Shifting the Narrative in Black Birth & Beyond:

An Interview with Award-Winning Writer and Producer Tonya Lewis Lee

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Season 2, Episode 8: Shifting the Narrative in Black Birth & Beyond: An Interview with Award-Winning Writer and Producer Tonya Lewis Lee

Episode Description: Narratives are powerful. They can influence policy, shift cultural norms, and drive systemic change. What about the narrative in Black maternal health? How do we shift the mainstream narrative in Black birth and breastfeeding away from doom and gloom and negative statistics to centering joy and possibility? What is needed, who is missing, and quite frankly, will the powers in Hollywood ever let us own this narrative? In this episode, Kimberly talks with New York Times best-selling author, award-winning writer, and producer, Tonya Lewis Lee, whose most recent work, Aftershock, takes a compelling look at the Black maternal mortality crisis.


Birthright is funded by the California Health Care Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund.

Kimberly Seals Allers  00:01

Welcome the Birthright, a podcast about joy and healing in black birth, where we share positive birth stories of those who have lived out their birthright and help heal those who have been denied it. My name is Kimberly Seals Allers, and I’m the founder of the Irth app, and your host. This is where we celebrate the ways we find joy in our birthing experiences. And ultimately, reclaim our birthright. Today, we have a special episode focused on the power and potential of stories. I started birthright because I was deeply concerned about the doom and gloom narrative common in black maternal health, and that the story of black birth needed more lessons from positive experiences, and quite frankly, more joy. Stories matter. And they are powerful tools to shift cultural norms, shape policies, drive change, and to reverse harmful narratives. That is what birthright is all about. But how do we shift the mainstream narrative and black birth and breastfeeding? What is needed? Who is missing? And quite frankly, will the powers in Hollywood ever let us own this narrative? Today, I’m honored to have with me one of my favorite storytellers in the birth space. She’s a New York Times best selling author many times over. And before there were so many black children’s books, her please baby please and please puppy please series, written with her husband, Spike Lee, allowed our children to see themselves in black and beautiful ways. Tonya Lewis Lee is an award winning producer, entrepreneur and advocate for women’s health. She has produced several TV projects, including The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which she wrote, the giver, she’s gotta have it, and monster. Back in 2009, Tonya produced crisis in the crib, a groundbreaking documentary about the nation’s unconscionable black infant mortality crisis centered in Memphis, Tennessee. This year, she co-produced Aftershock, now streaming on Hulu, go watch it everyone, a powerful documentary which follows the stories of two amazing men whose lives are forever changed by black maternal deaths. Tonya has been a champion for telling black stories authentically and unapologetically across media platforms. And she has used this skill to shed a light on black birth and black families in wonderful and delicious ways. I’m so honored to have her here with me today for this conversation.  Tonya, welcome to birthright. Thank you for joining us. 

Tonya Lewis Lee  02:46

Hello, and thank you for having me, Kimberly. 

Kimberly Seals Allers  02:48

Oh, great. So let’s talk a little bit about your background. And when you saw yourself as a storyteller, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Tonya Lewis Lee  02:57

Well, it’s interesting. I think that as a young person, I was a writer, I used to when I was a teenager, I used to write poems about my angst, you know, the way a lot of young people do, just sort of working out my emotional feelings. And I like to write I was a writer in school, but never really understood that I could actually have a career being a storyteller. And in fact, when I graduated from college, I was thinking I wanted to work in television, but didn’t know anyone who had ever worked in television, didn’t know how to get into the industry. And my parents were like, I don’t understand that world. You need to go to law school or business school. And so I chose to go to law school. I don’t regret it, I think was the right thing for me. I’m glad I did it. And then, you know, really, when my children were young, and I began to see how they were seeing themselves as brown children in a world of white media. I felt like at one point, I was looking at children’s books, and I was like, there’s just not enough children’s books that feature kids that looked like mine. Maybe somebody should, and maybe I should. And so that’s sort of how I really began my career as a storyteller.

Kimberly Seals Allers  04:23

So interesting. Birthright is a podcast, essentially about black birth, so tell us a little bit about your own birth experiences and how they shaped you as a woman perhaps as a producer in your own journey.

