Platt: Spending life looking up

May. 02, 2014 @ 11:29 AM

Brian Johnson’s never been one to dwell long, if at all, on the negative.

He credits that to his mother, Gwendolyn, a retired nurse who still lives in Durham.
“She worked very hard to support my sister and I,” Johnson said. “She prayed a lot and read her Bible. She had a deep and abiding faith in humanity. I never once heard her complain about people and what they’d done to her.”
Even bad things happen for a reason.
“It stems from a sense that all things work together for a certain purpose,” he said.
He spent years in a house on Morning Glory Avenue across from Few Gardens, with his single mother and his sister, Jennifer. He played Mr. Albert Johnson in the Holton Middle School production of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” He attended Durham High School, where he played basketball.
This week, Johnson, 40, was selected as seventh president of Tuskegee University in Alabama. He starts the job on June 15.
“It’s easy to look at coming out of the ghetto and how bad it was for you,” he said. “But you can also say, ‘Man, look how far I’ve come.’”
He’s got an obvious affinity for Booker T. Washington, the first teacher at the school, which was founded in 1881. Johnson paraphrases the man when he says, “Success is not measured by the heights you achieve, but the depths from which you come.”
He was far from the only child growing up in the neighborhood without a father. Plenty of other teens faced dangerous temptations of drugs and violence. But Brian Johnson dreamed of a life beyond Few Gardens. He didn’t want to settle for what his circumstances offered.
“I was always a very determined, focused young man,” said Johnson. “I knew if I set my mind to something, if I had that strong inner fortitude, I could do whatever I wanted.”
He turned his fear of roaming the streets of East Durham toward a passion for reading encyclopedias and delving into the Bible. “Those became my friends,” he said.
Johnson didn’t let a father’s absence deprive him of sturdy role models and guides.
“I made father figures out of mentors,” he said. “People who could mentor me in faith, mentor me intellectually, spiritually and culturally. I was able to select the perfect father from men whose words were reflected by their work.”
He got his master’s in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his doctorate from the University of South Carolina. He specialized in American literature of the 17th to 19th centuries.
He married his college sweetheart, Shemeka Barnes, 14 years ago. They’ve got two sons, ages 9 and 10.
In his own turn at fatherhood, Johnson tries to be fully present in their lives. He wants them to know he’s there for comfort and support.
“I want them to see me and get a sense of buoyancy,” he said. “I want them to think ‘My Dad is there and whatever happens, even if I make it mistake, it doesn’t matter because this guy will protect me, back me, support me.’ I think not having that feeling is one of the biggest challenges facing our youth.”
His longtime friend, Tasha Kornegay, played the main character, Celie, in that Holton production of “The Color Purple.” She’s particularly proud of how Johnson evolved beyond his circumstances.
“Brian came from an area of Durham where the perception of failure over success would be the norm,” she said. “But Brian, being the Brian I know, proves that no matter your circumstances growing up, no matter where you grow up, if you believe, you can accomplish anything through diligence and hard work.”
The way he sees it, though, it’s not just about him. It’s something bigger.
“I’ve always had a deep and abiding faith in God,” Johnson said. “Whatever your tradition, it’s very important to have your life buoyed by some sort of faith in something higher than you.”
Even those struggling should find reason to hope and strive, he said.
“If you’re not nourishing and cherishing faith in anything, you can literally dry up with lack of hope,” he said. “Faiths from all traditions talk about seeing what can be seen. How can you believe tomorrow can look different from today? We do our very best to calculate and at the end of the day have faith that what I’ve done has worked.”
Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “After we have climbed to the top of the speculative ladder we must leap out into the darkness of faith.”
Brian Johnson climbed. He took that leap. So far, it seems, so good.

Wes Platt can be reached at or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at