Around the Way Girl: A Memoir by Taraji P. Henson
From Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner, Taraji P. Henson, comes an inspiring and funny book about family, friends, the hustle required to make it from DC to Hollywood, and the joy of living in your own truth.
With a sensibility that recalls her beloved screen characters, including Yvette, Queenie, Shug, and the iconic Cookie from Empire, yet is all Taraji, the screen actress writes of her family, the one she was born into and the one she created. She shares stories of her father, a Vietnam vet who was bowed but never broken by life's challenges, and of her mother who survived violence both in the home and on DC's volatile streets. Here too she opens up about her experiences as a single mother, a journey some saw as a burden but which she saw as a gift.
Around the Way Girl is also a classic actor's memoir in which Taraji reflects on the world-class instruction she received at Howard University and the pitfalls that come with being a black actress. With laugh-out-loud humor and candor, she shares the challenges and disappointments of the actor's journey and shows us that behind the red carpet moments, she is ever authentic. She is at heart just a girl in pursuit of her dreams.
Excerpt: Around the Way Girl
1 - Fearless
Let my mother tell it, all that I am and all that I know is because of my daddy, a declaration that some might find shocking considering the list of negative attributes that floated like a dark cloud over my father's short, hard-lived life. During his fifty-eight years on this good, green earth, Boris Henson, born and reared in northeast DC, had been homeless and broke, an alcoholic and physically and mentally abusive to my mother during their five years together-plus prone to hot tempers and cool-off periods in the slammer. With that many strikes against his character, I can imagine that it's hard for some to see the good in who he was, much less how any comparison to him might be construed as a compliment. But Daddy wasn't average. Yes, there are plenty of fathers who, grappling with their demons, make the babies and leave the mamas and disappear like the wind, without a care in the world about the consequences. The scars run deep. That, however, is not my tale to tell. The truth is, no matter how loud the thunder created by his personal storms, my father always squared his shoulders, extended his arms, opened his heart, and did what was natural and right and beautiful-he loved me. My father's love was all at once regular and extraordinary, average and heroic.
For starters, he was there. No matter his circumstances, no matter what kind of fresh hell he was dealing with or dishing out, he was there, even if he had to insist upon being a part of my life. One of my earliest memories of my dad is of him kidnapping me. It happened when I was about four years old, shortly after my father dragged my mother by her hair into his car while threatening to kill her. I'm told that the only thing that kept her from being dragged down the street with her body hanging out of his ride was my aunt's quick thinking: she pulled the keys out of the ignition before my father could speed away. He was angry because more than a week earlier, my mother, fearful that my father would follow through on a threat to kill her, packed up a few of our belongings in a brown paper bag and plotted a speedy getaway; she wanted to divorce him and bar him from seeing me until he got himself together and handled his bouts of addiction and anger. But my father wasn't having it.
"Nothing and nobody was gonna keep me away from my baby girl," he used to tell me when he recounted the days when my mom and I disappeared. He said he even took to the top of buildings throughout our hardscrabble southeast DC neighborhood with binoculars to see if he could spot us.
We were long gone, though, hiding out where he didn't think to look: back and forth between his parents' home in northeast DC and his sister's place in Nanjemoy, a small town in southern Maryland.
It took Dad more than a week to track us down at my aunt's place, and when he finally made it over there, he waged war on her front door, banging and hollering like a madman, demanding to see me, his daughter.
"Let me see my baby!" he yelled. "Taraji! Come see your daddy!"
I was in the television room, which was in the back of the apartment, in a thin pair of pajamas, watching television and pulling a comb through my doll's hair when I heard my father screaming my name. That doll didn't have a chance; I left it, the comb, a brush, and a bowl of barrettes and baubles right there in the middle of the floor and started rooting around the recliner for my sneakers with the flowers on them when my mom, a naturally gorgeous cocoa beauty with a beautiful halo of hair, rushed into the room to check on me. "Come here," she said, scooping me up into her arms. She sat on the edge of the couch, rocking side to side; her palm, warm and slightly sweaty, pressed my head against her chest. The thud of her heartbeat tickled my ear.
* * *
I was much too young to understand the dynamics of my parents' relationship-that my mother was running for her life after he'd lost his temper one too many times and hit her. Nor did I understand that my father was violating my mother's wishes and scaring her half to death by dropping by unannounced and demanding time with me; all I knew was that my father was at the door and he wanted to play, that he would once again, as he always did, sprinkle magic on what would have been an average day. Try as she might and despite my aunt's pleas not to open the door, my mother couldn't ignore the scene Dad was making, the banging and screaming. He even left and came back with a police officer, someone my father, who was working as a cop at the time, knew on the force. To placate him and keep my aunt, I'm sure, from becoming the laughingstock of the neighborhood, my mother finally, slowly walked to the front door, with me in her arms. "Look," she said, seething, "you have got to stop it with all this noise. Please! You can see her for a few minutes, but then you have to go."
