Tony Lewis, Jr., Author

Tony Lewis, Jr is a husband, father, son, author and activist. He works diligently, fighting for the rights of incarcerated men and women who have left family behind. But most importantly, he is fighting for the DCPS school system to offer aid to children who have an incarcerated parent. He also uses his voice to support inmates re-entering the community. His father is serving a life sentence in prison for his involvement in the DC drug trade during the 80s. Despite being the son of a Kingpin, Mr. Lewis has decided to use his voice advocating for social justice, in addition to changing the legacy and meaning behind the name “Tony Lewis.”

Mr. Lewis’s hard work and dedication has been featured on Elite Daily, CNN, BET, in the Washington Post, and most recently on The Breakfast Club Power 105.1 radio broadcast. He has also garnered awards such as the Steve Harvey/Ford Motor Company “Best Community Leader” award and the Presidential Call to Service award. His career accomplishments include his first book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2015), which he uses as a blueprint for children and young teens to use as a survival guide, aiding them through the difficult moments of losing a parent to incarceration. Mr. Lewis’s commitment to communities and social justice has been lifelong and continuing.

Tony Lewis, Jr. and I conducted our interview in person in early January 2018.

Shaneka Cook: In your book you talk a lot about your mother’s mental illness. Why do you think mental illness and depression are such taboo issues in our community when our community could benefit from honest discussion about this topic?

Tony Lewis: Yeah, that’s a great question. I was so transparent about my mother’s situation in hopes that I would in some way chip away at that stigma and it was very strategic. … It was very difficult for me to talk about it and be so transparent, but at the same time my hope is that it will help people, that it will free people to know that this is something that you could talk about, that this is not something that just the pastor can fix, right. You have to seek professional help and it’s OK to do that, and I’m even honest about me going to see a psychiatrist later on in the book. … So that comfortability came from a lifetime of dealing with my mother’s issues and being right there with her as she went through her battles.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

Why is it stigma—­­I think in the black community it’s been something that’s just been swept under the rug. It’s gone undiagnosed. I think poverty and things of that nature play a part in it as well. It was something you were hushed about, or like I said, some people were told to go see [their] pastor and pray about it and not look at it as just a health issue and one that we can deal with. … This is just the shame that comes along with having a mentally ill relative or loved one. This is something we don’t understand, why a person is behaving the way that they are, acting the way that they are. I wanted Slugg to be a bridge for that, for our community, in mental health. I’ve heard that actually over the last two years that [Slugg] has been out, readers have talked about that. I’m glad that you touched on that, I didn’t want people to know my mother was like that, or my aunt or my cousin or my girlfriend was like that. So, I can only hope it can touch hearts and minds and souls to let people know that there’s no problem with having [mental health] issues. We’re all human and we go through things and we need to seek help, professional help.

SC: I believe mental illness runs in my family. I thought maybe something was wrong with me, and I too went to speak with a therapist. When I finished talking, the therapist informed me there was nothing wrong with me, and the entire time I talked about my relationship with my father. She suggested I start there, fixing the relationship I have with him. Like you said, they always say, go to church and pray, talk to the pastor. We have to really let people know there is nothing wrong with seeking help, and this behavior can be treated.

TL: That is so true and not to devalue the pastor, the priest, the rabbi, or the Imam or none of that, but at the same time if you break your leg that is not the first person you are going to go to see. So we have to look at a mental illness the same way. We just have to let people know that that it is OK and remove that shame.

SC: Ever since I read your book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, there have been a few questions that have stuck with me. In the book, you describe your experience growing up with a father who had been very successful in the drug trade, who you then lost at age nine to incarceration. In your book, you talk a lot about spending time with your father. If he was released today, what would you do with him, just you and him alone? 

TL: I would probably just sit down and have dinner and talk, something we haven’t been able to do in terms of having dinner together. I would ride around the city. I would enjoy just riding with him around the city so he can see how much it’s changed and watch his reaction to that. Probably go to the movies, go bowling. I know you said just he and I, but [I would like] to have him accompany me to see what I do in the community. Just stuff like that; I would really be looking forward to spending time with him. We could just be sitting on a bench somewhere, it wouldn’t really matter.