Tonya Lewis Lee  04:38

Yeah, I think, you know, it’s a long time ago now that I actually gave birth. My oldest is 27. And my youngest is 25. But I will say that, you know, when I was pregnant, I was relatively young. These days, I guess it’s not that young, but I was 27/28 when I gave birth to my daughter, 31, I gave birth to my son. And I think that back then I didn’t feel very empowered. You know, I went to the doctor. In fact, the first OB/GYN he I had was a friend of my family. And I sort of followed her lead, and everybody around me was like, Okay, this is what we’re going to do. And this is what you should do. And I was like, oh, okay, I guess this is what I should be doing. And I didn’t really have a lot of agency, I just sort of, I just sort of fell into things. I, when I had my son, the first OB/GYN that I had had moved out of the New York area. So I had to find another doctor, I knew I wanted a black doctor. So I found another black woman. But in retrospect, not really the best, probably the best doctor for me, and again, just was not aware of the kind of agency that I should have had. And I would say that, you know, look, I think any woman going through birth, when you come out of it, no matter what your birth experience is, you go through, it is a rite of passage, and you do come out on the other side a mother, a sort of a different woman. And I think that having children, I don’t know that my birth experience, because again, as I said, I felt I didn’t feel as empowered as I should have. But I do feel as a mother, that I am more empowered, stronger than I knew I could ever be. And I hope that for my daughter and my son’s partner, when he has one, who he has a child with, I hope for them that they have a more sense of empowerment, certainly than I did. And now that I know, I can be hopefully helpful, but not in the way.

Kimberly Seals Allers  06:57

Exactly. Well, you know, I always think of this work as something we’re doing for our children and our children’s children. Right. And that is, you know, generational and perhaps generational work for us to shift what we’re trying to shift. One of the things that I am so interested in and inspired by is this narrative in black maternal health, and we’ve had these conversations, you know, tell me like what concerns you about the narrative of black maternal health? And what excites you about what we’re seeing in the narrative of black maternal health?

Tonya Lewis Lee  07:31

Well, what has concerned me has been this sort of narrative that black women die at higher rates than white women in the United States from childbirth complications that was her fault, the fault of the black woman. It’s her fault that she, you know, she, first of all, she’s in poverty, it’s her fault. She’s in poverty, it’s her fault, that she’s not healthy, she doesn’t take care of herself. She doesn’t go to the doctor, she doesn’t seek help. And so therefore, ultimately, the system is there for her, but it’s not, you know, she’s not accessing it. And that’s just not true. It’s just not the facts. Certainly, from my experience in knowing black women meeting all sorts of black women across the spectrum, you know. And so what’s exciting to me right now is that that narrative is shifting. I think what I am seeing is that healthcare providers, hospitals, systems, insurance companies, are looking at the data, because data is what drives them. And they’re realizing they cannot blame black women, for the circumstances in which we find ourselves today, and that they have a role to play and how to make it better. Now, at the same time, there does remain a little resistance, but I’m okay with that. As long as we’re having the conversation, which I see happening. And so I’m excited, because I also know that there are amazing people out there who’ve been doing this work for a long time people like yourself, Kimberly, people, like many of the people we know who are on the frontlines day to day nobody else knows grinding out there without a lot of shine without a lot of coin to really make for better birth outcomes for all of us. And I think I think we’re getting down to it. And I think as a nation, we’re going to have to make the decision about now that we know what we know, are we really going to do something about it? Or are we just going to let it continue to go on?

Kimberly Seals Allers  09:32

Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s a process for shifting right, you know, and shift is not necessarily always a sharp turn or a pivot. And I get concerned about the damage that has been done. I mean, if you have seen some of the messages, we get even just DMS on Irth app or whatever, where people are like, I need to do a will before I deliver and I’m worried about creating a will. And you know, let’s talk about the power of like the damage done by that narrative, right? And how long it will take to kind of reverse it. Because there’s a fine line between awareness raising. And we know that the statistics and the stories, unfortunately, the sensationalized headlines, you know, play a role in getting people’s attention. But in your, in your opinion, what is that fine line between awareness raising, and actually creating fear and fear mongering amongst our own people, which is also very dangerous? How should those two coexist? And what does that line look like for you?

Tonya Lewis Lee  10:36

Well, I think first and foremost, I think it’s critical that we know what’s happening. I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore the issue or the problem. We’re seeing it. We know what’s happening out there. So we have to acknowledge that yes, there is something going on, what is it? And then I think the key is to understanding our power in it, and not feeling like we are just victims of the system, right. Like, that we do as a people have power and agency, I keep using that word today, agency, in our outcomes. And what I mean by that is, yes, okay, identify the problem. There’s a situation that’s happening out there, what are the options for us? And I would say that, you know, yes, you’ve got to make a plan for your life, but maybe think about what are the other options? You can and like I said, I didn’t know when I was giving birth what options were out there, I just thought, Okay, I find a doctor, this is the doctor, okay, she tells me I should do this. Okay, I’m gonna go to this hospital. Okay. And that that was just kind of, in a way for me kind of ignorant, I should have done a little more homework, quite frankly, I should have found what other options there were for me, I should have tried to educate myself on midwifery instead of just believing, you know, what was being put out in front of me. So I think that as we see what the issue is out there happening, I think the balance is to go out there and find what other options are available, educate ourselves as much as possible, and not fall into the fear lane, but fall into the power lane and take that power back and say, Okay, this is an issue out here. What are my options? Can I find a great doctor? Let me go and do a lot of research and homework. Can I find a midwife? Are there birthing centers? For me, is a home birth better? What would a home birth look like? And don’t be afraid to look at options, but be open minded and find the situation that best suits oneself.

Kimberly Seals Allers  13:00

Yeah, I love that. I too, had a lot of birth regret for like, I was like, you know, I didn’t have what I wanted. For years, if I met a midwife or a doula, I would tell them what happened and ask them what I could have done differently, so I didn’t have to have a C section. And finally, my girlfriend was like, Isn’t your son 10, maybe you need to get over it or talk to a therapist or something. But it really stays with you, you know? And, you know, I’m like, just like you, I wish I had known. You know, I knew a little but not enough. And so I do hope that we are in a greater period of awareness. Right? If it’s, you know, options, even if you’re going to the hospital, can you have a doula and midwives that may deliver in a hospital? Is a childbirth center an option for you, like you said, is a home birth an option for you? And so I feel like exactly right. Like if we can get people to understand like, at least to explore your options, that would be a huge win. That would be a huge win. So when we talk about this idea of, you know, kind of storytelling in black birth, I want to talk to you about Aftershock, the documentary now streaming on Hulu, which has just been phenomenal. It’s so empowering. It’s so inspirational. I mean, it also is rage inducing, you know, you will be screaming. But I think that at the end, you walk away feeling hopeful. Tell us a little bit about that storytelling process, what that was like for you and your co-producer, and why you decided to tell the story.

Tonya Lewis Lee  14:30

Right? Well, first of all, it goes back to what we were just talking about, striking that balance of telling the story of something that is scary and traumatic, quite frankly, for our community, but trying to tell that story to raise awareness, but at the same time, trying to be inspirational and empowering because the last thing I want people to come away from this film feeling is fear to give birth because I want lots of brown babies out there. We’re such a small segment of the population as black Americans that I want us to keep procreating and procreating. So I hope that people come away from the film like, okay, when I have a baby, I’m going to look for the situation that works for me. And I’m excited to do this, even though yes, we see tragedy happen for some people. And so for Paula Eiselt, my co-director and co-producer, it was really important that we strike that balance. So I appreciate you saying that. We wanted people to come away feeling inspired, and hopeful. But at the same time, we wanted people to understand that when a mother does die, she’s not a number. She’s not a statistic. She really is a person who leaves behind children, partners, parents, family, a community that is devastated by her loss. And so, it matters that she lost is lost in this way. And so it was a process of two and a half years through the pandemic. We filmed in New York, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in DC a little bit. We, you know, we followed a couple of families who had lost women to childbirth complications, two of the surviving fathers, we follow closely as they’re picking up the pieces and supporting one another, we follow the mother of someone who passed away who was activated as well, she was an activist to begin with, but became even more activated. At the same time, we followed a woman who was pregnant, who in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who thought she was going to give birth the regular quote unquote, way at the hospital with a doctor, and sort of at the last minute, decides that she’s going to explore what her options are, and ends up finding a birthing center, and has a beautiful, amazing birth. Not to spoil it for everyone. But it’s a beautiful birth that she has, the kind that we would all hope we all have. And I actually saw her a couple of weeks ago and with her husband and her daughter Lily, who is now 18 months and walking and just the most adorable, delicious little baby. So yeah, it was a process.

Kimberly Seals Allers  17:32

Yeah. And you know, I think that was one of the many things that I love about Aftershock is the way that you center the black men, right. And I think that to your point, we often forget about those who are left behind, and who has to literally pick up the pieces when there is a death, you know, unnecessary death during pregnancy or afterwards. And, you know, really centering these black men. Was that an easy or a tough decision for you guys to think about talking about black maternal health through the lens of black men?

Tonya Lewis Lee  18:09

Um, you know, it was a natural process actually, you know, I think as filmmakers we set out to follow the story and, and one of the first shoots that we had together, it was Omari having a circle of men come around to talk to men who had also lost partners, it was two months after Shamony passing. And, you know, we saw right there, this vulnerability with these men and just following Omari, and then Amber passed away. Several months after that first gathering and Omari reached out to Amber. And they struck up a friendship and it just felt natural. There are the ones that are left behind. They’re the ones who are picking up the pieces. And they quite frankly, are very activated. Like I said, two months after Shamony passed away, Omari has this men circle. I want to say a week, maybe after Amber passed away. Bruce had a press conference in front of the hospital, but we were able to film so they got active very, very quickly. And we jumped on to follow them.

Kimberly Seals Allers  19:23

Yeah. And so you know, very similarly, I started this podcast because I thought there was a need to focus on joy. Right. And one of the things I really enjoy about Aftershock is that it does give you moments of joy. How do we do that? Right? Like, I don’t even I don’t know, like I have a very intentional way. But if we’re thinking about how we need to kind of create a new narrative and black birth, how do we bring in joy? Is that okay? Are people ready for it? And what is the value of that for you as you look at this, you know, story making and storytelling in your work?

Tonya Lewis Lee  20:03

Well, I think we definitely need joy, for sure. And we need to be focusing on joy. I think that as black people in our society and the society that we live in, you know, when you are existing under a system of oppression, it is critical that you carve out moments of joy. That’s part of being revolutionary, I think, in a way. At the same time, we have to be realistic about the world in which we live, right. So, you have to have those moments of joy, you have to have those moments of levity and laughter. That’s called being human. And we have to find that even as we are fighting. And again, I think that it’s really important that as we have these conversations that we uncover stories and history. I mean, one of the things we talked about in the film is the history of midwifery as part of the missing piece in the United States, that is really causing, I think, a lot of these issues that we’re having for black maternal health. All other industrialized nations have midwifery care at the core of women’s health, the United States is the only one that does not. And it’s based on a racist premise. It’s something that I did not come to this film expecting to uncover, but when I uncovered it, it was like, it was an aha moment. And so we go, we go down that road with Helena Grant, who really explains it all to us. So I think we have to have this serious conversation. But on the flip side, you know, there are moments of laughter in the film, which I think is really important, too.

Kimberly Seals Allers  21:57

Did you know that less than 15 minutes of your time can help make black birth safer for us all? Irth as in the word birth, but we dropped the b for bias, is the first of its kind nonprofit rating and recommendation platform for black and brown women and birthing people to find and leave reviews of their OBGYNs, birthing hospitals and pediatricians. My name is Kimberly Seals Allers, and I created the Irth app because I wish I had it when I gave birth. I learned the hard way that reading the doctor and hospital reviews at mainstream sites, which were overwhelmingly from white parents, was just not helpful to me as a black single mother at the time. Irth is by us and for us. In less than 15 minutes, you can complete the structured review of your birthing experience. Also, tell us about your prenatal, postpartum, and newborn care, so we can inform and protect each other. We turn Irth anonymous reviews into meaningful data to work directly with hospitals, payers and providers to improve our care now. When it comes to safe, respectful and dignified care, we got us. Download the free Irth app now and leave your reviews. Follow @TheIrthApp on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. 

I like to remind people that you know it’s it’s about the midwives, but it’s like you said it’s about the midwifery model of care. Right? That is so transformative to our birth experiences. And so you’re really looking for that model of care, not necessarily who catches your baby or delivers and learns a lot about that. And your friend, well, we don’t use that word. We don’t use that word. 

Tonya Lewis Lee  23:41

We don’t use that word. We don’t deliver the baby. Women birth baby.

Kimberly Seals Allers  23:45

That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. So but that model of care, which is very different from you know, the kind of industrial medical complex version of it, is what is so helpful to us. You know, you mentioned systems of oppression. And so I want to talk about the challenges of talking about black birth in Hollywood, what that’s been like for you, you know. Your first film crisis in the crib really looked at infant mortality. Now Aftershock, you know, share a little bit about what it’s like, what are the real challenges of trying to tell these stories about black birth and black birthing and birth families in the Hollywood system?

Tonya Lewis Lee  24:24

Well, look, it’s hard telling stories about like, fully realized black people in general in Hollywood, you know, and I think, you know, for us, we kind of went out of the system in a way, you know, we as an independent film, we raised the funds in different ways. From a mix of grants and equity from different investors and cobbled it together. I will say, I was struck by how well received we were in raising the funds. You know, there was some people at the very beginning, who were telling us that this film, you know, we had a budget for what the film would cost. And they were telling us it was too expensive, this type of film cannot cost that much money. And I was like, well, we can’t make it for anything less, because it will not be the kind of film that it’s supposed to be. And we stuck to our guns, and found really great people who care about the issue, individuals out there. But the Hollywood system, you know, it’s hard, it’s really, really hard to tell a story about just black love, Black joy, much less black health and wellness, from the perspective of fully realized people. Again, it’s not her fault, that it’s the system’s fault, right. But we were fortunate that we had really great angels to come on board and support us throughout this process.

Kimberly Seals Allers  25:58

And did you ever feel that the type of story that you were telling if you were willing to kind of go the other route, that it may have been an easier route for you?

Tonya Lewis Lee  26:07

You know, I don’t I don’t know. Because I think that it would never have been, so I can’t say that, you know, I can only say that if I had chose and if I had tried to say, oh, okay, well, you think I can’t make it for this. So I have to slash the budget, it could not have been what it is, because we wouldn’t have had the resources to make it the way we need it to make it. So it would never have been able to be even elevated to the level that it is. Because we wouldn’t have had the resources to create a piece of art because again, you know, yes, this is a film about the subject matter. But it is a piece of art. And what I mean by that is like it takes and it takes a lot. It takes a lot of people. It’s not just me and my co-producer, we are a part of a big team of people that we have to hire and pay. Nobody works for free. And nor should they. And there’s a lot of work and effort that goes into it across the board. And it costs money.

Kimberly Seals Allers  27:15

Yeah, speaking of art, you all won at Sundance. What was that like?

Tonya Lewis Lee  27:20

Yeah, it was amazing. I mean, you know, again, pandemic life, we were not able to be in person at Sundance, but we did win an impact for change award, which is amazing. And still, like, you know, unbelievable in some ways to me that, again, a film about black maternal health is recognized for the craft of the film that it is and for the impact that we are able to have on people with the film. So that’s been amazing. And it’s just been, you know, the film came. So, Sundance was in January, the film came out at Sundance in July. And the reception has been phenomenal. We’ve had interest from not just community, but from hospitals and insurance companies and various doctors and organizations that want to use the film as a conversation starter around these issues. Now, I did hear that there were some doctors, some OB/GYNs who felt like we were coming for them initially. And that, you know, we’re a little defensive, but what I appreciate about that, though, is that they also began having conversations with each other. So I’m okay, if these doctors are a little uncomfortable at first, as long as it starts a conversation to make them have to think well, why are people, why are they talking about us like that? Well, what do we have to say about this? What is what is our place in trying to make it better? So it’s all good?

Kimberly Seals Allers  29:00

Absolutely, so good. I mean, their comfort is not my priority. I’m here for the black birthing folks, obviously, like our work with Irth is all about you. You folks have got to be held accountable. Right. And so if that makes you uncomfortable, you know, that’s a you problem, not a me problem, as they say. But it needs to happen and the conversations need to happen. You know, speaking of which, like what is your vision for Aftershock? Like, what is it that you want it to be in the world? Is it about the conversation starter? Is it about something more? What is your, you know, kind of vision for what you want Aftershock to be?

Tonya Lewis Lee  29:42

You know, I really, I guess, you know, people have asked me this question, and it’s a tough one because it’s like, you create it, you put it out in the world and it’s kind of like you let the world you know, decide what it is. But I would say I hope it’s the type of film that I hope it helps to shift the narrative. I hope it helps to shift the culture of birthing in this country. I hope it’s one of those films that people come back to like, oh, right, what did they say? What was it about? The history of midwifery? Why is it that midwifery works I and what is it, as you say, the model of care? You know, there are certain films and I will say like, the Ricki Lake, the business of being born film is one of those films that I think many of us always go back to because it was somewhat eye opening. Certainly then, and I hope that Aftershock is one of those as well, that is eye opening for a lot of people and that, especially in this day and time when we are post Roe Dobbs decision, I really hope that in 2022, 2023, that we are the definitive film on reproductive justice and reproductive health in the United States right now.

Kimberly Seals Allers  31:08

I love that vision. I love that vision. I like something big and bold. What else will it take? If we’re thinking about shifting the narrative? We know we need more films, right? Like what are the other pieces that perhaps, you know, as you look at the landscape and what you think it takes to shift narratives? What are the other pieces? What else do we need more of for this to kind of become a reality, in your opinion?

Tonya Lewis Lee  31:34

Well, I think it’s I again, I think it’s continuing to uplift the work of those that are doing it day in day out. Supporting those people who were on the ground, I think that these conversations need to be seeping in and in all kinds of ways. You know, we talked about Hollywood, it doesn’t have to be a full film. But it can you know, these conversations need to be slipping in I think that medical institutions, medical schools need to be thinking about what they’re doing. And I think language matters, I think how we talk about birthing as women, one of the things that I really liked to do and haven’t done that much of in the past couple of years because of the pandemic, is women getting together to talk about our health in general. And all always, always a good thing, right? When we come together, I know. Michelle Obama has a book coming out this fall, and she’s gonna go on a tour and just talk about wellness in general. And what that looks like. So you know, I think whenever we get together as women, to talk about our health and our wellness, and share our experiences and understand it’s like what you said, you know, when you’re talking with us and tell your birth story to midwives and doulas, like, I think that stuff is important. You know, I mean, it’s funny to hear it but important, right? It is like we have to share.

Kimberly Seals Allers  33:05

We have to share. It was healing for me, because many of us are holding some forms of trauma. And I think, you know, that’s the other piece of it. It’s not just about the deaths, right. There’s also this spectrum of you know, that could start with regret, too. I wish I did. I wish I had known too that I was disrespected too. I didn’t feel I had agency, you know, like there’s a whole spectrum of harm that’s kind of being carried in our community. And we all have those stories to come out so people can understand that, you know, that’s possible as well.

Tonya Lewis Lee  33:37

Yeah. I mean, it’s fascinating, because with Aftershock, I’ve had so many people tell me their stories. I think you’re so right. I mean, most of us have had some sort of trauma in the birthing experience. I’ve had women come up to me and say, after they’ve seen the film, I’ve never told anybody this before, but this horrible thing happened while I was birthing, and I my body hasn’t been right since and I didn’t feel like I could say anything. Like you just take it and accept like it. And I think that the more we share, that the more we hopefully will empower our daughters. And like you say, generationally, we’ll see improvement.

Kimberly Seals Allers  34:16

That silence is so dangerous, you know, and even on the other side of it, I’ve had people reach out who have had a positive birth experience, and they actually feel guilty, like they see what’s happening to their sisters. They’ve seen, you know, all the things and they actually felt silenced because they had a positive experience and didn’t want to say it right, because knowing that they felt so lucky, when in fact, it was what they actually deserved and what we all deserve. Right. And so the silencing is happening on both sides. And that’s incredibly dangerous, you know? Yeah.

Tonya Lewis Lee  34:49

It is. It is. In love, I will say that, again, that I think that birthing is truly a rite of passage for those of us who decide to have children. And as Helena Grant, the midwife in our film, says that is when when a woman, birth a child, she’s not just birthing a child, she’s birthing a mother. And I really believe that, for whatever reason, what we have to go through in terms of if there is pain or discomfort as you’re laboring, because it is labor, bring this baby here, I believe there’s a reason for that, right? That we know, like I said earlier, if you go, when you go through that you can do anything for this now baby that you have to take care of for the rest of your life. And I think we need to not be afraid of pain and discomfort, but go inward, find our strength in it, and share it with everybody. I mean, you know, because it is amazing. I mean, birth is an amazing, amazing, natural process. We are not sick people, our bodies are built to do it. It is beyond amazing. And we should be excited about the opportunity to be able to do it, look forward to it and be able to tap into that power within ourselves.

Kimberly Seals Allers  36:16

Yeah, that’s so powerful. As we get close to wrapping, I want to talk to you about the power of black led storytelling, right. And, you know, I think Black maternal health prior to, part of the narrative was often being told by white teams and white directors. And you know, and I think that contributed to that. In fact, I got to a point where I was being, you know, reached out to people reach out to me asking me to be in a film, and it was a white film person, I would just tell them, this isn’t for you, right? And I get students at Columbia, and all the places were wanting to do something on black maternal health, I’m like, is it your story to tell? Right? And so what is the value of black led, you know, black involved black folks at the table in shifting this narrative? Why is that important? Or is it not that important? So I would love to get your thoughts on that.

Tonya Lewis Lee  37:10

I think Black led storytelling is critical, I think, you know, it is really important that we tell our stories, our way. You know, going through the process, and again, my partner is not black in this film. And, you know, she from the beginning was like, Well, I don’t have this experience as a black woman. So obviously, I need but there are, you know, there are subtle things, there are things that are subtle, and nuanced, that are huge and important in the storytelling, right? And getting it right, and making sure that we’re representing ourselves in a way that people understand properly. And so we have to be at the table to be able to make sure that we’re telling the stories and truly the right way, representing ourselves and truly the right way. And there are differences, there just are their cultural differences, there are artistic differences. And what I mean by that is, it’s not just as simple as you know, making sure sometimes that you know, well, and it can be as simple as making sure skin tones look right on screen, it can be as simple as making sure that the full narrative of a person, of a character that you’re telling is rounded out that you’re not missing a piece because, you know, someone doesn’t think it’s important, or is that even thinking about it? Right? Because this is how they typically see black people. So why would they think there’s another element to it? So I think it’s everything, and I look at history, and how we discover and learn about ourselves is through story, right? And if we’re not telling the stories about ourselves, it’s going to get written by somebody else in the way that they want to see it or the way they think they know. And, again, I go back to earlier in this conversation, I said I wanted to work in television, but I didn’t know how to do it. And so it was hard for me to get there. And I went to law school instead. Right? And I’m not mad at that. But what I realized, what I really feel now is storytelling is setting the record. It’s leaving a record of who we are, and it’s critical and important. And we need more black and brown people telling those stories, whether we’re writing books, or making television and film, music, whatever. Even painting and the arts are so important, because that is what lasts in terms of the record of who we are and what we did while we are here.

Kimberly Seals Allers  39:58

Yeah, I love that. I remember this African proverb that I often use when I start a workshop and the African proverb says, until the lion learns to write, the story will always glorify the hunter. Exactly. And so whose story always matters, and we need more of us telling the stories and all the forms, which even include the ways that we’re just telling our stories to each other, right, which is another way that we shift in our culture, even as you know, just sharing being a very original and primal part of the storytelling from one to another. And that being silence and keeping it to yourself, right.

Tonya Lewis Lee  40:33

And that’s why this critical race theory fate is on right now, because they use the term critical race theory. But what we’re talking about, it’s just telling history, just telling the true history from the perspective of black people. They don’t want that history told. They don’t like the way it reads. They don’t want it told, but we have to make them uncomfortable. 

Kimberly Seals Allers  40:51

Well, the truth will set you free. But exactly that part, they don’t read. And then you know, I’m talking about the power of narratives, you see that as an important example, where the word has been completely contorted and twisted into a whole nother narrative that woke, and you know, these become powerful, dangerously powerful narratives that are actually so harmful, right, and aren’t even rooted in the truth. And so we definitely need. I mean, when we think about storytelling, being powerful, we’ve seen it on both sides, even how it does harm, and how people actually create new language and words and all those things that can send a whole something in a completely different direction. It’s crazy.

Tonya Lewis Lee  41:36

It really is. But again, the exciting thing about where we are with technology these days, I feel like more and more truth is being uncovered, you know, and and more and more, we’re seeing stories told from various perspectives. So, you know, I feel like the cats a little out of the bag, even though there are people in other areas in this country trying to squelch it. But I sense that more and more truth has been uncovered. More stories from our past are being told and more people today are telling our stories. But I will say I think black people in Hollywood need to be careful and accountable not to get lulled into the Hollywood machine, which then has us telling stories that they want us to tell now, not the stories that we need to tell.

Kimberly Seals Allers  42:29

Right. So that’s also a balancing act, and you know, something that we have to be mindful of like, our narrative is not under our full control yet. And so I assume, you know, we need probably more decision makers, folks who have the money to fund perhaps greater distribution channels. I don’t know this world, but you know, until we, it is likely that until we have more control and more access and more leadership in those mechanisms, we will still be in a bit of a struggle. 

Tonya Lewis Lee  43:01

Yeah, it’s hard. And it costs money. Again, it’s a business and it does cost money. So when money’s involved, you know, you know. 

Kimberly Seals Allers  43:09

Right, all the things they came back telling you. Thank you so much for this amazing conversation. You know, I close every episode of birthright by asking this question, what is our birthright?

Tonya Lewis Lee  43:26

Our birthright is to be free. That’s what I say our birthright is. To be free to tap into the spirit that brought you here. That’s the divine telling you your purpose, and we have to live it out. And I think it’s, I think  maybe even going further, I would say our birthright is to discover our true purpose and to live it fully. And it’s obviously very unique and different for every person, but every person should have the right to be able to find their path, live out their unique and important purpose that ultimately serves all of us.

Kimberly Seals Allers  44:15

I love that. Thank you so much for joining me.

Tonya Lewis Lee  44:19

Thank you Kimberly for this amazing conversation.

Kimberly Seals Allers  44:28

Season Two of Birthright is funded by the California Health Care Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund. Birthright is produced by Motor City Woman Studios in Detroit with Kimberly Seals Allers as executive producer, and Alexa Imani Spencer as researcher and assistant producer. Our music is by Dantrel Robinson and we dedicate this season in his memory. And don’t forget to subscribe to Birthright wherever you get your podcasts. Give us a rating and review if you like what you hear. Find episode notes and learn more at www.BirthrightPodcast.com. And don’t forget to like and follow the Birthright podcast YouTube page for exclusive videos and extras. Follow at @iAmKSealsAllers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and please support our Patreon account. Together, we are reclaiming our birthright, one story at a time.

About Tonya

Tonya Lewis Lee is an award-winning producer, entrepreneur, and advocate for women’s health. She has produced several TV projects including The Watsons Go To Birmingham[7]which Lewis Lee wrote, The Giver, She’s Gotta Have It, and MONSTER. Back in 2009, Tonya produced Crisis in the Crib, a documentary about the nation’s unconscionable Black infant mortality crisis, centered in Memphis, Tennessee. This year, she co-produced Aftershock, now streaming on Hulu, a powerful documentary that follows the stories of two amazing men whose lives are forever changed by Black maternal deaths. Follow @aftershockdoc on Instagram.

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