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What We Didn’t Know About Taraji P. Henson’s Past

Tough, tender, tenacious Taraji. From Howard University to Hollywood, she’s withstood the heat and the pressure to shine bright like a diamond.

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photo collage of taraji p henson surrounded by flowers
Lyne Lucien
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On and off screen, Taraji P. Henson seems like a homegirl you could laugh and cry with, and who would be equally down for bottomless brunch or a morning power walk. The vivacious Virgo (her birthday is September 11) is also the kind of sister who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and she has been vocal about her uphill battle to get casting opportunities and to be paid her worth.

“I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, getting paid a fraction of the cost,” Henson said in a candid interview with Gayle King on her SiriusXM radio show. “This industry, if you let it, will steal your soul. But I refuse to let that happen.”

It’s clear to us that Henson pours her heart and soul into every role –from fiery music industry matriarch Cookie Lyon on the long-running Fox series Empire to NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson in 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures and her turn as sultry blues singer Shug Avery in the musical movie rendition of The Color Purple.

So we’re thrilled that the 53-year-old was honored by the American Black Film Festival with the Excellence in the Arts Award (Female), for her body of work.

We also want to give Henson her flowers by taking a look at her journey from Howard University to Hollywood.

“I went out to Hollywood fearless.”

Henson was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in an apartment that she described as “one step up from the projects.” After studying electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University, she returned home and transferred to Howard University, where she studied theater and worked two jobs to make ends meet. She graduated in 1995, toting her then one-year-old son Marcell Johnson, in her arms during the ceremony. After graduation, despite naysayers who told her she was too old to make it in show business, she moved to Los Angeles with “$700 in my pocket and my toddler” to pursue her dream.

“At Howard I was taught to think and believe that I could play any character… I went out to Hollywood fearless,” she said in 2019 while promoting the comedy, What Men Want, according to Howard University’s campus news source, The Dig.

In a full circle moment, Henson received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater and delivered the commencement address to the class of 2022.

Pay me what you owe me

Taraji P Henson poses for photo
Getty Images

Although it has taken some folks in the industry longer to take notice, Henson has been a star in our orbit since her standout roles in 2001’s Baby Boy and 2005’s Hustle & Flow.

Wider recognition came when she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2008, for her role as Queenie, the title character’s adoptive mother, opposite Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“[Queenie] was three-dimensional. She was emotional. She was no-nonsense,' she said during her commencement speech to Howard University’s class of 2022. 'She had a big heart. She loved big, even though she was living in the Jim Crow South, barely 50 years after the end of slavery.

'And in honoring Queenie, I honored all of our ancestors and sheroes who dreamed of a better future for themselves and then led lives of dignity, grace, and determination, so fiercely that it made our present possible.'

Her biggest payday, however, didn’t come until she worked with Tyler Perry, who cast her in his films The Family That Preys (2008), I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009) and Acrimony (2018). Henson credits Perry with being the first industry leader to compensate her fairly.

“I was asking for half a million,” Henson said during an episode of Variety’s “Actors On Actors” series. “I didn’t get that until I did my first Tyler Perry film. He was the first person that broke the standard that I was getting paid for films, and he gave me $500,000.”

More recently Henson did a stellar job in 2023’s aforementioned The Color Purple. Her take on Avery is both sassy and spoon bread sweet and you can feel a real heart connection with Fantasia Barrino’s Miss Celie.

“Whenever you see me playing these Southern women, know that I’m my grandma,” Henson told the New York Times. “My grandmother’s still very much a lady with her pearls and her clothes, and she’s very conscious of how she looks when she goes out still: She goes to the salon and gets her hair done, gets her nails done. And she raised nine children on a sharecropper’s income!”

During promotion for the film, the Golden Globe-winning actress revealed that she had to audition for the role of Avery, advocate for more pay and demand upgraded conditions on the set, leaving folks to suspect beef between her and the film’s executive producer, Oprah Winfrey.

Henson, however, squashed the rumors, commenting on social media that Oprah "told me personally to reach out to her for ANYTHING I needed, and I did!,” adding, “It took ONE CALL… ONE CONVERSATION… and ONE DECISION MAKING BLACK WOMAN to make me feel heard."

An advocate for self-care 

Henson’s hair always looks snatched on the red carpet. To help us keep our ‘dos looking glam and to create another source of income, she created the TPH by Taraji hair and beauty brand, available online.

"I was wearing a lot of protective styles while I was at work and needed a solution to ensure I was taking care of my hair and scalp while in braids or under a wig or weave," she told PopSugar. "I didn't see anything in the marketplace, so I created it."

A champion for mental health

Taraji P Henson and her best friend
Getty Images

In 2018 she launched the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (BLHF) with her best friend Tracie Jade Jenkins, a nonprofit named after her father who dealt with untreated mental health issues after serving in the Vietnam War and is committed to challenging the perception of mental health illness in the African American community. The organization’s website is a resource to locate Black therapists and culturally competent resources and support programs.

Henson shared her struggles with anxiety and depression on her Facebook Watch series “Peace of Mind with Taraji,” co hosted with Tracie Jade. The show features frank conversations with sisters we love like Mary J. Blige, Gabrielle Union, Tamar Braxton and Megan Thee Stallion.

“During the pandemic, I was in a dark place for a couple days. I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care, and that’s not me,” she said. “I felt myself withdrawing. People were calling me and I wasn’t responding…One day I just blurted out to one of my girlfriends, ‘You know, I thought about killing myself.’ And oh my God, I felt so much better. [Like], I’m not going to do it now.”

To provide mental health support for Black female students, she joined forces with the fashion label Kate Spade New York (the company’s co-founder committed suicide in 2018) to bring wellness pods to HBCU campuses like Hampton University that provide free virtual and in-person therapy sessions as well as music, art and dance therapy for female students.

“I became pregnant when I was in college, so did other girls. A lot of them dropped out because they didn’t have the help,” Henson said according to USA Today.

“That does a thing to you ... I couldn't do (a thing) about it then, but I can do something about it now."

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