If, before the Covid-19 pandemic, anyone had told me that I would be writing a 30-essay memoir, I would have suggested that they were under the influence of an illegal substance. Yes, I often tested the patience of family friends with stories about things I had seen and done. Yes, mentees often rolled their eyes when I told them “just one more story” to make a point. Yes, a few friends had even suggested I write about my life experiences, maybe to limit my storytelling. No way, I countered. I was too busy, too undisciplined, not a writer. I had a gazillion excuses as to why I should not, could not write this memoir.
But circumstances beyond my control converged to change my outlook. They included Covid-19; the passing in 2020 of seven close friends including Richard P. Thornell, friend and ever-questioning legal scholar; the persistent urging of Robert Pawlicki, himself a writer; and the publication of a few of well-received newspaper opinion pieces.
I was also influenced by my advancing years and serious health issues. I even saw similarities between my life and difficult childhood in Frank McCourt’s prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes; it tells of his difficult early years and evolution into a beloved high school teacher.
Finally, there was the matter of my mortality; my extensive genealogical work; and the reality that I have become the respected patriarch of my extended family. All combined to give new meaning to the African proverb, “When an Elder dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Writing this memoir was now a duty, not an option.
My decision to write this memoir was like peeling an orange that soon grew into a watermelon. I decided to publish online, rather than in book form, because I wanted this memoir to be easily accessible to my intended audience — young people. That meant that with no prior experience in online publication, I had to address several practical problems. As an attorney, I couldn’t ignore the legal aspects of this undertaking, such as privacy and my corporate status. And then there were the matters of an internet domain name, a webmaster, a web designer, and finding a compatible editor. How much would all this cost me? (A special word of thanks here to Kimberly Peters of Gramily Design who believed in this undertaking and, as a labor of love, faithfully posted these essays for 30-odd weeks. Thanks, Kim.)
The cost turned out to be not only money, but in hits to my emotions. There were unexpected memories of my many personal challenges to digest and make sense of. I was continually faced with resolving the dilemma of how much detail in a story is too much, too personal. TMI? Candor and a responsibility to the reader usually prevailed.
Finally, my writing – and re-writing — was far more time-consuming than I expected. But, once undertaken, there was no turning back.
The rewards of sharing my challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned far outweigh any difficulties in publishing this memoir.
I’ve maintained lists of hundreds of family members, friends, and colleagues over the years and most of them received these essays. I learned that many of them shared my feelings and that many of my experiences touched their own lives. Others, who knew me only as an attorney, mentor, and social critic, gained new insight into the person I am — with all of my shortcomings. Until now, they knew little of my challenges.
I revived long-dormant relationships — people like my fellow Spartan the late Robert T. Mitchem and Rhoda (Henderson) Thomas, the lovely young lady whom Richie Roye, Jimmy Galloway, and I each had an unrequited teenage crush on. Each of us naively believed that his crush was a secret. It wasn’t, Rhoda later assured me. Fellow Spartan, Melvin B. Miller, publisher of Boston’s Bay State Banner, and I have learned and shared far more about one another over the past year than we did as kids in The Hill section of Roxbury. There is my cousin, Richard Boswell, last seen over 60 years ago. Some total strangers even shared my writings with others. What greater compliment is there to this first-time author?
What a joy it’s been to share stories like the one about my white friend Stanley Warshaw and his grandmother. When we were sixth graders, she expressed her disapproval of his playing with me, a Black kid, Stanley simply told her, “He’s my friend.” Or the story of my “big sister” Eleanor’s Thanksgiving visit to Savannah when she relinquished some of her stereotyped notions of white folks.
And then, in February, 2021, out of the blue, just as I completed these final edits, Juliana DeVaan, a Columbia University doctoral student, contacted me in connection with her research on my tenure at Columbia’s Urban Center — 50 years ago. As the only surviving decision-maker from those turbulent years, I was excited to share my insights from that part of my life journey.
But most of all, my greatest reward has been my impact on some wonderful young people. There was the child who, upon reading one essay, insisted that his mom read it with him. Or the child who thanked me for being in her life. Or the Gadsden scholar who called me at 7:30 one morning to tell me excitedly that she’d changed her major to a much more challenging course of study that better prepared her for law school.
Mom and Dad would be so proud of their 11-month-old child who was runner-up in that 1933 “well baby exhibition” at Roxbury’s Whittier St. Health clinic. See rear row, second from right.
Thanks for walking with me on my circuitous journey. And now a pitch. If you’ve found a glimmer of hope in these essays, please invest in the lives of the primary audience of this memoir – the young people who will be our future leaders. Make your generous, tax-deductible donation to the Judge Eugene H. Gadsden Scholarship program of the Savannah 100 Foundation, Inc.
As long as inequality and injustice exist, none of us can truly rest. It doesn’t take much to change a life.
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Lloyd A. Johnson
© 2021. Lloyd A. Johnson, LLC. All rights reserved.