Guy Johnson PHOTO COURTESY OF FACEBOOK.COM/MAYAANGELOU
A celebration of the life of Guy Bailey Johnson (Sept. 9, 1945 – Feb. 16, 2022), the only child of the late Dr. Maya Angelou, is slated to take place Sunday in San Francisco, Calif., one day following the 78th anniversary of his birth.
Guy always credited his famous mother – the poet, autobiographer, performing artist, TV and movie producer, essayist, and major embodiment of the traditional
African essence of Togu – with providing the “light” that fueled his imagination.
I found a description of Togu in a volume by the Guadeloupean novelist Simone Schwartz-Bart, who describes Togu as the sage learning of an Ordinary African woman.
Here is a very condensed summary: “It is said that If people love you, value you, seek you, this is due to your Togu. There are people everyone wants to be with, not because of their material wealth, but for their company. Togu is worth more than wealth, more than beauty … (Togu is) magnetism, elegance, and charm.”
Both Guy and his mother, whom I met on separate occasions, years apart, radiated Togu.
“Man for All Seasons”
Indeed, one of the great gifts in life is to have known the late Dr. Maya Angelou personally, a gift that would come to me through a dear mutual friend and colleague of hers at Wake Forest University, Dr. Dolly McPherson, Dr. Angelou’s ﬁrst ofﬁcial biographer, who introduced us.
Little could I have imagined that such a gift would be magniﬁed twofold when, years after that introduction, I would receive a telephone call from Dr. McPherson with instructions that would lead to a longtime friendship with Guy Johnson.
Guy was “a man for all seasons” who followed in his mother’s adventurous path, having lived a very cosmopolitan existence not only on the African continent – Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Algeria – but also in Barcelona, Spain, in London, and on oil rigs in Kuwait, all this before settling down in Sonoma County, Calif., and, in keeping with his standing in his mother’s “light,” becoming a living emblem of the African essence of Togu.
Indeed, Guy’s homes, in both Oakland, Calif., and Winston-Salem, NC, were also Togu havens.
In Oakland, he and his wife Stephanie created a cocoon of laughter, joy, and wit in a home whose elegance was made cozy by the warmth of Togu.
On the other hand, in Winston Salem, the Togu was gritty, stimulating, pragmatic.
We would visit his Winston Salem home during special celebrations, a birthday, a white party, or the legendary Thanksgiving Holiday “Family” Retreat at which it was necessary to arrive early in the week when barbecue was on the grill, biscuits in the oven and salmon croquettes on the stove with grits, bacon, ham and sausage.
If you were faint of heart, then perhaps you might not want to play bid whist, Scrabble, or any word games with Guy. He took no prisoners!
But a “Boston” would remind him that I had honed my bid whist skills at an HBCU – FAMU to be exact.
Families Bond in Miami Guy and I met at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Miami Project to Cure Paralysis where he was under the care of the world-renowned physician Dr. Barth A. Green, receiving treatment for a disabling spinal cord injury.
I had received a call from Dr. McPherson advising me that Dr. Angelou’s son was a patient at the hospital. She instructed me to go to see him and report back to her.
Guy was in no mood for unfamiliar company. Nonetheless, I introduced myself, explained why I was there, received permission to sit and stayed with him a few hours so that I could make a comprehensive report to Dr. McPherson.
Later, as the days passed, my family – our daughters Antoinette and Michelle, and my husband, Dinizulu Gene – all of us took turns sitting with Guy in his room at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
And soon, stimulated by the hot gourmet fried chicken from, believe it or not, Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant on South Beach, love blossomed, and our families bonded.
When Guy returned to Miami for more treatments, he and his wife Stephanie visited my husband’s Art and Design Studio next door to our home in the Buena Vista West community now known as Little Haiti. They had seen Dinizulu’s art in Dr. Angelou’s home and wanted to see more. On another occasion Guy suggested that we should prepare dinner at our home for him and a visiting couple and their daughter whom we had met at the Thanksgiving celebrations in Winston-Salem.
FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE OBITUARY SECTION ON MONDAY, AUG. 28, 2023: “ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2023, AT 1:30 PM, A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF GUY JOHNSON WILL BE HELD AT GLIDE MEMORIAL CHURCH, 330 ELLIS STREET, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94102. THE FAMILY OF GUY JOHNSON REQUESTS THAT IN LIEU OF FLOWERS, DONATIONS BE MADE TO THE DR. MAYA ANGELOU FOUNDATION (HTTPS://BIT.LY/DRMAYAANGELOUFOUNDATION) OR MAILED TO THE DR. MAYA ANGELOU FOUNDATION, 3170 CROW CANYON PLACE, SUITE 180, SAN RAMON, CA 94583.”
Dinizulu and I lived on the second floor of our duplex, and I was sure that Guy, with his serious physical challenges, was kidding.
