Book Review: Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph by Sheila Johnson

This post is an in depth review of Sheila Johnson’s book, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph.

“Everybody wants to write a book and cry”


Sheila Johnson On Her “Walk Through Fire”, Success, Divorce & Marriage. Greed2024. [Forum Post Comment]

Since 2011, I’ve listened to audiobooks or podcasts nearly everyday during my commute. Generally, It’s time well-spent learning and laughing.

I figure I can start or end my day with something inspiring, witty, or brilliant to center my mind. To channel my ambitious, workaholic side, I’ve chosen several business profiles and executive memoirs.

Imagine my excitement in seeing a memoir from a name I’d heard often, a face I’d seen plenty, but a story I barely knew.

About the Author

Sheila Johnson is most famous for co-founding BET (Black Entertainment Television) with her husband Bob Johnson. She supported its early days by building a successful business teaching music, and being a supportive, humble wife and mother.

As a result of its success, she became America’s first Black female billionaire. To build on the historical legacy the channel created, she engaged in many philanthropic endeavors.

I’ll spare you the biographical details that are covered in her book. Or you can take a quick look at here and come back. Because here’s the thing, this book was not what you’d expect.

The Gist:

What I Wanted to Find

On the heals of reading memoirs, like Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl and Anna: The Biography by Amy Odell, I craved more stories of women in power.

How did they combat sexism, and racism, and imposter syndrome? What thoughts ran through their minds as they made the decision of a lifetime?

With a title like “Walk Through Fire” and a cover image showing Johnson in a fabulous red top, and statement-making red lips, I was sure I would learn how to navigate big decisions, negotiate for the good of my community, and have a little tea on the side (tea being the classier word for gossip).

What I Actually Found

Bias & Privilege

First, Sheila Johnson was born in 1949, so I expected to read about her obstacles and stories about discrimination. She briefly talks about the times children weren’t allowed to play with her, or traveling with the infamous “Green Book” (Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1936) as a black family.

Being that she has a fair complexion, (known as “light-skinned” or “passing” as white) I also expected her to exhibit some biases and prejudices from being a privileged segment of the black community.

Photo shows Salamander Hotels & Resorts (Salamander Collection) leadership team including CEO Sheila Johnson dressed in a bold red wrap dress seated in front. Team members are positioned in various standing and seated poses.
Screenshot of the Salamander Hotels & Resorts Leadership

Frustratingly though, Johnson doesn’t seem to understand her privilege (or her book audience) very well. I say this, because from beginning to end she describes people by detailing their complexion more than any other characteristic.

She described meeting her eventual husband, Bob Johnson, by saying he was “short, 5’7″ and he had darker skin than me”. Why was that important?

And the people in leadership and front facing roles on the Salamander Hotels Collection website, are almost entirely white. (See photo above)

I fully understand the branding/marketing choices at play here. However, this is the woman who purchased a gun shop when she moved to Middleburg, VA, because she hated the confederate flag it displayed. I get it, but the math isn’t mathing, Sheila!

Cultural Influence

As I mentioned above, I was looking for solutions to conquer racial tokenism and leveling the playing field. I couldn’t care less about what level of melanin her colleagues and adversaries had!

In the book, Johnson talks about having experienced outrage from the Black community for the misogynistic and demeaning content the channel often hosted. Its essence can be found here.

BET’s Uncut was a TV program that aired mature adult content to viewers at night.

Yet she glazes over that outrage by blaming her husband, Bob, and griping to the BET programming executive, Jeff Lee. In the end, after several of her ideas didn’t pan out, her best influence on quality imaging was a young adult talk show called Teen Summit.

I don’t mean to sound disrespectful; that’s far more than I’ve accomplished. But I will admit my first thought was, “Is that it?! Is that all THE Sheila Johnson 1st Black Billionaire media “mogul”(and I use that term loosely here) was able to push through?”

Background Music

I kept reading, despite these early disappointments, and found my harsh opinion softened. I read about her journey through infertility, losing a child, and the endless humiliation of her husband’s infidelity.

You know when you watch a movie, and they play juuuust the right music to transform the scenes. These vulnerable moments are what redeemed the memoir from being a book of random complaints, to more of an inspiration to find purpose and identity.

Now, I’ll tell you this, I found her story to be very cliche. Allow me to summarize *ahem*

Boy meets girl. Girl gives boy a chance.

Boy takes girl for granted. Girl ignores every flaming red flag.

Boy uses girls blood, sweat, tears and coins to level up, cheat and…you know the rest.

I’ll spare you her bulk of her scorned wife tales. You can buy the book to read/hear the exact details she spills over her marital scandals. Though it isn’t much more than you already know from the tabloids and blogs.

Bettering or Bulldozing

I felt the final chapters of this book rushed through her post divorce transformation. I found myself saying, “I’m almost done and she hasn’t hired a therapist yet, no wonder she still seems unhealed”

It’s a shame too. She had earned a new start, complete with money, children, hobbies, and fresh divorce papers. If I were her, I’d race to the nearest therapist and stay a while!

Instead, she develop into sort of a bully herself. She bought up quite a bit of land in the town where she wanted to start over. And instead of involving the local community, she hired a team of “fixers” and purchased influence in some unsavory ways. The people had every right to be outraged.

Closing Arguments

As I stated before, I really wanted to enjoy this book. Overall, it turned out to be little more than a cathartic release for the author. She got to speak her truth, and have her day in the sun. And, I hear, her hotels are lovely.

I’ll need to find a more detached source for the “women of BET” story.

The author mentioned Brett Pulley’s Billion Dollar Bet: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story Of Black Entertainment Television (2005) as a source of insider “bean spilling”. But it lacks solid reviews.

With this in mind, I’m far more confident recommending the book Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills (2019).


So am I crazy, or am I right for this one? Leave a comment below if you’d like. Share this post and find me on Threads, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, email…all the things. If you’d like to discuss this and other topics on your Podcast or Show, please send me an email or use my contact form here.

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