By Jennifer L. Warren
POUGHKEEPSIE – Sometimes anger and frustration can be the biggest fuel for unexpected purpose….and success; just ask Larry O’Dell Johnson.
A native of Manhattan , who also resided in Brooklyn, O’Dell Johnson, a mathematician by trade, possessed a long-time passion for writing. Couple that with an intense interest in criminal and social justice, and it’s easy to see how the groundwork was set for literary success. Those accolades recently arrived on October 24, 2021 when one of O’Dell Johnson’s recently reprinted 200 word books, I AM THE KEY, was bestowed honorable mention laurels on The New York Times 100th Anniversary Book Review.
The book contains pathways to interpret its predecessor, THE MIND FACTORY, an in depth look at semiotics or the study of words inside of language.
“It discusses cryptographic information, showing how language has many levels of meaning, both outward and inward ones,” explained O’Dell Johnson. “I realized people need ways- short cuts- to understand those complex, multi meanings.”
For O’Dell Johnson, both books are highly personal, connected to his academic journey, one laden with limiting obstacles. Initially an engineer major at the University of Arizona, he switched over to mathematics, a field seemingly “easier.”
“The labs just took up too much time in engineering,” O’Dell Johnson recollects with a smile. “With math, I was able to see my friends more and have more time.”
Financing his own education as a full-time police officer however, O’Dell Johnson did not encounter too much free time, but was intent on completing his degree as a first generation college student in his family. He persevered, going on to work in prisons, as a university researcher, a grant writer and with the most longevity as a 23 year math professor at Dutchess Community College.
However, dispersed throughout his accomplished career was an undercurrent of academic turmoil. Encountering latent political issues at Berkley University while pursuing his first Master’s Degree in Criminology, O’Dell Johnson ran up against a figurative brick wall while attempting to attain his second Masters in Mathematics at SUNY New Paltz. After completing 12 needed undergraduate credits to be accepted into the program, he was shocked to learn the program suddenly shut down completely. After transferring to Albany, he was somehow placed in the wrong classes. Mounting frustration ensued, and O’Dell Johnson walked away from a second Masters Program altogether; however, that decision would prove to be the catalyst for something wonderful: two well embraced books, providing golden keys to unlock many of the enigmatic doors he faced during his collegiate quest.
“I was angry how I was treated in academia while getting my degrees; I also really wanted people to understand the code of language and to help make it easier for them to navigate it,” said O’Dell Johnson. “I knew when I was going after a clear mathematical degree, not an applied one, that this was not something a man of color does, so with these books, I wanted the people involved with trying to stop me from reaching my goals to know I was onto them, and I do it in a very respectful and honest way.”
O’Dell Johnson also does it in a manner that doesn’t solely address race. Quick to cite the importance of really knowing oneself as well as the power of our media and the ways language can be manipulated, his true intent with both books is to empower his readers with the needed tools to understand hidden agendas, enabling less of a victim mode and more of one filled with self love and methods to decode hidden messages, leading to less discrimination on all levels.
“Writing these books was really cathartic for me; it taught me a better appreciation for the spiritual part of life,” said O’Dell Johnson, who now resides in Poughkeespie. “It helped me see what it means to be introspective as well as the person you are in relation to others.” Reflecting further on the potency of these two acclaimed reads, he added, “Also, in a practical sense, it has taught me techniques behind what is being printed in the public domain, and that has made me feel more able to understand and not be negatively affected by them; I hope it can do the same for my readers.”