SC: Slugg touches on so many issues in the Black community. You wrote about gentrification in your childhood neighborhood located in DC on Hanover Place. My grandparents once owned a home in DC in the H Street, NE area. Today that area has evolved and changed in ways that I can no longer recognize the old neighborhood. Despite our city changing, there is still homelessness, and unfortunately the poor are being driven out into Maryland and even Virginia. I believe gentrification is just another example of capitalism at its best. How do you feel about the issues of gentrification that are specific to the Black community in DC? 

TL: I think gentrification has to be looked at in the District of Columbia in a more intensive way than anywhere, any place in America, in terms of its impact, because you’ve never had a place in America that was this black, so the displacement of black people in the last twenty years in the District of Columbia has been so intense—the volume, the speed, neighborhoods of one hundred percent African American has almost turned into being one hundred percent white and you really have to think about that. How it happens, why it happens.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

So you know DC once was Chocolate City, seventy-five, eighty percent black, now you look up, it’s forty-eight percent black, and that forty-eight percent, majority of them live in Wards 7 and 8. And so Wards 1 through 6 are only about eighteen percent black, and you see neighborhoods like mine where again, were once one hundred percent African American. I don’t even know what the overall demographics are, but I do know the overall white population has risen to forty, fifty percent in a ten-year span. Some of those numbers are unheard of anywhere else. To me that’s the biggest threat to black existence.

Our black people are vanishing. It’s particularly the native Washingtonian. You know, I’m gonna drill that down just a little bit more, it’s not just about Black people, I’m talking about people born here. That population has dwindled down, that population is now forty-eight percent. I don’t even know what that population is, if you just talked about purely native Washingtonian. You look around at jobs, you look around in the social scenes; you don’t run into native Washingtonians in Washington. Take a place like New York City, 8,000,000 people, the most cosmopolitan place probably in America and one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, right. People from all over the world in New York City but you meet New Yorkers; do you understand what I’m saying? You will run into, will meet New Yorkers, everywhere you turn, you will meet them, someone born and raised New York City, but in DC, not so much. What happened here in the eighties, in the nineties, in the early 2000s, really laid the framework for gentrification to happen in this way and I do know that gentrification is happening in many major cities across the country, but none in the way it is happening here.

SC: Your mother didn’t participate in any of your father’s illegal activities, but she benefited from it and because of this she could have easily become Kemba Smith, the young lady who was sent to prison for conspiracy to participate in her boyfriend’s drug activities. Ms. Smith was aware her boyfriend did not have gainful employment and she chose to live off the proceeds from his drug crimes. Do you speak to young girls about the repercussion of having a drug dealer boyfriend?

TL: Yeah, yeah, I speak to women and young women a lot about the power of association and dealing with guys in the life, and not just from the threat of being involved from a law enforcement standpoint. But also, when you talk about the repercussions that could come from guys trying to rob their boyfriends or kidnapping the women, holding them as ransom or all of the above. That’s what comes along the way when you have a boyfriend that participates in that lifestyle. It’s just dangerous; it is not wise. I also talk a lot about them getting involved into illegal activity as well, whether it’s scamming or busting [stealing] or any other things, like fighting and assaults.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go.

I work in reentry and women are selling drugs themselves. It has evolved from that time, in my mother’s era, the woman, she dated the drug dealer, but in my era and the eras younger than me, women have become the drug dealers. I just really talk to women about not getting involved in the criminal lifestyle, staying away from it, and don’t let love pull you in because when law enforcement comes into it, they don’t care. They’re going to take you to jail and sometimes women feel like they have more to lose. They are loosely involved, if involved at all, but they will use that leverage to get you to become an informant, so they put you in a situation whether, you know, either you’re going to help us send him to jail or you’re going to jail yourself. I am clear about that, with that to young women.

SC: There were times you escaped death and incarceration. I’m not sure if you are a spiritual person. Do you believe there was a higher power watching over you because there was a purpose for your life?

TL: I absolutely believe in divine intervention, that I was protected. That’s kind of my motivation, that is why I go so hard. I just feel like I was spared for a reason. I wrote Slugg trying to not only describe it but to kind of figure it out. I get asked that question a lot: “How did you get here?” I definitely feel like the Creator spared me and protected me in order for me to be an example for those coming from communities like mines.

SC: Have you considered writing a book with your father discussing how having an incarcerated parent affects the family?

