Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Heidi Renée Lewis

By Andrea Plaid

Heidi Renee Lewis. Courtesy of the interviewee.

Heidi Renée Lewis. Courtesy of the interviewee.

Once again, Mark Anthony Neal–aided and abetted by one David J. Leonard–committed the kindness of introducing me to another cool-ass groove in African American-ness, this time on his Facebook page in the form of Heidi Renée Lewis and her post on Li’l Wayne and his politics of cunnilingus.

After reading her smart essay–and seeing how she dealt with some fooligan respectability-politics criticism in the thread about her post being fluff under the guise of an academic-sounding title–I had to be friends with her. We friended, and I’ve been deep into her brilliantly funny loving-The-Community commentary on vids about gospelizing over chicken, praise leaders losing their shoe trying to be cute and jumping on cheaply made tables, and people doing the Robot at church services (among other ones) ever since. Hanging with Heidi is like hanging with that one wild-ass play cousin whose pithy ongoing social commentary has you holler-laughing for days.

In other words, totally Crush-worthy.

Of course, I talked to Dr. Heidi…but I had to talk about her lively ass, too! Check out what I said to Crush alum Tamura Lomax about our latest one…

Hey there, Professor Heidi! I’m going to start our convo—and new year–with an unpublished excerpt of a Q&A I did with Dr. Tamura Lomax in which we talked about you, sis! Here’s what we said…

AP: Tamura, I’m gonna be honest: there may be some Dr. Heidi Renée Lewis-inspired silliness permeating my questions because she inspires such mischief and fun. But I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. So, I have to ask: how did you and Dr. Baddypants–errrm, Dr. Lewis meet? And, if you two have met in person, is she as mischievous in real life as she is on Facebook? (P.S. Watch Tressie [McMillan Cottom], too. I’ve met her, and she’s definitely one of those undercover mischievous types!)

TL: Heidi is a kindred spirit. We met via social media sometime ago, due to mutual friends and, perhaps most importantly, mutual interests in raising hell while simultaneously having fun. Heidi makes me LOL at all the right times, so I was easily drawn to her. I know that I can always count on her for some sort of late night (and sometimes early morning!) clownery. We all need that in our lives.

Yet, she’s in no way some simplistic funny girl. There’s a brilliance about her. I think it’s the “everydayness” of her cultural critiques. She’s always on point—always making the mundane ever present and making “normal” completely absurd (and vice versa). That takes skill. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to meet in person. I think 2013 will change that. There’s a lot on the horizon for badass black feminists. I’m looking forward to meeting up with you, Heidi, and Tressie sometime soon. I imagine all kinds of badassery and fabulousness unfolding.

So now…Dr. Lewis, how do you feel about being the unofficial ringleader of Black feminist academic mischief on Facebook?

Hahaha!  First, let me say that I adore keeping company with badass feminists like you and Tamura.  I also had a bit of fun with Tressie, too, back when Tamura re-posted my blog about Li’l Wayne.  I cannot wait to meet every kindred soul I’ve met on social media in person because you all give me so much life every single day.  I like the idea of being a ringleader—I’m an only child, after all—but don’t y’all sit up here and try to act like y’all don’t get it crackin’ on a regular basis.  Hahaha!  You all make my heart sing!

A few colleagues of mine have said that I’m “always on Facebook,” and on some days, that’s definitely a bit more true than otherwise.  However, I try to be very clear that I’m there because I love spending time with my people who are far away.  We cut up, sure, but you all challenge me to be a better human being—wife, mother, friend, scholar, educator.  My fellow badass black feminists—and I’m honored that you think of me as such—give me so much inspiration, and I can only hope that I can give you all, and others, a fraction of what you’ve given me.

More serious question: I personally met you through our mutual pal (and Racialicious guest contributor) Dr. David J. Leonard, who linked to your post about hip-hop and cunnilingus on the blog of another friend of the R, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal. What inspired you to write that post?

