Book Review: I Am Debra Lee: A Memoir
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
Blessed with a candor, boldness, and business savvy rarely seen in books of this type, former CEO of Black Entertainment Television network Debra Lee has peeled back the secrets of the corporate world in her memoir, I Am Debra Lee. The career journey of this Fort Jackson, South Carolina native rates special attention since she endured several racial and cultural obstacles to rise to the apex of entertainment media. This is one of the most impressive business survivor’s tale of purpose, perseverance, and power.
The book opens with Lee, following almost a decade of hard work and extra tasks, going to the boss, Bob Johnson, BET’s chairman and CEO, to ask for a raise. He had lured her away to join the network as BET’s first general counsel, convincing her to take a large pay cut. Her request is denied. In fact, one of the network’s board member, Herb Wilkins, says to her: “There are a ton of folks who would kill for a job like yours. If you don’t like what Bob pays you, then you can probably leave.” So Lee departs and her time is over with the network.
Raised by a mother who worked as a ward clerk at a black hospital and a career military father with an unfulfilled dream of being a lawyer, Lee wanted to satisfy her parents’ goals for her success. The road to the elite post at BET was one of difficulty and blind ambition. After graduating from high school, she relocated to the East Coast where she studied at Brown University. In her junior year, she studied political science in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, majoring in Asian politics. Later, she attended Harvard University, where she earned a M.A. degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1980.
Lee gives the best advice of courting success. “The trick is to be ready to accept the challenges when they finally reveal themselves,” she writes. “Don’t shrink under the weight of your potential success — because it is heavy — but allow yourself the space to grow into it. Be patient and give yourself plenty of grace as you rack up wins and losses- you’ll get there.”
The next stop is Washington to work as a clerk with the U.S. District Court Judge Barrington Parker for the District of Columbia. A year later, she joined the ranks of the law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, as a regulatory lawyer. Five years later, BET’s Bob Johnson lured Lee away from her high-paying post to become the network’s first general counsel.
Throughout the book, Lee writes that the corporate life called for a personality unlike hers. “My entire life I’d been trained to be the best, but not to expect the title, the respect, and the compensation that should come with being at the top of your game. Working hard was supposed to be its own reward. My father, a major in the army, took great pride in me being “nice” and always emphasized that I be a good girl - modest, quiet, selfless — which meant doing the work, keeping my head down, and rarely speaking up for myself.”
The value of this tell-all book is Lee’s honest observations of life inside the BET, the competitive nature of the male employes, the emotional demands of the work, the pressures of profits over people, the public vs. private views of the company officials. She watches Bob Johnson like a hawk. In her opinion, she writes: “Bob revved up 31st Street each morning in his black metallic Jaguar, shooting in like a bullet. His suits were custom Italian. His initials “RLJ” engraved on the cuffs of his starched white shirts. All that swagger hung in the air, pumping into our office like oxygen. The rest of us took his lead. We all felt it.”
As a BET official, Lee rubs elbows with the stars of Black culture and her relationships with the celebrities lends an inside view of the major personalities of our time. In one show, she negotiates with the songstress Whitney Houston to leave her man, singer Bobby Brown at home from an all-woman lunch. In another tribute, diva Aretha Franklin wants what she wants and she wants a full winter wardrobe before she would appear.
With the passing years, Lee served as BET’s corporate secretary and president and publisher of the network’s publishing division, which published Emerge magazine, YSB magazine, BET Weekend, and Heart & Soul magazine. During her time with the network, it earned superior growth in ratings, profits and popularity. Lee, following protests concerning some of the negative images in music videos aired, transitioned into original content, including movies, documentaries, concerts, and news coverage.
Concerning her role as one of the country’s top female executives, Lee sums up her odyssey: “Demanding respect is a practice of self-love, not a problem. In the corporate world, women, Black women especially, have to fight for every inch of the space they take up.”
Following the maxim of BET’s CEO Johnson, who said “Don’t reinvent the wheel, just paint it black,” Lee embraced the soul and joy of black culture and the community at large. “I don’t just love black culture — the magic in our hair, the swagger in our steps, the particular way we can say ‘alright now’ to fit our changing moods — Black culture saved me.”
In truth, Lee’s I Am Debra Lee reveals the highs and lows of a vibrant black woman at the top of her game in the entertainment industry. All those who wish to explore success in corporate life should read this book closely, acknowledging the marvelous wit and wisdom of an experienced trailblazer. This is a master class on bright feminine choices, practical life lessons, and daring business decisions.