Empire star Taraji P. Henson, who plays the inimitable Cookie Lyon on the hit television show, reveals the violence she has suffered at the hands of the men she loved the most in her powerful new memoir.
In Around the Way Girl: A Memoir , the Oscar-nominated actress describes how she was raised poor in a Washington ghetto and how she struggled to break in to acting.
The gritty book begins with Henson’s earliest memory: Her father trying to kidnap her.
Boris Henson, a Vietnam vet who succumbed to addiction, had turned violent, forcing her mother to flee the marriage.
The actress was just four years old when the father she adored dragged his wife, Bernice, into his car, threatening to kill her.
The only thing that saved the terrified woman from being dragged down the street, with her body hanging out of the car, was the quick-thinking action of her sister who snatched the keys from the ignition.
Bernice then took her young daughter and hid out where she thought Boris wouldn’t think to look for them – with his sister at her house in a small Maryland town.
But in less than a week he found them, raging and pounding at the door. ‘Taraji! Come see your daddy!’ he bellowed.
The little girl was in a back room, scrambling to find her shoes to run to her father. But the door held and her mother found her there and gathered her up in her arms. They’d escaped once again.
Happily, her father eventually straightened out and became a major source of support in her life. But by then Henson was a young woman.
In the intervening years her impoverished mother struggled to raise Taraji in one of Washington D.C.’s worst ghettos in the southeast sector.
During their years there, the crack epidemic escalated until murder and robbery at gunpoint became the stuff of daily life.
Under her mother’s strict eye, though, Taraji was well on her way to making a better life for herself.
She looked set to become one of the handful of kids to escape ‘Chocolate City’, as majority-black Washington was then known, after George Clinton’s 1975 funk classic of the same name.
But then she met the love of her life, William LaMarr Johnson, whom she refers to as ‘Mark’.
She first spotted him outside a movie theater in Maryland. She was 17 and recently dumped by her first boyfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him.
But one look at Mark, and she knew right away that she wanted him forever.
Like many black men of that generation, she writes, Mark was trapped – he didn’t have skills to cut it a college and struggled for employment.
One night when she was home from college, and curled up in his arms, he told her: ‘You’re better than me. You need to leave alone.’
She fought back, ‘We’re going places,’ she insisted, ‘I love you. We can do this together. I won’t let you fail.’
But Mark ended it with her. One memorable night she tried to entice him back by showing up at a club in her tightest, shortest skirt, shaking it out in her highest heels. He was furious and things got so heated between them, bouncers threw her out.
Still, they got back together a year later. By then Mark had fathered two babies with other women. But Henson persisted, and soon she became pregnant.
She was studying acting at the prestigious Howard University, but carried on with classes. She was living with Mark when their baby boy, Marcell, was born.
But under the stress of new parenthood, Johnson’s temper started to flare. He began staying out late, no explanations offered. One night he was barely through the door when Henson laid into him.
‘The next thing I knew, Mark’s balled-up fist was coming straight for my face. I fell onto the bed, crying and holding my mouth; blood seeped off my lips. . . droplets splashed across my shoes, slowly seeping into the fibers of my suede boots.’
She screamed over the baby’s terrified wails, ‘This is over! Get your s*** and get out.’
Ironically, it was her father who brokered a peace, but Henson wouldn’t have it.
‘With that separation, my forever man, my first love, was no longer,’ she wrote.
Yet despite the violence, as a 46-year-old single mom Henson still says he is her one true love.
Many years later, when Marcell was a teenager, they had a fight where he reared up as if to hit her.
‘You don’t want to do that, son,’ Henson said. ‘See, you’re not hood. You not ‘bout that life. Hit me. Please hit me so I can have a reason to take your ass out!’
Henson says Marcell saw that hitting her would be the death of him. She pushed him out the door and bolted it behind him. Of course, they later reconciled.
Mark had tried to counsel his son when, as early as nine, it was obvious his temper was getting the better of him. With a hand on his son’s shoulder, he said, ‘Use your head, black man.’
Three weeks after that touching moment, in late January 2003, Henson got an early morning call from Mark’s mother. ‘Mark was killed last night,’ she said.
Henson doesn’t disclose how Mark died in the book. But it has previously been reported that he was brutally beaten and knifed to death in a dispute over slashed car tires. He was 34.
Henson felt Mark’s death deeply and carried that pain into her work. It was that side of her, the girl toughened by the streets, which got her to Hollywood and into auditions. She named her alter ego ‘Ghetto Betty’.
She wanted hotshot agent Vincent Cirrincione to represent her but his roster was filled with names like Halle Berry.
She got to him by showing up as regular ol’ Taraji from southeast DC, with a slight country drawl and one fingernail painted bright red.
‘What’s with the fingernail?’ he asked.
‘I looked down at my hand absentmindedly and shrugged. “I forgot to take the paint off.”‘
She was Ghetto Betty and Cirrincione could work with that. Henson scored a lot of television work and made it to the big screen more than once. She was front and center in John Singleton’s 2002 comedy, ‘Baby Boy’.
She made even more impact playing a pregnant prostitute in ‘Hustle & Flow’ in 2005 opposite Terrence Howard. The two established a dynamic they would recreate a decade later on ‘Empire’, but only after Henson successfully lobbied the series creator, Lee Daniels, into reluctantly bringing Howard in for a test.
Henson constantly fought being typecast. Directors would reject her as ‘too edgy’ which she knew meant ‘ghetto’ and ‘from the hood’.
Yet for a shining moment, when she was cast in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – she cancelled a garage sale last minute to attend the audition – it looked as if she had broken through.
The 2008 film starred A-listers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, stars who were paid millions. But Henson got a hard lesson in Hollywood economics.
She says she was paid ‘the lowest of six figures,’ and expected to foot her own hotel bills for months in New Orleans where the movie was shot. She spent every night back at the hotel firing herself up, angrily determined she’d show Hollywood she had the goods to be ranked a top-tier actress.
She pulled it off in a big way. Henson was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category. Finally, she was getting some industry respect.
After that Henson worked steadily in film and television, but was aware she was now unofficially too old to break through to stardom.
But the one thing she didn’t want to go back to was playing the girl from the hood.
That was why, when her agent begged and pleaded with her to read the script for Empire, she said no – and kept saying no even after she read it.
‘I was scared to death of Cookie. After all, I’d been trying to escape the typecasting that had come from starring as the loud-mouthed, around-the-way mama.’
Ironically, as a black woman in Hollywood who fought being stereotyped for decades, she now says Cookie is her most meaningful role.
‘Playing Cookie makes me feel as if the women I know, the women I grew up around and grew into, are finally getting some shine,’ she writes.
But when she steps out of character and shimmies into an Alexander Wang sheath to make a public appearance, she’s Taraji P. Henson, an international star.
It’s as if Taraji and Cookie, having finally made peace with each other, stroll down the red carpet, hand in hand.
Around the Way Girl: A Memoir by Taraji P. Henson and Denene Millner published by Atria/37INK is available on Amazon October 11
Source: Daily Mail UK