TL: This was what Slugg was. I didn’t write it with him. Slugg for me was showing what happens in my life. The book is about me, but in so many ways is about us. What happens when the father goes to prison, how it destabilizes the mom and destabilizes that child, but then the bigger framework is when that’s happening all across the community, all across the city, all across the country. It’s showing how things devolve and what the collateral damage is of that person leaving his or her family and going to prison, the consequences that happen as a result of that incarceration. To me that was the real focus of this. But you know, this kind of really shows what happened in the age of mass incarceration when adults were removed from communities and as teenagers we were forced to make decisions and how the community and everything around it felt the brunt of that. And then you had a generation of people that was just lost. So, in some instances, I have thought about possibly writing a book about parental incarceration and its impact on the education system, and a lot of my advocacy has been around trying to have schools and teachers be more supportive of children with incarcerated parents. I feel like I might do something in that lane eventually.

SC: As a community leader, in the near future, do you have any plans on running for a political office such as mayor or city council? What do you think are some of the most important ways that those holding political office should advocate for our community?

I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. 

TL: No! [laughter] And to answer that question about running for any political office, I am asked that question literally ten times a day. I get it, but I don’t have a political aspiration at this point. I never have. But I do like to be in close counsel with politicians and try to lobby and advocate on behalf of our people; so to your point, and the second part of the question as it relates to any responsibility for things they can do, they definitely have to create a policy and legislation that could empower folks, help people become a part of the process, remove barriers, address discrimination against people, particularly those returning from incarceration. I have tried to position myself as a person to influence them around that and to give guidance. Over the last few years we actually have had success in doing so. I’m not saying they see me as a threat, but as long as I can have an impact to the point where if they know I did run, I might take their job. I feel like they’re more inclined to work with me and help me out so I won’t run against them.

SC: The overwhelming mass incarceration of Black men and women in disadvantaged and poor communities has also imprisoned the lives of Black children. What are your thoughts on how mass incarceration has impacted the Black community?

TL: It has destabilized the black community. It has changed the dynamics of the family, what families look like. It really is something that has impacted us in measurable ways, and I don’t think people really even know just how deep this goes in the collateral damage that mass incarceration has caused in a black community, particularly its impact on children. It’s marginalized black children. One in seven black children have an incarcerated parent. That’s why I speak about the need for more mentoring or more counseling, more support, particularly via our educational system because the children are in school and not being supported enough around this issue.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go. We have had this approach that we can say we can circumvent their parents and help them now. I don’t believe that, not if you want to impact a lot of people’s lives. You know, there always will be a shining star, like somebody who gets by, but we’re talking about numbers. We want to see most children make it, not some of them, so you have to have a plan that’s really aimed at helping the family and not just a child. Mass incarceration’s impact goes far beyond the person that is incarcerated and it may even hurt the family member, any children, even more because the person that is incarcerated is so vital to them. I hope this country can understand that.

SC: After all that you’ve been through and knowing what you know now, if you could travel back in time what would you tell nine-year-old Tony?

TL: I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. That’s kind of what helped me get by. I never got outside of the values that my parents instilled in me early on in life, even when I no longer had them in my life the way that I had them prior to my father’s incarceration. But I also would tell him it’s gonna be hard bro. It’s gonna be extremely hard man, but you can do it though, you can pull through. As I think back, I’m still him in so many ways. I’m still that nine-year-old, just because I never got my parents back, you know what I’m saying? Like, that longing for that kind of thing, that don’t go away. Also, that’s been my motivation, because I know there are other nine-year-olds out here right now that’s just like him, and I gotta help them see their way through. I felt like Slugg was my contribution to them. I wanted that to be a blueprint—­here you are, hopefully everything that happened to me, or some of the things that happened to me, or that I saw and experienced, does not happen to you. But in the event that they do, here’s how you should handle it, here’s how I handled it, here is a blueprint or map I created out of some difficult situations. But nothing is impossible, no matter what happens, you can push through it.

 

Shaneka Jones Cook is currently preparing to graduate from Antioch University Los Angeles receiving her MFA in creative writing, with plans to go back to work on her associates degree in mortuary science. She is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction, in addition to be a freelance writer. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University), and most recently Antioch University’s very own Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a children’s book based on her two younger sons, and a collection of essays about mother/son relationships. She is the founder of the book and poetry club Chapter Chicks. She was an assistant editor for Amuse-Bouche, and on the fiction team, and was a guest interviewer for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Washington, DC with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.