As I said on the main blog, I had to start the new year with the wonderful emerging Black feminist scholar and professor Heidi Renée Lewis. On this side of the interview, we chat about the contours of conversations about race and racism in the Midwest and out West, what she’s teaching her students at Colorado College, and her choice for this year’s Superbowl ring-wearers.
And P.S.: This Heidi Renee Lewis is the same one who wrote the piece excerpted here.
You’re a Midwestern woman like I am, and you’ve made a life in the West, namely living and working in Colorado. Having moved and now living out there, what similarities and differences do you notice in how race, racism, and anti-racism are talked about in the two regions?
We’ve lived in Colorado just 2 ½ years, so I think I’ll start with that. Colorado Springs is a very unique city. It’s home to a military base, an air force base, and the Air Force Academy, so that brings a lot of diversity to the city. It’s also very religious and conservative. I live in more recently developed area of the city—lots of big money commerce and new housing—but my part of town is probably one of the more diverse areas racially. A colleague and I joke that all of the houses in our neighborhood may look the same, but the neighbors don’t. I’m still finding my way around, learning who’s who and what’s what. Once I can build some more relationships—especially with folks working on race, racism, and anti-racism, I think I’d like to write more about this.
Growing up in a small town in northeastern Ohio (shoutout to Alliance!) made it easy for me to only think in terms of binaries. There were white folks, and there were black folks. There were folks with money and folks without money. The folks without money weren’t always black, but the folks with money were almost always white. Still, the size of my city made it difficult for folks to segregate entirely. Black folks went to church, the salon/barbershop, and the club together mostly—as white folks did—but we all went to school and played together and sometimes even lived in the same neighborhoods. A lot of our parents went to school and played together, too. Things like interracial dating were not unusual to me growing up. There was taboo around things like that, yes, but it happened—quite frequently, too.
I left Ohio when I was 17 to attend college in Pennsylvania, so I was just beginning to think critically about race. However, there was a lot of talk about race when I was growing up. Specifically, we were taught what black folks did and didn’t do and what white folks did and didn’t do. For instance, black folks listened to a certain type of music, and white folks danced a certain kind of way. There were strict rules around race, but kids my age grew up breaking them all. I listened to Soundgarden and Dr. Dre. I watched Party of Five and The Cosby Show. I still don’t know how to roller skate, double dutch, or ride a bike with no hands, but I played in ditches and made mud pies. One thing I can say is that I caught a hell for being awkward, but I did it anyway. Haha!
You specifically work as a college professor in gender and feminist studies. What are you having your students read/study in your class(es) this school session? I also heard there’s a biennial about 90s culturalization in Black feminist/womanist spaces in the works?
I’m actually teaching my Critical Whiteness Studies course right now—it’s a shortened session, but still exciting nonetheless. It’s the second time I’ve taught the course, and I have to shout out my institution for being so supportive. Some folks just aren’t ready to study whiteness, but CC dove in head first when I put the course on the table. Today was the first day of class, but I’m having them read Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, a collection edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. That reader includes essays and articles by Eric Foner, Dinesh D’Souza, Toni Morrison, Derrick Bell, Kathleen Cleaver, Catharine MacKinnon, David Roediger, Adrian Piper, and so many other brilliant minds! I’m actually jealous of my students (all undergraduates) because of the courses they get to take across the board, not just mine. I didn’t get hip to cultural studies until graduate school, and didn’t really get to dive in like I wanted and needed to until my Ph.D.!
