Taraji P. Henson is best known these days for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon on the hit series, Empire. She delivers a performance that is often wrought with pain and grit but there’s probably more to her performance than just great acting chops. She had a tough childhood so she likely relates more to the role than viewers can imagine.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., crime was all around her both on the streets and in her own home. In her new memoir, Around the Way Girl, she recounts some harrowing takes from her early years and, really, it’s pretty painful to imagine.
In one passage, she wrote about her father dragging her mother by her hair into his car and “threatening to kill her.” Henson watched this nightmare unfold when she was just about four years old. Fortunately, her mother, Bernice Gordon, had the strength to end her abusive marriage to her husband, Boris Henson, choosing to raise her daughter on her own.
In the current issue of People magazine, Henson explained: “She never gave up, she always persevered. I knew she was upset about living from check to check, but we were never in danger of being kicked out. There was always, always food on the table.”
That’s not all, either. It sounds as though, despite the fact that their relationship had been dysfunctional, Henson’s parents both found a way to add positivity to her life in their own way.
Her father, who fought in Vietnam and died in 2006 after battling liver cancer, never denied what he had done and took ownership of his abusive behavior. Of this dynamic, Henson says: “Kudos to my dad for saying, ‘Look, I’m flawed. I did this. It was wrong. I apologize.’ He told me, ‘I hope you never, ever, have to go through that.’ But that’s what happened anyway.”
At just 17, Henson met Mark, the man who would, eventually, become her abuser. They met at a movie theater and he instantly charmed her with his smile. They dated off and on for a few years and she loved the fact that he made her laugh and that she could always count on him.
Seven years after they met, she gave birth to their son, Marcell (now 22!), and things changed drastically for the worse. One day, Mark came home late, they started arguing and he got physical. In her memoir she wrote: “The next thing I knew, Mark’s balled-up fist was coming straight for my face. I pulled my hand from my mouth and looked at the blood on my trembling finger.”
Rather than remain in an unhealthy situation, she drew from her experiences with her parents and asked Mark to move out. “I said, ‘You know what? I don’t have to do this — and I don’t have to hate you for it,’” she says. “If [my father] had hidden what he’d done and tried to pretend he was perfect, maybe we wouldn’t have had the conversations we’d had, I wouldn’t have had the strength to walk away.”
It’s a real lesson for all of us as parents, isn’t it? To be accountable and honest when we make mistakes so that our children can learn from us. If we hide our imperfections, they will never know how to respond to real life when it happens. While we hope thigs will go smoothly for them, the truth is that they are going to face challenges, at some point. It’s important that we share our wisdom with them so that they can be strong when things don’t go as planned.
It’s great that Taraji P. Henson is being so open and candid about a topic like this. Hopefully, it will create opportunities for dialogue in families across the country.