Years earlier, we had been honored to entertain his mother at our very modest home. Perhaps she had shared with him her love of the West Indian roti my sister-in-law prepared for her. Still, surely, he could not seriously consider walking up that flight of stairs to our second-story dwelling.
To my astonishment, radiating the “light” and essence of Togu, Guy walked up those stairs, found a chair just right for him, enjoyed the grilled steak and potatoes, and had a good time.
And, amazingly, hours later, after a wondrous afternoon with family and friends – his quick wit, booming voice, and infectious laughter at the center of it all – with a warrior’s grit and resolve, he deftly made his way back down those stairs!
That was the will and determination and great spirit of that beautiful man with irresistible Togu.
“Pomp and Circumstance” I cannot measure how much I miss his wondrous voice. A call from Guy would come into our home like an aria of grandeur and mirth. The voice would ﬁll the air as a sacred cantillation, a melodious elegant bass regaling us with a compilation of wit, grace and joy resonant through the telephone wires.
Guy would call on birthdays and holidays or just to share a joke; he would call to get an update on the art and poetry collaborative project he shared with Dinizulu, or to talk about his visits to Oakland’s schools; or he would call to bring news of the successes and challenges of his two sons and two grandchildren; or just to check up on us.
Two Successful Novels
And we all marveled at Guy’s wellearned success as a writer. After establishing himself as a highly regarded, thoughtful and perceptive poet, Guy became a man on a mission to tell the story of Black survival in an imperfect America. He achieved even greater renown as the author of two acclaimed novels, “Standing at the Scratchline” and “Echoes of a Distant Summer.”
Both books, on the surface, read as popular action-packed page-turners set in the cut-and-shoot “gangster” culture of which his grandfather was a part.
However, each tale is simultaneously richly steeped in deeper themes of African American history, culture, and survival by men and women in the early 20th century racist environment where social justice was absent, and only wits, skill, and courage mattered. During one of his Miami medical stays, after a legendary visit with Dinizulu to Churchill’s Pub near 54th Street and Félix Morisseau-Leroy Avenue, Guy stopped by my 12-member social club meeting at Soyka’s, his mother’s favorite restaurant, read excerpts from his ﬁrst novel, “Standing at the Scratch Line,” and signed copies for my sister friends.
But, alas, that was when I discovered a little bone of contention between Guy and me.
Guy, very much like his mother’s dear friend, the novelist, playwright and philosopher, the late James Baldwin, did not exactly venerate the Nobel Laureate William Faulkner whose work I examine in my doctoral dissertation.
Guy believed that Faulkner’s plantation rhetoric embraced and promoted the dominant racism of our time. He just could not understand what I could ﬁnd good to write about Faulkner. I told him that I was not studying Faulkner, the man, but Faulkner, the writer, focusing on his tongue-incheek proclivity to “run with the hare while hunting with the hounds.”
Faulkner’s work, I said, demands analysis and exposure of how language works deceptively in general, a factor applicable to much of the rest of life.
Guy, nonetheless, like Baldwin, proposed that Faulkner, by refusing to examine the violence and pathology of institutional slavery, had promoted a fantasized Utopian South that erases
the link between white supremacy and the “peculiar” status of African American citizenship that emerged out of a slave society.
Both Guy and Baldwin concluded that Faulkner encouraged and fostered the stereotypical myths and symbols of the so-called “Old South” – the myths of idyllic life on the old plantation, the happy enslaved people, great Southern hospitality, noble and courageous men, and virtuous women.
They contend that these myths and symbols served to elevate, hide and/or erase the magnitude and scope of the historical brutality, violence and unrequited injustices that continue to haunt our national reality.
Oakland Students often eloquently about being homeless, about having critical health challenges, about being the victims of prejudice.
Before passing away quietly at his home on Feb. 16, 2022, Guy had championed the autobiographical form which was his mother’s ﬁrst successful prose medium; and the students had entered the competition that would garner a $5,000 prize for the ﬁrst-place winner.
The Togu Legacy
How ﬁtting it is that we are gathering Sunday to hail Guy Johnson’s genius which gave gravitas to the essence of his ever-present, stunningly provocative, and refreshing Togu – to pay tribute to that powerful intellect, the glorious bombast, the wit and irony, and the impish glee in his spirited laughter.
For sure, the appealing vibrance and charm of African Togu that made both Guy Bailey Johnson and his mother, Maya Angelou, attractive and enviable earth beings will always occasion memories of great joy, hope and possibility.
Dr. Wallis Tinnie is a retired educator and former protocol ofﬁcer for the City of Miami who contributed an article on Maya Angelou to “The History of Southern Women’s Literature” edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks (LSU Press, 2002), and who now serves on the board of the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation.