A graduate of Howard University, Kenya McGuire met Carl Johnson in Washington, D.C. at Howard University Hospital while he was doing his residency in surgery.
“I’m a licensed physical therapist and I was practicing at the hospital. Carl was treating one of my patients. In physical therapy, we have to take notes,” Kenya says. “Sometimes doctors read them, sometimes they don’t. I could tell by reading his notes that he had been reading mine.” Impressed, Kenya approached to express appreciation for the professional respect.
When Carl saw Kenya for the first time, “I thought she was beautiful! I was just kind of floored, like, ‘who is that?!’,” he says. Against his professional mores, Carl asked her out—however, Kenya had a boyfriend at the time, shutting down even a surgeon.
No longer working in the same part of the hospital, time passed. When they saw each other again, irrefutable sparks flew and they exchanged numbers. “I got her number on Friday and called her that Sunday,” Carl recalls. “I wanted to call her the same night I got her number but… that wouldn’t be cool.”
This is cool: “From that first conversation we had, I knew I was going to marry her. I knew she was the one.”
During the formative phase of the relationship, Kenya learned that Carl had an intriguing combination of degrees. “He’s a physician, but his bachelor’s degree is in theology,” she says. “That, I will admit, was very attractive to me.”
Carl knew he wanted to be a doctor from 8 years old. But he didn’t know he wanted to be a surgeon. “Theology happened at Georgetown.” Carl enjoyed the mandatory course his college requires and had always been interested in theology— the study of religions. Originally a chemistry major, Carl received some priceless advice: You don’t have to be a science major to get into medical school. “I thought, ‘if that’s the case, why not study something I’m really interested in?’,” he says.
Carl and Kenya had been dating a year and a half when they took a trip to Mexico. Carl recalls, “I’d heard that some of her girlfriends convinced her I was definitely going to propose on the trip. On the beach, it’s going to be beautiful… all that,” he says. “That would be way too predictable. So I said to myself, ‘there’s just no way that’s happening’.”
They had a great trip—no proposal.
On the plane back to DC, Carl noticed that Kenya wasn’t just mad, she was “salty” …and not saying why. Making matters worse, returning to work her girlfriends presented balloons and cards congratulating the trumped-up engagement!
“Salty is not even the right word for what she was!” he says. Carl had already been shopping for an engagement ring. But this was his question to pop, and it would be done his way, or at least as close to his vision as possible.
After the trip, they bought tickets to a Cassandra Wilson and Grover Washington Jr. concert. (Both jazz lovers, Cassandra Wilson sings “their song”: “You Move Me.”) In the weeks before, Carl sent several letters to Cassandra Wilson and her people. (Letters. Remember those? This was the mid-1990s, before letters could be put through the microwave, a.k.a. email.) The letters pleaded Wilson to sing this song so he could propose to his girlfriend at the show. No response. He had purchased the ring, so on the date of the concert he was determined to propose.
“Cassandra Wilson did her whole set and didn’t even sing the song!” he says, still in the moment. (Now who’s salty?!) At intermission, he said to Kenya, “ ‘I’m really mad at Cassandra Wilson,’ like I really know her!” Kenya, confused at why he’s so mad, tried to help him get over it. Carl was inconsolable. “No! She was supposed to sing this song!”
Having already called Kenya’s parents requesting their daughter’s hand in marriage, he was going to propose to his love, hook or crook.
“I had a copy of the letter that I’d sent to Cassandra Wilson, so I said ‘here, read this’.” Reading, tears well up in her eyes. Turning, she finds him on one knee with the ring. “I asked her to marry me. The people around us at the arena were clapping, it was great,” he says. “We didn’t even stay for Grover Washingtion, Jr.! Kenya was too excited.”
Kenya shares, “I always wanted to be get married. I loved the idea of marriage, the kids, the white picket fence, all that. So I definitely wanted marriage.” But she hadn’t quite wrapped her mind around the idea of motherhood. “The obvious part is, it’s a massive blessing. But it is, to me, bittersweet. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever and will ever do. It’s easier now. I’ve learned how to accept the unpredictable.” She laughs. “I accept that I am here as a guide, a facilitator.”
Quickly absorbed into the “we” of family, introspectively Kenya was restless from the digression of her individual passions. “When you’re not really good in that space of who you are, adding the element of kids to your life can very quickly became exhausting. I didn’t have me right. I was having children because I thought that’s what you do next. You get married, you have babies!” She gets quite serious. “I hadn’t thought about what ‘motherhood’ meant to me.”
Now Kenya believes the best mother is true to herself. “I am most successful when I’m being me. If I have to feel like I’m not being me in order to do this, then something’s wrong.”
Trey (10) and Bryant (6) are both athletic—soccer, basketball and swimming round out music and taekwondo lessons. Like their father, humor comes naturally, but with very different deliveries. Carl’s take: “Bryant and Trey? They are a bunch of characters! Trey is very intelligent; strong-willed and moves to his own beat. Bryant is a sweetheart, very compliant; he wants to please.”
“They’re not little adults, they’re not little mes, they’re not little my husbands. They are their own people,” Kenya says. “So I’m learning every day.”
Within this learning process, Kenya made a career change. A teacher at George Washington University and the only Black faculty member, students of color gravitated to her for advice. “Wanting to learn more about student development, I got my master’s in counseling, the focus being students in higher education.” Working within the field for three years, she was restless. “I thought it would be good to get into my real passion: music.
“God gave me the courage,” Kenya affirms. “There was a lot going in our marriage, there was a lot going on as far as spiritual growth. In 2009, I really renewed my spiritual beliefs in how God moves in my life. So through that I told myself I will know. I will feel when it’s time for it to be solely about the music.” Before she made the decision, she sat down with her husband to discuss it financially. “That was going to be an income gone. But we both understand the value of listening to that voice.”
Carl, in support of his wife, emphasizes, “If that’s what you want to do, just do it. It doesn’t matter what anybody is saying. No fear!” Empathy lead to his understanding. “I can actually relate to her. Pursuing my dream of medicine was a very long haul. There are times where you get discouraged and want to quit. So I know the emotional toll it can take. I also know there is no choice. If you don’t pursue it, you’ll be in a world of hurt. You may not really know why, you just know that something is off. When you’re able to articulate it, then you know what you have to do.”
In May 2012, Kenya was able to stop working as a physical therapist and make music her focus full time. She is now a singer/songwriter with two CDs: the EP Starting Over, and Jazz Made Rhythm. “It’s nice to have this front row seat; her music and the journey is really good,” Carl says.
The Johnsons, who live in the suburbs of Chicago, keep their spiritual foundation first. “Whatever else follows, we know we’re going to be just fine,” Carl says. Second but also critical is a strong support system. “We try to instill this into our boys and demonstrate that support. We are happy to have survived a lot of crises. It’s more than possible to stay together, build your family, move forward and flourish.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.