Welcome back to A&E’s Biography featuring Taraji P. Henson. We’re still going to make references to Empire and other media while Taraji speaks to us, not in your usual conversational tone, but like all this is just marketing.
Chapter Summaries (with Commentary)
Chapter 2: Authentic
Style, personality and, as always, the influence her dad played in her life. Since childhood Taraji had a unique position perhaps not a lot of children had. She was able to ask for how her mom styled her hair, she has long had influence over her choice of clothes, and with her father always being a strong influence, she got her personality. Heck, she even credits a lot of what we see in Cookie, like the line about smelling like goat ass, from her father.
But, as she notes, her D.C. realness that came from her father’s blunt actions and her mother’s toughness in the face of adversity, while it has benefited her in life, such can’t always be said for her career. She name drops many actresses who while Black like her, because of her “edge” she wasn’t necessarily competing with. And she expands on the idea presented in chapter 1 about what led to her being typecast and it wasn’t simply just Baby Boy but her twang, her walk, and that confidence. Making it so she almost lost her part in Think Like a Man to a White woman.
While initially reading this, I must admit I was becoming tired of hearing about Cookie and every chapter mentioning Empire. But with all she is saying, you have to be reminded that she is in a good place right now. A place that she had to fight to get to and prove that what she grew up around isn’t all that she knows or has to offer. So while all the references to Empire and name dropping makes you want to roll your eyes, it reminds you that she is thankful for that role, as much as she once thought she would hate it.
But perhaps the real issue is that the book very much remains in this realm of being based off an interview vs. it being conversational. Something I must admit is new to me for with Shonda Rhimes’ book about getting to, or finding once more, this joy and RuPaul’s dealing with his rise, fall, and rise again, it makes Taraji’s book seem so polished in comparison.
I mean, it isn’t like I’m expecting for her to talk about all the negative things she saw, was victim of or participated in, but something about this feels well crafted. Sort of like that Toni Braxton movie from either this year or last year. This book, like that movie, isn’t necessarily raw. It wants you to know the figure surface level but not be all up in their business. Leading to it feeling, as much as you can hear Taraji’s voice and understand how her dad, mom, and environment crafted her, that she is holding back. Almost like she is still trying to court roles beyond what she has gotten and thinks this book may help people in casting see a different side to her. But not the type of person they couldn’t put front and center on a marketing campaign.
Chapter 3: Drama
This chapter dives into the drama which is her going from private schools to public schools, her academic career going from honor roll to just another class clown, to how becoming an actor has wavered from becoming a realistic goal to something put on the backburner. Lest we forget, Taraji was raised during the crack epidemic and with one mother struggling, even as she got promotions, and her dad just getting on his feet during her teen years, it isn’t like a lot of hope was around. Granted, on the weekends her family did give her an outlet to perform but, as many will tell you and as you see and hear whenever someone talks about acting, failures hurt worse than triumphs. So as her friend, her best friend, found success and was able to get into a performing arts school, while Taraji was denied that hurt. For while her dad continued to cheer from the side, consistently, sometimes you need someone outside of your kin to validate you too.
Hence why she notes Mrs. Hawkins, Mrs. Esther, and so many people throughout her journey. Their names are noted for even if they aren’t named in a speech for an award she gets now, they did matter. Their presence, their validation, them seeing something in her she sometimes didn’t see in herself, it mattered. After all, as smart and talented as she is, without some reassurance that those two things aren’t opinions but facts, you find something else someone may agree on.
At this point, I’m warming up to the book. I’m imagining the day she may get an Oscar and will be crying her eyes out since her father won’t be there. Heck, just imagining that as writing this had me catch a tear. But, unfortunately, there is still this feeling of disconnect like I’m reading an article that makes it so even as I read page after page, it is like flipping through a magazine. There isn’t much here to challenge your views of her, her views of the world, or anything like that. Which, I don’t know, maybe it is because I have a similar background or maybe there are some things I can’t relate to. Either way, it is rather strange to me how there seems to be a fog between Taraji and the reader and I don’t know if it is me and my need for the author to seem a bit more open or maybe it could actually be the book.
[…] the natural inclination of adults is to devalue the dreams of kids who express an interest in pursuing the arts. Let a kid show any kind of special aptitude for math or science, and the world will move mountains to put him in programs that stimulate his gift. The same goes for children who express even a remote interest in subjects society thinks will lead them toward careers we all tend to consider exceptional: doctor, lawyer, professor, engineer, or if it’s the arts, a classical musician and the like. Hardly anyone ever encourages the child who can’t sit still, or who runs her mouth a little too much or who lets her imagination soar, to do what is perfectly natural and right to her: consider acting, singing, dancing, or otherwise make a living performing. […] it seems such a wasted opportunity, so incredibly unjust to steer a kid away from what makes his heart sing.
— “Chapter 3: Drama.” Around The Way Girl – Pages 47-48
I can give you a London accent, I can give you Becky the Valley Girl all day long. I can pull it back and get corporate when I need to, too. But checks are usually attached to that. I have to get paid to be that person. That is not who I am.
— “Chapter 2: Authentic.” Around The Way Girl – Page 40
The Father & Daughter Relationship
With the star power Taraji has, I can fully imagine her pitching a show about a Black father and daughter not just to tell part of her story, but because she wants to break stereotypes and expose people to the idea. Whenever that happens, I fully expect to see something beautiful for while her dad is mostly portrayed in a comedic, and sometimes tragic, way, there is such an enviable beauty to their relationship.
On The Fence
Not Getting To Know Taraji, But Understand Her Career
So far, almost everything about this book is about how this lead to this in her career or how this person influenced her acting. All of which is necessary but it feels like she is making everything about her career and not about getting to know her. Which isn’t to say we don’t learn about how she was insecure about her figure in high school, how she dumbed herself down to cope with her dreams being dashed and maybe accepting she was her environment, but it feels like we are avoiding something. It is like we are being thrown little interesting interview anecdotes vs. really having a one on one with Taraji ourselves and actually getting to know the person. That is, not the famous actress, but the woman who played all those memorable roles.