A memoir is one way to live a vicarious life. One way to imagine putting your feet into another person’s shoes. And this is us, in Taraji Penda Henson’s shoes, or as you might know her, Cookie Lyon.
Frankly speaking, I knew little about Taraji other than her as Cookie Lyon in Empire and as Katherine Goble Johnson in Hidden Figures, plus from some exuberant pictures of her on her instagram.
I’d always taken her as a strong black woman, but I’d like to say that that was not because I knew enough of her, but rather because that was the kind of roles she played in the movies I saw. Cookie Lyon is a badass. Katherine Goble is a hero. But who is Taraji?
One thing that is hard to miss about Taraji, which is also what I like the most about her is that she’s always being herself unapologetically. And that’s like everyone alive’s dream. But what we all should also know about her is that there are times when even she doubts herself.
Taraji faced all kinds of problems when she started to pursue acting career. For one, she started very late, she was pushing thirty when she moved LA the first time. Which was not the ideal age for someone getting into the harsh and judgmental Hollywood. Secondly, there was scarcity of good roles for black women out there, and not to mention, they also came with bad pay. While on top of all those, she also had to face her fear of being typecasted as a woman from the hood.
Now I know that Taraji is a strong woman not because of characters she plays, but because she is a woman who focuses on her cause, believes in her way, pays no attention to things that would drag her down, and walks with her head high even when situation intimidates her to do otherwise.
But even strong will and hardwork are scant without tough support from family. Taraji is blessed with such a courageous, resilient, and reassuring loyalty, both from her nucleus and extended family.
It’s one thing to encourage your kid to pursue her non-mainstream want in life when she’s got something in hand already, like if your kid gets scouted already through a random video on youtube or something. But it’s a completely different thing to support your kid to go for something artsy when you
think you know that going that direction, her future is gloom and her chance to succeed is slim.
That’s what Taraji’s family provided for her first, the impossible encouragement. Taraji’s family understood Taraji’s singular talent from very early on. And instead of doubting her, which I believe a lot of family will happily do, they boosted her spirit, they reassured her that she was born for what she wanted. Because no one can fight a life-long struggle without once doubting herself. And that is when and where family support is absolutely necessary. To remind her whenever she gets sidetracked, and to help her get back on track.
“I failed, Dad.” I told him over the phone after getting yet another F in math class. “I’ve never failed anything in my life.”
“Good,” he said simply.
“What do you mean, ‘good’?” I snapped. “I can’t afford these failing grades.”
“You had to fall on your face to see that’s not what you were supposed to be doing.”
“Do what you’re supposed to be doing.”
To me, Taraji’s closeness with her family is ridiculous. I have never had anything resembling that kind of understanding and intimacy she has with her family. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been raised in a good asian family, where the parents provide enough for the children, make sure kids get good education, and help them to stand on their own feet financially. But what my family, and probably a lot other families, often forget is that, while material support is immensely appreciated, emotional support is never less important. And Taraji gets that in abundance from her family, and I deadly envy her for that.
As a Mother
Getting that kind of crazy support from her family, it’s only right when she gives it all back to her own son. Even when raising a black son through thick racism is taxing, she proves her unconditional love for him, she is there for him when leaving him behind is easier, and she educates him hard when letting him go astray is simpler. She taught her son to fight off the profound racism without a fist. And what a rare thing that is.
“When the other student called Marcell the N-word, your son said, ‘You know the word “nigger” doesn’t mean “black”, right? It means you’re ignorant. So who’s the nigger?’ “ the dean recounted. “If anything, it made the other kid look bad. I’m proud of him for keeping his cool. The N-word isn’t a trigger for him, and that’s a good thing. That speaks a lot to his character, says a lot about what a great mother you are.”
When talking about acting, Taraji swiftly changes into a different kind of woman. It is her craft and encapsulated in it, she is this intimate, romantic, and poetic woman.
Her words about her passion were stunning and very, very vivid. It hit me like a storm right then and there. They touched me so that I felt I’d always approached my life from the wrong angle. When it comes to a passion that has turned into a job, it’s easy to get too focused on checking boxes, and to forget to remind ourselves why we did it in the first place, or to simply deliberate if it still invokes the things we wished to feel by doing it. Taraji treats her art with such feelings and respect.
Acting is communication, not only person to person, but soul to soul—a physical, emotional, and certainly spiritual expression. When I get it right, it is life itself.
No one can ever shake off her or his race, lineage, or heritage even when it comes with unfair repression, and unjust condition. It doesn’t matter if your ill-fated life is your fault or not, because knowing that won’t change anything. Doing something about it will.
In all discriminative politics around the world, I guess it’s kind of a birth-responsibility for the people of minority to constantly fight for justice and equality. And what we all must perpetually remember is that any kind of struggle at it will never go to waste. Every person needs only to make one small move, and believe that eventually copious small moves will amount to a significant shift in history.
And I believe that’s what every black influencer is trying to make, shift, by shift, in history, until one day, equality will materialize and there’ll be no way back from it. Not only does Taraji make her own move as a black pion in white-dominated media world, she also gets out of her way to always remind people of black heros and heroines who’ve paved the way long and short before herself.
“ ‘In my mind, I see a line,’ “ said Viola, who, in winning the Emmy, became the first African American actress ever to take home the award for best actress in a drama. “ ‘And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Taraji Penda Henson is a late bloomer. All odds were against her but albeit that, as we all can see, she made it out, very, very well. And that itself should tell us something, right? That there is no such thing as late. If it’s what you want to do in life, now would always be the perfect time to do it, no matter how late you think now is.
So, choose it, do it, bear the cross and walk on. Even if you’re sixty.
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