Back Row Book Club: Taraji P. Henson's Around the Way Girl
Taraji P. Henson is an embodiment of the American dream. You know, the one that pretends no matter who you are or where you come from, you can be a huge success if you’re willing to work for it. We all know that’s not reality–Taraji perhaps most of all–but every once in awhile there’s an example that makes good the oft-repeated mythos. From extremely humble beginnings, armed with little but hutzpah and hustle, Taraji became a multiple award winning actor and producer of screens big and small.
But where did it all start? In Around The Way Girl: A Memoir, Taraji discusses her childhood in shades of gray. She brings up some pretty heavy topics all the while viewing them through the perspective of a kid who thought things were mostly alright. She grew up with a single mom who did such a good job of providing that Taraji wasn’t aware of the fact that they were poor until it was pointed out to her. Her father was an alcoholic who was abusive to her mother and once tried to kidnap Taraji, but at the time, she was just happy to be with her dad. She doesn’t try to make light of anything that happened in her childhood. Rather, she frames it as one can with the benefit of hindsight; struggles come up but they don’t define us. Adult Taraji thinks back on situations in different terms than child Taraji, but both of them hold a lot of love in their heart for the people around them.
The relationship between Taraji and her father is complicated and messy, but ultimately very important. Despite him being unreliable in many ways through her childhood, both her and her mother say that she learned the most long lasting lessons from him. He taught her to focus on what she wanted and to learn from every situation. Later in life, her father got sober and they were able to have a loving, healthy relationship before he died. Her affection for him was never in question though and, good lord, do they look exactly alike. There’s a photo of the two of them where Taraji looks to be about seventeen years old, and it’s wild how identical they look.
Taraji was someone who was drawn to performing at a young age. Growing up in D.C., she went to a couple of different schools of varying quality but kept herself involved in theater by any means necessary. She attended Howard University for theater and excelled in some non-orthodox ways; she became a single mother during college and still graduated, which many people doubted she would be able to pull off. She also talked her way onto the set of the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X. One of the best anecdotes in the book is her making sure she looked period-appropriate for the film so that she wouldn’t be shuffled to the back of the extras pack. When she got pregnant, she convinced the director of a play to rework a character in a musical he had written so that she could do the part as a pregnant college student. The main takeaway of most of this memoir is Taraji is not a force to be trifled with and she’s truly a sponge of a performer, soaking up lessons from every source available. Her influences are worn on her sleeve, evident in how often she references Carol Burnett as someone whose work meant an awful lot to her.
When she finally gets to L.A. to fully pursue the dreams she’d been cultivating her entire life, Taraji learned quite quickly that people saw her as a type and she had better get used to playing it. Like the hard lesson Rita Moreno learned almost half a century prior, Taraji saw first-hand that women of color have less options than anyone and no recourse to demand anything better. If she wanted to make money, she’d have to be happy playing prostitutes, drug addicts, or girlfriends. Fortunately, that didn’t turn her off to the whole damn thing–she eventually found (or produced) projects that were worthy of her talent.
Of course, that’s not to take anything away from roles that got her to a litany of awards and prestige. Aside from her breakout role in Baby Boy (2001), her turn as Sug in Hustle and Flow (2005), one of my favorite movies, remains a beautiful, well-developed character–bolstered by Taraji’s heartbreaking expressions. She talks about building up every role she got and really finding traits, flaws, and contradictions in them even if those things aren’t in the script.
After years of being offered the same part, Taraji got a chance to be in a big budget A-list movie: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She was understandably excited, especially since she got to play a different role than she was used to. That is, until she got told how little she was getting paid and that she has to pay for her own lodging. Never deterred, she decided not to be bitter and accept the situation and the chance it offers for what it is. Naturally, that’s easier said than done but she does let us know it took a lot of nights fuming in an Econo Lodge room she paid for before she got to that point. Plus, she won an Oscar for her performance, so that probably helped salve any remaining bitterness. It seems like she knew either way that this opportunity was putting her on a trajectory that would astonish everyone around her even if it kind of seems like she felt this was all coming.
When it comes to what Taraji herself is most surprised by, it’s the response to her character Cookie on the hit show Empire. It was a role she was not initially interested in since, to her, it felt like a regression. In the first episode, Cookie has been recently released from prison after serving a seventeen year sentence. Arrested for dealing, she’s a strong character who has long existed inside a system known for destroying the human spirit, to say nothing of human beings themselves. Taraji says that people know her as Cookie all over the world and she couldn’t be happier about it. Even post-Hidden Figures and a bunch of great projects she starred in and/or produced, she’s just plain thrilled that this character is so beloved on a global scale.
Taraji’s memoir certainly isn’t a sob story. Even some of the rougher situations get discussed in a manner that suggests she objectively understands or has come to terms with them. Beyond being someone who was blessed with the gift of hustle, she remains appreciative of her chances and supportive of fellow actors, especially women of color. She knows how hard it is to break out of a mold designed for you by years of terrible stereotypes and how impressive it is when it’s achieved. It’s clear that she’s proud of herself yet aware of others that came before her and their intense struggles. She’s resourceful, talented, intelligent and, geez, is she adorable or what? Here’s hoping those award-winning roles keep coming her way because she deserves them.