Thrive

Why you should read this memoir by Sheila Johnson, one of modern America’s most successful women

BY Nii Ntreh July 3, 2024 10:07 AM EDT
Sheila Johnson and her memoir, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love.

Sheila Johnson is the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and founder and owner of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, and remarkably, the third richest Black woman in the United States.

The entertainment and hospitality magnate shared the travails of her journey to the top in the captivating book Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph. The book provides a nuanced look into her life, including her previous marriage with Robert Johnson (with whom she founded BET), her struggles with sexism and racism, her time in business, and other defining moments of her life.

“I have been on a journey of trying to find myself, and to write this book has been therapy, and it’s really helping me to heal. I’ve been through a lot,” she said at the launch of the book, also disclosing her post-traumatic stress (PTSD) health challenge.

The book came out on September 19, 2023, and is available for purchase on Amazon. Nearly a year on, we are here making the case for a wider recognition of Johnson’s story because it is an exceptional American success tale. Additionally, it offers a highly intimate depiction of a woman who, despite adversity and loss, eventually discovered herself and her place in the world.

The memoir provides an uplifting narrative of the author’s journey through overcoming destructive influences, uncovering her authentic self, and ultimately finding fulfillment in her professional and personal life.

Born Sheila Crump, Johnson rose from a young violinist in the small town of Maywood, Illinois, to become one of America’s most successful businesswomen. Interestingly, during the nascent days of the BET network, she sold her cherished violin to raise money for the network and purchase office space.

However, her accomplishments came at other personal costs.

Johnson grew up in a middle-class household that supported her passion for the performing arts and music. However, announcing his sudden departure for another woman at the age of sixteen, Johnson’s adored father broke her mother’s heart and betrayed the young Sheila’s confidence, ending the perfect life she had known. She told herself she would never be in the same predicament as her mother, who depended on a man for her sense of security and her financial well-being. Unfortunately, when Johnson was barely out of her teens, she married a man who would lead her down the same unplanned path.

In Walk Through Fire, Johnson’s struggles in her marriage and career are depicted in emotionally resonant scenes. She had to struggle to overcome self-doubt and failure anxieties despite her brilliance as a violinist, music instructor, and evident entrepreneurial talent.

Johnson chronicles her struggles in dramatic detail, including overcoming institutional racism, losing a child, experiencing emotional abuse in her 33-year marriage, and her descent into a deep state of depression following her divorce. Yet out of these painful and debilitating challenges, her life gained new meaning and purpose.

Laudably, Johnson has achieved a great deal in the later years of her life. Not only is she the founder of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, the first Black woman to co-own three professional sports franchises and one of the wealthiest self-made women in America, but she has at long last discovered true love.

Hers is an inspirational tale of reinventing yourself on your way to triumph. And that is worth a read.