend’s mother would not approve. But that’s the point. The HBCU charge is unlike that of their white counterparts in many ways. When it comes to lessons outside the classroom, white institutions are not the model.
This is not the first time Hampton has been at the center of controversy relating to normalizing behavior. The school’s policy that bans dreadlocks and cornrows for male students in its MBA program was recently in the spotlight again. The rationale is that these hairstyles do not exude what the dean considers proper professional appearance. The all-male HBCU Morehouse College enacted a student dress code policy that prohibited sagging jeans and wearing articles of women’s clothing.
Students choose “normalizing” colleges
Just as some students choose religious schools that have requirements for weekly church attendance and missionary service, many black students choose HBCUs because of the conservative behavior standards some enforce.
As for twerking, as a student at Hampton University in the mid-90’s, I can assure you that Hampton women do indeed twerk. In fact, their elite terpsichorean group Ebony Fire showed that it can be done in an artful and entertaining manner, unlike what the nation witnessed on MTV the other night. And the Hampton women I went to school with are now successful professionals, wives, mothers, and community stalwarts. Admittedly, we did not have to concern ourselves with cameras on every cell phone and social media sites that can forever associate a person with an especially suggestive dancing position.
But the slide presentation wasn’t truly meant to be an indisputable statement of fact, but instead a statement of what the university deems acceptable behavior.
The ultimate mission of an HBCU
The extent to which HBCUs should enforce normalizing behavior on their students is an open question, but understanding the origin, and importance, of this mission is essential to the debate. And they would do well to remember that instructing black students on acceptable behavior is not the same thing as encouraging social assimilation to another culture. But I don’t believe that was the intent or the goal here.
As long as HBCUs evolve to meet the needs of each new generation of its students, the goal of life education will, and should always remain, at the heart of its mission.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.