The author/producer/social media influencer shares how these lessons can become blessings
Suncera Johnson says she’s an open book. But her life story isn’t lighthearted, nor for the faint of heart.
Hers is one that will shake you to the core, and have you shaking your head in disbelief that she lived it and is still the strong, beautiful, successful woman she is today. She lived it. And now she shares it to motivate others around the world.
“When people ask me about my childhood, I don’t have those rosy stories to tell,” she says. “The rosy stories I have to tell are related to my relationship with God and the Bible.”
Johnson is playing with her long hair at the dining room table of her townhouse, situated only a few blocks from the ocean in North Myrtle Beach. An incense stick is burning on the coffee table nearby. She walks on that beach, she says, for two hours every morning and has her talks with God.
“And then I come home and I just get like this revelation about things, and I just write,” she says.
Writing and reading are the coping skills she inherently leaned on while growing up in “the projects.”
“In the first grade, I knew that I could not live without having a book composed of words in my life,” she says.
Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, Johnson is the daughter of parents who met while they were incarcerated. She was then raised by her mother and stepfather in Plainfield, New Jersey, along with her four siblings. She only physically saw her birth father, who she was told was a brilliant con artist who spiraled into a heroin addict, three times throughout her life—the first time being the day she turned eight years old.
At home, Johnson was raised by her mom, who was an alcoholic, and a stepdad who abused her mom. Regardless, she was an exceptional student. She was bused out to a school district where she was one of the only black students. In first grade, Johnson wrote a poem called “Me” that a teacher published in the school newspaper, which was rare, she says, as articles in the paper were reserved for sixth graders.
“It’s funny, because as I reflect on my writing career, nobody ever celebrated that for me,” says Johnson, tearing up. “That’s why the Women In Philanthropy and Leadership [WIPL] Celebration at Coastal Carolina University was so special to me—because I was celebrated. All through my life, my mom refused to let me be celebrated. I was once asked to be in the National Honor Society and my mom said, ‘No, it’ll make your head too big.’ She really suppressed me a lot. Which is why the WIPL celebration was good, because it was like a rebirth for me.”
Johnson is referring to CCU’s ceremony in February at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, where she was honored as a 2019 Inspiring Woman, joining a host of other amazing honorees since WIPL was established in 2011. It was at the conference and celebration that Suncera shared a glimpse into her open book.
Now, with her elbows resting on the dining room table, Johnson reveals more, like how her mom was suicidal and Johnson had to endure teasing from the kids in elementary school about it; they’d say it was Johnson’s fault.
“My mother was a child of rape,” says Johnson. “Her father was also her uncle. Yeah, that’s the stuff that makes me so driven.”
When Johnson’s mother became a Jehovah’s Witness in Johnson’s early childhood, she believes it saved her mother’s life, but the religion’s eccentricities also drastically stunted hers.
“It was really hard growing up because we didn’t celebrate Christmas, birthdays, and we were always taught that we had to be different from everyone else,” she says. “I was just this little shy girl at school.”
One of Johnson’s teachers submitted her for a four-year paid scholarship to Gibbs College, but her mother refused to let her go. The several awards Johnson won at a high school graduation awards ceremony had to be handed to her after the event because her mother wouldn’t allow her to attend the ceremony. Johnson never did attend college.
But, despite the dysfunctions at home, God bestowed upon her the gift of discernment from an early age. At 13, in fact, she had a dream that her stepfather’s sister and two children would be in a fatal car accident on their way, ironically, to a funeral. Johnson confided this dream to her mom, but she warned Johnson not to say anything to anyone because she considered visions like this demonic. So Johnson didn’t, and the three died in a car accident.
“I think I buried all of that afterwards because I had no one else to talk to. Who could I talk to?” says Johnson. “That’s when I really became immersed in Bible study because I loved to read, and just did homework after school instead of having a social life. Bible characters became real life to me in my head, like they were my friends,” she says.
Reading the Bible also helped her escape the throes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ mandates, including the requirement to be known as Chan Davenport (her middle name and stepfather’s last name) rather than her birth name, within the confines of Kingdom Hall. Johnson was disfellowshipped, the equivalent of being shunned, after she became pregnant with her daughter out of wedlock.
Forced to live in a shelter because she was disfellowshipped, the single mom was working at her second job when her mom dropped by one day to let her know her birth father had passed away. Prior to his passing, she had gone to see her father while he was sick in a New York hospital. She visited him with her one-year-old daughter by her side, and it was only the second time in Johnson’s life she had seen him in person.
“They had all these masks all over him,” says Johnson. “His doctor wouldn’t disclose what it was, but said they had found my dad in the street and he was trying to kick the drugs, but it had been in his bloodstream so long that his body needed it. If he had stopped, he would die.”
The next time Johnson returned to New York, it was to identify his body. Johnson’s mother would pass away years later after two fights with breast cancer.
Johnson’s work history is eclectic, from her first job working at Bell Labs to modeling to several jobs at various banks. She was introduced to the music industry in the late 1980s in the thick of the New York City music scene, where some friends asked her to be their manager.
“I’ve always been good at developing relationships, so I just started going to New York and going to conferences and meeting people at record labels,” says Johnson. “Back then, I was called a promoter. I was the liaison between the talent and the labels. So, when they had the 12-inch records, I would go and deliver them to the DJ to make sure that they played them in the club. And then that died down because of CDs and the music industry started changing.”
With an innate trait to want to build relationships and help others shine, Johnson recalls the foreshadowing of her role in television production with a memory of her at age 17 seeing The Wiz for the first time in theaters.
“‘Brand New Day’ comes on and I start crying profusely and my mom has to take me out of the theater and she says, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I say, ‘I should be there. I should be helping them. I can tell they had so much fun doing that.’ My mother thought I wanted to be an actress and I said, ‘No, I want to help them make it.’ Of course, I didn’t know anything about production. I was 17.”
That would certainly change years later, as Johnson knew she was right where she needed to be. The single mom of two children worked her way up by creating her own path, from a temp assistant with Viacom at Spike TV to producer/editor for original programs at MTV to working as a production assistant on shows like The Celebrity Apprentice, The Voice, X-Factor, Shark Tank, the NAACP Image Award-nominated documentary Light Girls and more.
But even though her confidence had continued to build, Johnson’s past would sneak in to hold her back. After attending a screenwriting conference in LA while working at Spike TV, she pitched her screenplay, which caught the attention of multiple producers, including one call from HBO. She never followed up.
“I was going through a divorce, my daughter was having serious issues after being sexually assaulted at school, and I had not yet learned the value of surrounding myself with people who are doing what you’re doing or have done what you’re aspiring to do,” says Johnson. “I didn’t have people in my life who were saying, ‘This is your shot. I support you either way.’ I didn’t feel secure enough.”
But that wasn’t the end of her career—not even close. After her chapter in TV production, Johnson turned to the digital medium. She helped to launch JAY Z’s Life+Times YouTube Channel, taking it from zero to more than 3 million subscribers, 3 billion views and saving them $800,000 in the first six months because she taught herself the art of Google AdWords.
“I had a boss who was supposed to be doing it, but I taught myself Google AdWords,” says Johnson. “Again, my history is that I don’t realize at first that I’m really good at something. And how I found out I was really good at it is because I took the job over from him.”
In 2009, she began her social media brand, not realizing her imprint would lead her to becoming one of the first online influencers. And it all started with Tweeting out from @thatwritingchic her daily morning personal prayers to God, whether it was about her children, her career, her requests, her concerns or her praises.
“I would get like 30 to 40 replies every day,” she says. “I thought it was normal. So I started engaging with people, interacting with people and then one morning, for some reason I didn’t Tweet, and I’d see comments like, ‘Where are my prayers?’”
Even Tyrese Gibson requested a prayer, and Johnson happily obliged, which resulted in a Tweeted recommendation from Gibson that exploded into 6,000 followers within 24 hours. A few years later, Johnson had enough public interest and prayerful content for her series of self-published books, Talks With God, the first one to be released focusing on “inspiration for entrepreneurs.”
In the 30-day journal, Johnson opens up about her journey with depression in 2017. She moved to South Carolina in May 2015.
“I realized that I had abandonment issues, so I started going to counseling and that book was a birth during that time,” she says. “I was isolating myself in my house, and the only time that I would leave my house was to go to the grocery store or to the airport. I did not want to be a public figure. I did not want to be what God wanted me to be. I just did not. And when I look back, I just wasn’t ready. But I’m ready now.”
Johnson says she is also ready to reveal her years of struggles with alopecia by shedding her wigs and shaving her head. The first couple of times she shaved her head was to support a friend and her mother during their cancer treatments, but this time it’s to show support for all women, like herself, who suffer from sudden hair loss.
“Shortly before I moved here, I noticed that it was falling out drastically,” says Johnson, “so I started wearing wigs, but I’ve always liked to wear wigs. I know it’s aggravated by stress. I think a lot of us struggle with hair loss and need to understand that if anybody loves you, they love you for who you are and not what you look like and that your hair doesn’t define you.”
Suncera Johnson has never let anything define her in life. Today, the mother of two and grandmother of five runs her own million-dollar strategic firm, amass digital, walks and talks with God on the beach, and cooks with love.
“No matter what happens in your life—good, bad or indifferent—don’t let it define you. Let it refine you,” she says. “Always realize there’s a blessing in the lesson, no matter how much it hurts. And know that no matter what it is that God has for you, it will find its way to you. It’s not dependent upon a person, place or a circumstance. It will show up, and be ready when it does.”
Visit suncerajohnson.com for updates on the release of Talks With God: 30 Days of Inspiration for Entrepreneurs and upcoming books.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF SUNCERA JOHNSON