I’m really excited about the biennial, gwoooorl—that’s gonna be really hot! I’m into all time periods—particularly regarding the pop culture—but the 90s hold a special place in my heart, because that’s when I came of age. I was born in ‘81, and graduate high school in ‘99. By the time I was old enough to read on my own, I was reading The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mama, The Street, and all of these other novels by black women that my grandma was passing back and forth with her cousin. So, growing up in the 90s meant that I had access to all of that. It’s one of the biggest reasons I am who I am today. Black women novelists were being recovered, and the academic portion of Black Feminism/Womanism was taking off like a rocket! Plus, the music! I have all of the 90s channels favorited on AOL Radio, chile, especially ‘90s R&B. We had Bell Biv DeVoe, Mary J. Blige, Faith, Jodeci, Xscape, TLC, SWV—I could go on and on and on! I always tell my students that this “one hot black woman at a time” unspoken rule in the mainstream music industry is nothing like what I experienced growing up. On the rap tip we had Latifah, Monie Love, Nikki D, Salt ‘N Pepa, both Roxannes, MC Lyte, Yo Yo, The Conscious Daughters—again, I could go on and on! Remember Yo! MTV Raps? So, after connecting with so many sistars online, I started to think it was high time we came together to celebrate ourselves and the shoulders of the women we stand on…and jam on it in the process!
What’s fascinating you in feminism and feminist studies, especially in Black feminist studies, that you think we’re not talking about in larger, more public conversations?
I feel that we kind of left Angela Davis on her own as far as incarceration goes, so it was a great moment when Michelle Alexander released The New Jim Crow. I must say, though, that two of my colleagues—Breea Willingham and Ebonie Cunningham-Stringer—are about to add to that conversation immensely, so I’m excited for that! I’m also excited to see more work on dance. My colleague Takiyah that I mentioned earlier is making that happen, which is wonderful! Takiyah’s always talking and writing about “movement vocabularies!” I’m trying to find a way to work that term into my own work somehow, because I think it’s hot. Haha! As for myself, I’m working on a larger book project that examines what happens when black men and white women have daughters. I can’t wait to resume work on that—I did some for my dissertation. I don’t think the conversations we’ve been having about this so-called “post-racial America” have addressed gender and sexuality adequately, so that’s what I’m hoping to contribute in the next couple of years on my end.
So, to the light stuff: what books are you reading, what music are you listening to, which football team are you hoping will get to the Superbowl?
Presumed Incompent is on the way to my office, so I’ll be digging into that as soon as it comes! I’ve been doing a lot more traveling over the past couple years, so I’ve been able to read novels again. I’ve been reading and rereading Ntozake Shange, Pearl Cleage, Tananarive Due, J. California Cooper, Dorothy West, Alice Childress, Mary Monroe, Terry McMillan, Pauline Hopkins and a host of other black women novelists that I love and respect. You know how lately we’re always talking about people “reading” other people (i.e. “I read her up and down after she tried to talk crazy to me!”)? I went back and reread Like One of the Family by Alice Childress, and she was already on that back in 1956! So, I’m late to that party. Haha!
As for music, you know now that I have my ratchet records on deck! But what most people don’t know is that I’m a blues woman to the core. My father is a musician, so the blues have been a big part of my life since I was about 10 years old. Of course, I love the classic blues women especially—Koko Taylor, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, Ann Peebles, Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown, Etta James, and such. However, I also love Janiva Magness, Michelle Wilson, Tracy Nelson, Maria Muldaur, Carolyn Wonderland, and more contemporary artists.
Now, you know you done violated asking me about the Super Bowl. Haha! I’m a BenGal, but we got knocked out of the playoffs during Wildcard Weekend this year, so if it ain’t Cincy, I couldn’t care less. Chile, that loss broke my heart, and you done gone and drudged up all my hurt feelings. Haha! My husband loves Philly, though, so I could definitely support a trip to the Bowl for them, but we all know what happened to them this year. Let’s hope both of our squads do a lot better during the 2013-2014 season. If I had to call it, though, I’d say…Green Bay or New England. *Barf!*
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to say that I’m thankful to Racialicious for donning me “Crush of the Week!” I love and admire your site, and will be forever thankful for the contributions you’ve made to conversations that are so important to our communities! I appreciate you thinking of me, and I look forward to working together on so much more in the future! Andrea, I don’t think I even have the words to describe what it’s been like building a relationship with you. You make me laugh. You make me smile. You make me think. You make me glad to be a black woman. You make me glad to do the work that I do, and you make me want to do it better. I can’t wait to lay eyes on you for the first time in person and give you one of them big ole grandmama hugs!
Awwwwwwwww!! ::hugs:: And you know that, when we’re done hugging, I’m challenging you to a game of jacks, right?
My own struggles with ratchet came to a head when my colleague alerted me to the “Bury the Ratchet” campaign being launched by Michaela Angela Davis. The campaign will begin with a symposium at Spelman College this March, when black leaders will examine how reality TV shows featuring ratchet black women are “harming Black culture.” The symposium will be followed by a public service announcement featuring black women discussing their feelings about such depictions. Along those lines, Davis argues, “It has become completely evident that there has been a brand of women from Atlanta that are adverse to what most of these women are like.” To be honest, I’m not struggling with ratchet as much as I’m grappling with false binaries like this—binaries that are being manifested in conversations about all things ratchet. However, the either-or dichotomies erase women like me, and others, from the conversation.
Davis started the campaign in order to “get the spotlight off the ratchetness and on the successful women in Atlanta.” Well, wait a minute. I wasn’t aware that “ratchet” and “successful” women were mutually exclusive. What if some network decided to develop a reality TV show about me, or sisters like me? I’m a well-educated, happily married mother of two. I’m a professor at an elite liberal arts college. My husband has been a successful entrepreneur for almost 4 years. I admit that representations of black women like me are scant across all genres of television. Think about some of the reasons so many black women faithfully watch MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show and ABC’s Scandal. But, I’d be just the kind of candidate Davis would be looking for to combat these ratchet images of black women on reality TV, right? Well, probably not.
I have no qualms admitting that I can be a bit ratchet at times. Okay, a lot of times. You should have seen me and my husband on New Year’s Eve this year. Trinidad James anyone? You should have heard me talking to my sistercousin after a meeting one day a while back. “They don’t even want me to go there, okay?!” You should have read that blog where I wrote about Li’l Wayne and cunnilingus. Ooooweeee! You should have seen me and my homegirl on the deck overlooking my backyard this past summer. “If you ain’t gone finish that last li’l bit in that bottle, I will.” You should have seen me and my other homegirl in the bar that night a few years ago. Talk about snatching wigs! Okay, I think I’ve said too much already. But, see, therein lies the problem. Said too much for what? Too much for whom? My family? My friends? My colleagues? My readers? I guess I really do have some qualms after all.
This makes me ask: Which forms of ratchet are acceptable and which are not? The ratchet sure to flow from the women on All My Babies’ Mamas is probably not okay with Davis and her supporters, because, after all, these women are just babies’ mamas. They’re nothing more than some child’s mama. Not only that, they each procreated with some tattooed, gold-mouthed rapper who became famous for an ass-shaking anthem called “Laffy Taffy” (Down for Life, 2005). The ratchet that flows from The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) is also probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but so-called fashionistas that pull each other’s hair over he-said-she-said gossip and who-said-what-on-Twitter beefs. And the ratchet flowing from BBW is probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but gold diggers who sleep with basketball players for money.
However, those of us who actually watch these shows know that’s not completely true. We don’t know much about the women on All My Babies’ Mamas yet, but we do know something about the other ratchet black women on these shows. We already knew Kandi Burruss of RHOA is a successful singer/songwriter from her days with R&B group Xscape. But we know from watching the show that she has parlayed her celebrity into a successful web series (Kandi Koated Nights), boutique (TAGS), and pleasure products company (Bedroom Kandi). We know from watching Malaysia Pargo of BBW: LA that she launched her Three Beats jewelry line last year, and donates part of the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club in Watts, CA where she grew up. Why don’t they get a pass from Davis for their ratchet behaviors? They actually are successful by their own standards. So am I. Would the privilege that my Ph.D. affords me grant me a pass from Davis? My privileged place of employment? My heterosexual privilege?