Dad, burly and strapping, standing at well over six feet tall, didn't give my mother a chance to put me in his arms; he snatched me and took off running into the winter chill, me dressed in nothing but those pajamas. Nothing could stop him-not my mother's screams, not the neighbors peering out their front doors and rushing down their driveways to get a glimpse of the Negro theater unfolding on the street, not threats from his fellow officer, who'd pointed his gun and considered shooting my father. Definitely not common sense. Where, after all, was he going to go? His home situation was sketchy, his money was funny, and really, the chance of him taking proper care of a four-year-old was slim to nil. Yet none of that mattered. He wanted to be with his daughter.
I thought we were about to go on one of the many fun and funny adventures we always embarked on together, whether that was going for a ride on his motorcycle or taking a walk in the park; never once did it cross my four-year-old mind that something was wrong-that we were like Bonnie and Clyde on the run. When Dad took off down the street, I wasn't scared; I was happy to be in his arms, so strong and thick and grand.
My father's getaway was short lived, though. "I'm going to call the cops on your ass!" my mother yelled down the street after him as she and the police officer jumped in his cruiser. From the front seat of that cop car, my mother searched frantically for me and my father for hours, unaware that he'd stolen me away to a friend's house somewhere in the same neighborhood. It was my dad's friend who convinced him to let go of all that passion and make way for common sense: there was no way he'd be able to get away with stealing his daughter from his wife and he finally acknowledged that. Grudgingly, he brought me back to my pleading mother's waiting arms. "I'll come see you another time, baby girl," Dad said as my mother rushed away from him. "I love you. Daddy loves you. Don't you ever forget that."
What he did was wrong-I can see that now as an adult. Still I hold tight to my belief that at that time, my father was a good guy who simply wasn't very diplomatic about his wants and needs versus his rights, and a tad immature when it came to understanding how to get what he wanted from others. My mother was the one who would try to reason with him; she'd tell him time and again, "If you want full custody of your daughter, go to court and say, 'I'm her dad and I deserve rights, too.' But you don't come knock on the door and run off in the wind with our daughter, because that's not going to work. Get it together and we can talk."
* * *
As an adult, when I think of my parents' polar opposite personalities, I say to myself, how in the hell did they ever meet? She's quiet, thoughtful, methodical. He was loud and full of drama, quick to say and do the first thing to come to mind. He wasn't trying to hurt anybody; it's not as if he were robbing banks or knocking people upside the head and taking what was theirs. Quite the contrary: he was a Vietnam vet and an artist at heart, and when his finances were flush, he made good money as a metal fabricator, installing metal bars on the windows of houses throughout the metro DC area. But my father also was a victim of the lack of support provided for Vietnam vets who served their country, only to come home to a nation still reeling from political and racial turmoil, to say nothing of that shady Reaganomics math; the only thing that trickled down to him during the Reagan administration was a decrease in the lucrative contracts that sustained him financially. No one could afford window bars and fancy iron fences and front doors anymore, and when the middle class didn't have money, Dad didn't have money. Soon enough, the checks stopped coming and he couldn't pay the rent, at which point the entirety of his apartment was dumped out onto the street. Getting another job to keep a roof over his head was near impossible, as he had a record-a knot of misdemeanors he'd gotten for a couple of street fights made it difficult for him to secure a gig that would give him enough cash to live on. With no job, no money, and nowhere to go, he ended up living in the green van he was driving at the time.
Boris Henson was a lot of things, and he did a lot of things wrong, but he was a stand-up guy-a good guy who was dealing with the cards life dealt him, plenty of which would have ruined a lesser man. But what he chose to do with those hands is where the best life lessons for me lay. Rather than fold into a ball and disappear from my world, he turned all that ugly upside down and let me examine its underbelly. It was important to him that I see it all-the good and the tragic, the long, slow climb he made toward finding peace for himself-which he ultimately did when he got sober and found Jesus-and the pitfalls that threatened to swallow him whole along the way.
"Don't worry about that," he said of all the furniture and personal items he had to leave behind when he was evicted and living in his car. He cupped my face and looked me in my eyes. "That's material stuff I can get back. I'm alive. I'm free."
* * *
I'm free. That's what mattered to him. And that's what mattered to me. There was so much emotional intelligence there, so many lessons for me to mine for my own life journey. Through example, he showed me that we're human-that nobody is perfect and there most certainly isn't a rule book for living a perfect life. I was to train my eyes not on the misfortune, setbacks, or possibility of failure, but on living-really living-without fear. Time and again, my father would show me that no matter how often he fell from grace, he simply would not let the dread and anxiety of another failure shackle him. And how could he? He needed both of his hands free so that he could place them squarely on my back and push me forward past the fear.
( Continued... )
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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About the Author
Born and raised in Washington, DC,
Taraji P. Henson graduated from Howard University. She earned a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie in Empire, an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress opposite Brad Pitt in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was a 2011 Emmy nominee for Best Actress in a Movie or Miniseries for Lifetime's Taken From Me.
She also won the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Detective Joss Carter in CBS's Person of Interest.
Henson made her singing debut in Hustle & Flow and performed the Academy Award-winning song "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" on the Oscar telecast. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her son and has a strong dedication to helping disabled and less fortunate children. Follow her on Twitter @TheRealTaraji.
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