Tonya Lewis Lee has the wisdom of a stateswoman, the creativity of a wunderkind, the soulfulness of a poet, and the beauty of a trophy wife. Yes, her husband, Spike Lee, is easily one of the top five storytellers of our generation. But, this statuesque woman is no trophy. Her own trophies and accolades are well-earned.
The former corporate attorney is the co-president of entertainment firm Tonik Productions and founder and Editor-in-Chief of Healthy You Now, a wellness site for women of color. Lee’s bestselling bibliography includes an empowering children’s book collection. Her impressive filmography boasts the award-winning documentary I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.
Despite all of the acclaim, Ms. Lee speaks honestly about her own challenges. On her blog she shared, “I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 35 years old. Chances are at some point I will develop breast cancer, as my mother and grandmother did,” in a plea for African-American women to be vigilant about our health. “Our community, our family, our future depends on the health and well-being of women, like you, who often help to keep everyone else going,” Lee wrote.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Lee’s most recent film, premiered on the Hallmark Channel earlier this fall, and is set in 1963. I spoke to Ms. Lee about the importance of producing this film for today’s audiences, and what fuels her drive for excellence.
theGrio: Thank you so much for making time for this conversation. Would you define yourself a Renaissance woman?
Tonya Lewis Lee: You know, I’m just someone who is trying to do interesting work and tell good stories and make the world a little bit better than when I got here. So if that is a Renaissance woman, I’ll take it.
What inspires you to do so much?
I’m someone who has a lot of energy and I’m around a lot of people who are doing really great amazing work and I don’t mean just in the film business. So when I’m around that kind of energy, it just helps me to press on and do the work that I want to do. Life is short and I want to make sure that my time here is productive and feels like I’m contributing something — certainly in raising my children. They are my greatest pride and certainly I hope and I believe (because they are nearly grown now) that they will contribute something themselves. I’ve done something wonderful in raising two really wonderful human beings, but there is other work that I can be doing to also contribute. So I just try to put my hat in the ring and see what happens.
When I speak to women, one of the things that comes up often is that they don’t feel they have a right to all their majesty. We have a fear of the question, ‘Who does she think she is?’ How have you surmounted that?
I really believe in “God bless the child that has its own,” no matter what circumstance you’re in. I think that it’s really important that we live out our destinies and that we make the best situation for ourselves. I think it’s important for women to work. I think it’s important for women to work to make money.
It’s really critical that we have something for ourselves beyond our mates, beyond our children, beyond our home. I do think it’s a double-edged sword for me a little bit. I have gotten to the point that I really don’t think about what anybody else really thinks, I just do.
Sometimes people have thought “Oh, well, she doesn’t really need to work for money,” and so often people think of me doing philanthropic work, which I’m happy to do. I love doing work for non-profits and for causes that have meaning and volunteering my time for certain things. But I think that often what happens is people begin to think, “Well she doesn’t have to work, so we’ll just use her for that.” Or, “We don’t really need to worry about paying her because she’s got it.”
I have had to fight against that a bit and I continue to do that. I know the kind of work I want to do. I want to be telling really wonderful, great stories that show who we are as human beings in the most diverse ways that I can. So I put my head down and I focus on doing the work.
I can’t worry about the others. And I believe in my heart that eventually everybody else will catch up to where I am and understand that, “Yes, Tonya deserves to get paid for the work that she does just like anybody else.”
What was your personal journey to loving yourself? How did you get there?
I grew up with my mother and my father and I have a sister. We moved around a lot because my father was climbing the corporate ladder. I lived a lot in predominantly white areas at times where they weren’t used to seeing families like mine. Sometimes we got a hard way to go because of that. On the one hand, I had a really close, loving family that supported me, but on the other hand I was in a situation where I did feel some hostility from the neighborhood and some of the schools I went to. So I wouldn’t say that I always really felt confident in who I was as a kid, or as a young woman.
I think that growing up and coming into having different experiences and especially having children, realizing that I am the person they depend on [helped]. They need me to be strong and well for them. In order to raise children who had self-esteem and who were confident in their own abilities, I had to be that and mirror that for them. So, I had to really dig deep.
The way I went about doing that was I was open to the universe. I read different books. I talked to God and I tried things out and got serious about the kind of people I have around me. I try to be very careful about the kinds of people I have around me, making sure they give me positive and good energy and weeding out those that are not — maybe not intentionally, but [who are] just not really giving me what I need.
I just had to really listen to my inner voice. I remember very clearly listening to that voice which was telling me, “Tonya you got this, you can do this. This is where you are in this time right now and you’re going to have to make the best with what it is.” I figured it out.
There are some days when I’m not so sure still, you know. I try to listen to that inner voice and I talk to God, and again, I’m still open to the Universe for signs and directions about where I should be going. I find that the Universe usually is conspiring for me if I’m really listening.
I have to say I think about my great-great-great-great-great grandparents, who really seriously worked, literally slaved and survived so that I could be here. I really feel like I owe them to be my best self. Given what they endured and what they went through, I should be able to pick up the torch and carry it further.