For the longest time, I had been asking my homegirl Takiyah Nur Amin why—in all the conversations about Li’l Wayne (academic, especially)—that no one had talked about it.  I listen to Li’l Wayne quite a bit, and every time he would rap about it, I would think, “Rap music sure has changed a li’l bit.”  As I wrote in the blog, I remember a time when the dominant discourse in hip-hop took an anti-cunnilingus position—with few exceptions.  No one then–and not really too many rappers now–talked about cunnilingus as much as Li’l Wayne does or in the way that he does.  My interests in race, gender, sexuality, and popular culture had me thinking about this a lot, and I kept thinking about Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Sexual Politics more and more.  So, I decided that it had to be done.  However, I was a bit hesitant, because I had never written a blog before.  Then, Takiyah reminded me—in a way—of my own mantra, “If you see a gap in the scholarship, don’t talk about it.  Be about it!”  On top of that, Feministing was running a competition, so that also inspired me to write two pieces—the Li’l Wayne piece and the one on MTV’s Teen Wolf (the latter being what I like to call my B side cut).  Before submitting, I sent the pieces to Mark for his review.  Lo and behold, he thought both would be great for New Black Man!  I was thrilled and honored!  I didn’t win the competition, but I’ve won on so many levels since he posted my work.  I’ll always be indebted to Mark and Tamura—and everyone else who re-posted, especially Racialicious—for giving my words a place to call home.  I’m in such brilliant company, and I don’t ever want to take that for granted.

Related to that question…I love this quote from that post:

I’m not asking that we slap a feminist label on Li’l Wayne, even if we only slap it on his willingness to pleasure a woman sexually. Throwing around the feminist label is not the best use of my intellectual time and energy—at least not right now.

Do we throw progressive labels, like “feminist,” on folks too quickly? Perhaps we should say someone did something feminist/progressive instead of papering the person as being feminist because they did something that may be considered feminist?

I definitely do think it’s useful for us (feminists, that is) to think about who we are and what we stand for.  Those definitions vary and are extremely complex, but thinking and talking about it also helps us to know where we’ve been and who we were, as well as where we’re going and who want to be.  As a black feminist, I’m all always thinking about the power of naming.  Toni Morrison once wrote, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”  Ever since I read that, I realized I don’t ever want to assume I have the power to name anyone other than myself.  So, that’s partly where my position is rooted.  However, I think there are some folks and things that we just know aren’t feminist, like those who are physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually abusive.  That really is the difficulty—at least for me.  That’s why I declared I wasn’t going to take up that task in the Li’l Wayne piece.  I wouldn’t dismiss anyone else who wanted to take it up; I just knew that taking that up was beyond the scope of the blog, if you will.

Speaking of name-tossing, let’s talk about your latest post on The Feminist Wire about “ratchet” and “respectability politics” on TV. As you present it, “ratchet” is the latest electric-fence parameter that (over-)determines how Black women especially are seen on TV and are to rail against in US society. I’d dare say that it’s also the parameter on which the class lines of Blackness themselves are over-determined, such as the comments saying the phrase “bougie ratchet” is oxymoronic. Thoughts? And would you mind offering your definition of what “ratchet” means in offering your thoughts?

Wow, Andrea, these questions are good!  I love that you’re challenging me, and that’s why I bangs with you and Racialicious!

Let me start with my own definition of “ratchet.”  For me, it means so many things.  I like some of the ways that the term was used when it was first introduced.  “Turnt up” is the new thing, and ratchet—for me—is in that, in some instances.  Generally, though, when I’m being ratchet, I’m doing what I’m not expected to do (by someone, somewhere)—going further than anyone may have expected me to go.  It’s me being bad or crass, if you will—drinking a li’l too much, being a li’l too loud, cursing a li’l too often, spending a li’l too much money, dancing a li’l too raunchy, rolling my eyes a li’l too hard.  In “(Un)Clutching My Mother’s Pearl,” Brittney Cooper talked about ratchet acts as those that exceed the bounds of acceptability, and that’s how I see it, too.  In my blog, I was trying to problematize the “too” I mentioned several times just now.  Too loud for whom?  Too much money for what?  Too raunchy in what ways?  So, I hope I accomplished that.

I don’t think “bougie ratchet” (and this is the first time I’m hearing that term, but I’m loving it!) is oxymoronic.  I’m thinking about NeNe Leaks (Real Housewives of Atlanta).  NeNe is new-money bougie and ratchet at the same damn time.  I think that’s what draws me to her.  Tamar Braxton, too.  I think that’s what annoys me about them as well, which tickles me!  I think, as you’re suggesting, that those who would argue that “bougie ratchet” is oxymoronic are assigning socioeconomic value to ratchet people and ratchet behavior.  I write about false binaries in The Feminist Wire piece, and this feels like that to me.  The oxymoronic claim suggests that to be ratchet, you have to be poor.  To be bougie, you have to have money.  However, I’m all about disrupting those binaries, and “bougie ratchet” seems like a useful descriptor for some cases.  Maybe I’m that sometimes, too!  Hahaha!

Check out the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr!