I’m sitting across from Taraji P. Henson, who is perched in a jacquard-covered armchair and surrounded by eclectic artwork in a private room at the Soho House Chicago. In a far corner of the room hangs a framed print that reads, “Someone just killed me.”
It’s two days after Amber Guyger, a white police officer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murdering Botham Jean, an unarmed 26-year-old black man who was watching television in his own home. Henson and I both watched the video of the presiding judge hugging Guyger. We both saw the court officer fixing Guyger’s hair.
“It disgusts me,” Henson says with such force that it makes me sit up straight.
“Who knocked the dust off the Exonerated Five's shoulders when they were all sentenced to prison?” she continues. “This woman actually took someone's life. She's being treated with such humanity when [Jean] was not shown an ounce of humanity when he was in his house. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
I have no answers for Henson, but she’s not really looking for them from me. In this moment, despite our differences, we’re simply two black women sitting together, grappling with what it means to exist in our skin in this country.
I’m in Chicago to interview Henson because she is a strong advocate for mental health awareness in the black community—in 2018 she launched a nonprofit foundation to address the issue, and in June she testified in front of the Congressional Black Caucus Second Youth Suicide Forum. SELF is a health media brand; smashing the stigma around mental illness is part of our mission. So I have entered this conversation with a pretty clear understanding of the scope of the crisis: In 2017, 4.3% of non-Hispanic black people in the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey said they felt sad all or most of the time compared with 2.6% of non-Hispanic white people. A whopping 10.3% of black people reported feeling that “everything is an effort” all or most of the time, while 6.1% of white people surveyed said the same. (Factors such as poverty level can greatly influence mental health; 7.6% of non-Hispanic black people making below 100% of the poverty level reported experiencing serious psychological distress in the past month, whereas 12.1% of non-Hispanic white people with the same financial standing said as much.) In 2018, only 8.7% of black adults received mental health services in the previous year compared with 18.6% of white adults.
But here’s the thing: It’s impossible to discuss mental health in the black community without also grappling with what it means to be black in America. Without understanding that mental health is inextricably linked to history, culture, trauma, and the intersection of all three.
And so it makes complete sense that the conversation has migrated in this direction—to discussing Guyger, Jean, the Exonerated Five. And it makes sense, also, that Henson cites Trayvon Martin’s death as a watershed moment for her coming to terms with her own mental health challenges.
“All my life I've been bubbly and the life of the party,” she says. “Things started to shift for me when Trayvon Martin—when that happened.” His killing stoked special pain for Henson, whose son, Marcell Johnson, was close to Martin’s age. “That's when I noticed anxiety started kicking in,” she says. She feared that even her own fame wouldn’t be enough to protect her son. “They're not going to [recognize] Taraji's son out here on these streets,” she says. “It's me that is the star. He's not.”
Henson recognizes that this pervasive, unending thrum of anxiety for the safety of your children and loved ones spans generations. “My grandmother is 95 years old,” she says. “She worries about her children, her children's children, and her great-grandbabies because she knows that at any given moment you can be picked on or killed for the color of your skin.”
Today’s political climate doesn’t make it any easier, nor does the fact that black people today are still dealing with the effects of generational trauma due to slavery, Henson says. “This moment in history is another ‘Here, take this’ to us, again reminding us that we are nothing, that our lives do not matter,” she says. “Constantly, every day, we're reminded.”
“[It’s] 2019, going on 2020, with even more microaggressions against us every day that we got to see on the news…and we're supposed to be okay,” she adds. “It's a lot.”
Henson says her anxiety reveals itself through heart palpitations, sweating, nervousness, feeling helpless, and racing thoughts that she can't control. She also deals with depression, which she describes as a darkness that comes over her. “It's hard to climb up out of it,” she says.
In working through her own issues, Henson realized that her experiences weren’t happening in a vacuum but were actually emblematic of much larger cultural and systemic factors. The more she explored the topic, the more committed she became to illuminating mental wellness in the black community—both by addressing the root causes and by making it easier for black folks to be open about our mental health struggles. “I hope that one day we can all be free to talk about mental health and be okay with seeking help,” she says.
Henson’s Hollywood origin story is well-documented, often shorthanded into an inspiring parable of what happens when a strong black woman has an American Dream: Born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, the Howard University graduate moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to pursue acting. She had $700 in her bank account and her two-year-old son in tow.
“I know people see that as strength,” Henson admits, radiant in understated makeup, her straight hair parted down the center, her simple black ensemble elevated with Chanel jewelry (and, of course, her diamond solitaire engagement ring). “But understand it wasn't easy, and I didn't walk through it with this cape on my back. It looked like some superhero shit, but baby, it was a lot of days where I was screaming into my pillow, crying, second-guessing myself, calling my father,” she says, stretching the word baby until it sounds like it belongs in a ’90s R & B song. “There were [times] where I didn't know how the story was going to end.”
Henson is firm that she not be portrayed as a mythical font of endless strength. She sees the “strong black woman” trope as deeply harmful. She wants any black women out there who feel like they need to be strong in the face of similar struggles to understand that it’s okay not to be okay. “There are some times where I feel absolutely helpless,” she says. “That's human. Everybody feels like that. Just because I'm a black woman, don't put that strong-superhero thing on me.”
In the beginning Henson worked as a substitute teacher, going on auditions as her schedule allowed and waiting for her big break. She landed the iconic Yvette role in the 2001 John Singleton film Baby Boy. Once the shoot wrapped, there was about a year between the end of filming and the movie’s release. “I had to literally go back to substitute teaching until the film came out,” she says.
Next, Henson appeared in The Division, a Lifetime Original television series. More work followed, like her role as Shug in 2005’s Hustle and Flow and her turn as Queenie in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the NAACP’s Image Awards.
Then Henson was cast as Cookie Lyon on Empire, which debuted in 2015. At first Cookie scared her. “She was so real and so raw,” Henson recalls. “I wasn't sure I understood her.” (For the uninitiated, Cookie Lyon, mother of three, is a woman who spends 17 years in prison for selling crack and beats one of her children with a broom in the first episode.) In time, she has settled into the character. “She's the moral compass,” Henson says. “Cookie's that friend who fights the bullies for you.” In between filming Empire, Henson took on movie roles, like that of Katherine G. Johnson in Hidden Figures, which premiered in 2016 and resulted in more awards buzz.
The path wasn’t as easy or straightforward as it sounds on paper. “There were a lot of nos before I got the yeses,” she says. Years of rejections exacted a psychological toll, as did fighting to be paid what she was worth. It wasn’t until she was cast in Tyler Perry’s 2009 film I Can Do Bad All by Myself that Henson felt like she was finally making as much as she deserved. “That wears on you too, knowing that you're worthy but you're still getting paid way less,” she says.
Henson says she relies on tools like prayer, meditation, and her craft to help her take care of herself. “Art is therapeutic for me,” she says. “A lot of times when I have to reach these emotional places, I have to use things in my life, and a lot of times I've healed myself.”
Mental wellness, however, often requires more than just reliance on things that feel therapeutic. For Henson, figuring out that she needed actual therapy in addition to her general self-care practices was a bit of a journey. “I had aligned all my chakras, and I still wanted to headbutt a bitch,” she jokes. In all seriousness: “The therapy came into play out of necessity,” she says. “It was [a] time where I was like, ‘Oh, I'm just not feeling like myself anymore,’ and my son was going through his issues with becoming a young black male in America with no dad and no grandad.” (Henson’s son’s father was murdered in 2003, and her own father died in 2006.) “It was like, ‘Okay, I'm not a professional. We both need help,’” she says.
It took several therapists before Henson found the One. She’s been open about her search for what she calls “a unicorn” of a therapist: someone culturally competent who could help her process pain. “When you find that right person, oh my God, the sky cracks open,” she says.
After a string of false starts, she finally found a match when her Empire costar Gabourey Sidibe introduced Henson to her own therapist, another black woman.
“It was extremely important for me to find a therapist who is a black woman, just because black women live in a different world than everyone else,” Sidibe tells me via email, when I reach out to ask her about her thought process in sharing her mental health care provider with a friend and colleague. “Our problems, daily interactions, and expectations are different than most other people, so I wanted a therapist who I could cut through the societal foundation of who I am with, so that we could get to my specific issues. There's a shorthand between us. We speak the same language because we're from the same world.”
Sidibe says she felt like sharing her therapist with others was just the right thing to do. “She is the most human therapist I've known,” she says, “and when I encounter anyone who I think would benefit from my therapist’s humanity, I'll always recommend her. It wouldn't be fair to keep this mental wellness to myself.”
Henson was on board, in no small part because she knew that Sidibe had done the work herself. “She's Gabby, honey,” Henson muses. “She's fabulous, she's everything, but what I do know is that she's...embraced her issues.”
“I love Taraji,” Sidibe says. “I see how hard she works and how much she splits herself to do for others, whether through her acting, her philanthropy, or her friends and family. I just wanted to give her something that was just for her. A space to check in with herself.”
And that’s what she got.
In addition to helping her process grief and trauma, Henson’s therapist has helped her deal with professional hiccups, like in 2017, when Henson was hospitalized with a gastritis flare-up while filming The Best of Enemies, in which she played civil rights activist Ann Atwater. Gastritis causes painful inflammation of the stomach lining, and Henson thinks the stress from her hectic work and travel schedule probably contributed to the complication. She’d risked her health for the film, but in the end, the movie barely broke even with its budget. Henson was devastated.
“I'm out there busting my ass, praying people will go see a film that is important to me. But then no one saw it,” she says. Henson slumps down into her armchair and sighs, then laughs at the memory of processing those feelings with her therapist. In her exasperated laughter is the unavoidable truth: You can think of yourself as strong or weak. You can have a therapist, a meditation practice, a support system, and prayer—but no one is immune to the highs and lows of life.
Henson’s therapist has made a lot of those dips easier to manage, such as the mood swings that came with menopause.
“I would get so low, really, really low, beaten, like never before,” she says. “You may have those days [when] you're like, ‘Oh, I just don't feel like getting out of bed. I just want to sleep in,’ but you don't feel heavy. I was just starting to feel heavy a lot, [like] suffocating…. It just came out of nowhere.” At first, she didn’t think these emotions were related to menopause. Then she started doing the math: “I'm like, ‘Well, you are pushing 50, girl. At some point things are going to change.’”
Menopause, according to the Mayo Clinic, is diagnosed once you’ve gone a year without a period. It usually happens in your 40s or 50s, but the average age is 51. One symptom during the years leading up to menopause can, indeed, be mood changes, which Henson’s therapist confirmed for her when she spoke to her about her suspicions. “[That confirmation] made me feel better, but now I still have to manage it,” she says. “That means talking to my therapist when I feel this way, doing things to get me out of the muck.”
With that said, she’s doing her best to adjust. “This right knee reminds me [of my age] every time I try to do a squat, but I'm in a place where I embrace it,” she says with a chuckle. “It doesn't bog me down. I live. I go out. I do things that make me feel vivacious and young at heart. If I smother the little TJ inside, I'm going to stop living.” Pac-Man, dodgeball, riding her bike on the waterfront, and paintball all make the list, as does getting together with the friends she calls her “warriors.”
“Find you a group of women that are going through the same thing. Talk and laugh about it,” she says. “If you sit on that toilet and you don't flush that shit, it's going to consume you.”
Henson’s work from her substitute-teaching days partially informs her advocacy work today. A few stories stand out to her from that time. One: When her laughing students, desensitized to the violence surrounding them, pointed out bullet holes in the school’s walls. And another: She was assigned to teach a fourth-grade “special education” classroom, and then found that it was filled with only black boys, even though the school was co-ed. “All black. It wasn't a male school, but this classroom, in particular, all black boys,” she says. When she tried to start the day’s lesson, the boys protested, telling her that because they were “special ed,” they wouldn’t be able to do it.
Realizing that her students had turned the “special education” label into a verdict on their capabilities, she came up with a plan: She offered a McDonald’s french fry to any students who finished their work, telling them, “Don't you ever believe a label somebody slaps on you.”
“That hurt me to my core,” she says. “I was like, ‘Something has to be done.’ We have to be invested in our children.”
Henson remains fiercely committed to helping black children. When she appeared before the Congressional Black Caucus Second Youth Suicide Forum in June, she cried during her testimony as she discussed childhood suicide rates. Research published in the journal Pediatrics found that the suicide rate among black children between the ages of 5 and 11 was increasing, while the rates among white children were going down—and while childhood suicides are relatively rare, black children account for more than 36% of them.
“We should never be able to talk about babies dying from suicide in a normal [way],” she tells me, dabbing tears from her eyes. “What is a five-year-old going through that they don't want to live anymore? Where are we in this society where babies don't want to live?”
Henson is working to change a reality she cannot bear: “I can’t sit back and do nothing,” she says. In 2018 she launched the nonprofit Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to diminish the stigma around mental health in the black community. The foundation helps schools create “peace corners,” or areas in classrooms for students to safely express their feelings. It’s also working to place culturally competent therapists in schools, features a database of therapists anyone can access, and hopes to provide scholarships for black students who want to pursue careers in psychotherapy.
Named for her father, who was thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, and run by her childhood best friend, Tracie Jade Jenkins, who serves as executive director, Henson sees the foundation as part of her legacy.
“I think my mental health foundation picks up where my art leaves off,” Henson says, sneaking sips of her soup when there’s a natural lull in the conversation. “We have to deal with these traumatic situations [children experience], and these teachers and therapists and social workers need to be trained in cultural competency to be able to pinpoint [when a] child is having an issue that's deeper than just wanting to be bad in class.” She shares the hypothetical scenario of a child with one parent in prison and the other constantly working but still not earning enough money to support the family. “We expect him to come to school and sit down and be studious,” she says. “He don't even know if he's going to see his parents when he gets home or if there will be food…. We expect too much of these children. We put too much on them.”
Henson’s inclination to gaze at black people through caring eyes might be one of the reasons she’s remained supportive of her costars Terrence Howard and Jussie Smollett. “I love like a mother,” she admits. She doesn’t flinch when I ask her why she hasn't publicly distanced herself from Howard and Smollett. The former has a history of domestic violence allegations and controversial comments to his name. The latter faced a host of legal charges for allegedly staging an assault. (Smollett denied the charges, and all of them were dropped.) Friendship, to Henson, comes with a lack of judgment.
“If I'm your friend, I can't judge you,” she says. “ I just can't. I could do something, and I wouldn't want you to turn your back. We're humans. We're flawed. No one is perfect. I might not necessarily agree with everything, but I think every human deserves some form of humanity, some form of compassion.”
I ask her whether sticking by these folks has had consequences for her. “I haven’t really had any backlash,” she says, adding that the fear of being canceled for supporting men like Howard doesn’t dominate her thoughts. “At the end of the day, I can love a person through their flaws, you know?” she says. “People have had to love me through my flaws.”
She says that the love from her people is integral to her mental health. Henson sits up a little straighter, and I hear hints of a school-aged Taraji when she tells me that her mother is proud of her (“She is so proud,” Henson says. “She just says I never cease to amaze her”) or when she shares that her mom still tries to tuck her in at night. Henson discusses her friendships as if she’s preparing me for a girls’ trip. There’s her childhood friend who wouldn’t spill her secrets no matter how much you begged, and the friend who cleaned her apartment right after Marcell was born. “When I got home with my son, that house smelled like Clorox. She cleaned that house from top to bottom,” she reminisces. Henson mentions Regina King and Mary J. Blige with clear love and puts her hand over her heart when discussing newer friends, like her Hidden Figures costars Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer. Hollywood legends like Debbie Allen (Henson’s longtime “auntie”), Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Jennifer Lewis, Loretta Devine, and Phylicia Rashad continue to serve as guiding lights.
Then, of course, there’s the friend who is directly responsible for Henson’s upcoming nuptials. Henson had given up on love for a time (“These dudes are stupid,” she quips) when her makeup artist, Ashunta Sheriff, decided to throw Henson a party with the express purpose of introducing her to eligible bachelors. Henson was resistant. “This is weird, and I don't want to embarrass you,” she remembers saying to Sheriff. Still, Sheriff insisted, and Henson finally acquiesced. It was at that party that Henson met her now fiancé, Kelvin Hayden, a six-foot-tall retired NFL cornerback. Henson compares him to a bear (“big, cozy, comfy”).
“We shook hands and I swear I heard angels,” she says. “That’s the joke I tell. But he just felt right,” adding that, minus a few bumps in the road, they’ve been together ever since.
About those bumps: Initially Hayden, who is 13 years Henson’s junior, thought she was a “prima donna celebrity who has her way with guys and moves on,” she says. Henson thought Hayden was a good-looking “athlete who has his way with women.” She started to assume that his proneness to falling asleep when she got home from work meant he was exhausted from cheating escapades. “Whenever he would fall asleep, [I’d think,] Oh, you cheating on me?” she recalls. Miscommunications like these led to a breakup, she says.
Henson’s friends warned that she was being rash, telling her to not just “block and delete” him. But she remained firm because she wanted real love, and she had an idea of what it looked like. ”When my father was on his deathbed and he would defecate on himself because cancer was shutting his organs down, my stepmother was in that room bare hands, no gloves, washing him, saying, ‘They don't clean him good enough in here,’” Henson says. “I believe I'm worth the fight,” she adds.
So Hayden had to prove he deserved a spot in her life (and her inbox, ultimately making four different email accounts because Henson kept blocking them). Eventually, Henson says, Hayden came to her condo and explained his intentions in front of her friends and family. The fight in him is what convinced her he was serious.
Granted, one person’s grand gesture could be another person’s impetus for a restraining order. But Henson is clear that, for her, love involves a little bit (or a lot) of chasing. “He had to suck in his pride and he still didn't stop.” She grins while recounting the rough patch. “I said, ‘That's my husband.’”
Ever the hopeless romantic (and vocal fan of personal development), I lean in and ask Henson whether she believes in the oft-repeated notion that once you do the work, your partner will arrive. “That’s foolish to believe,” she says. Lots of times, she says, it just works out that you commit to a person while you’re still working through unresolved issues. “How do you maneuver and do the work with this other person involved?” she asks. “That's the real work.”
She’s speaking from experience. Now that Henson’s found her person, she’s just trying to learn how to breathe through the moments that would have prompted a younger Taraji to “pop off” because of a bruised ego. Instead, she’s learning to pause. The right partner doesn’t dissolve imperfect behaviors, but Henson says that her fiancé’s “feet are planted firmly in the foundation of us.” Inherent in that commitment is patience with a woman who is unlearning the defense mechanisms that felt so necessary in the past.
“He's still working with me on it. You just don't put that down,” she says. “It's a rewiring, and he's very patient with me.”
Ultimately, Henson says her relationship is the testimony of a very pragmatic prayer: “I'm grateful to God that I found a partner that I can work with, and that's what I prayed for,” she explains. “I said, ‘I’m not looking for perfection, God. I’m looking for somebody who wants to do the work.’”
Beyond her advocacy work with the foundation, Henson has a lot going on professionally. She is in the process of producing a movie about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was abducted and murdered in 1955 by white men in Mississippi after a white woman accused him of harassing her. (In 2017, author Timothy B. Tyson released The Blood of Emmett Till, in which he says the accuser admitted in 2008 that this claim was untrue.) She’s in talks to work on four other projects as well: one for her to star in, and three more for her to produce. “The power positions are the people behind the camera, making the decisions, casting the people,” she says. “I’m trying to make mailbox money.”
Then there’s her upcoming business venture. Henson smiles mischievously when I mention her forthcoming hair-care line, TPH by Taraji, with a soft launch planned for December 29 and a full launch slated for January 29. “I like to share my secrets,” Henson says. “I want everybody to love their hair the way I love mine. I got the first batch of samples here, and I want to scream. I just can't believe my dream has finally come true.”
The line is technically for all hair types—“It's a hair care system to keep your hair healthy and your scalp clean. It's meant for anybody,” she says—but her enthusiasm about the line’s offerings for natural hair is undeniable. “If you do have a natural [style], honey,” she says, “it’s going to love up on your natural curls.”
Though she has a lot on her shoulders, Taraji P. Henson is more than okay. She sees her therapist when she needs to, takes time for herself when she can, and FaceTimes her dog when she has to be away from him (the dog, a deliciously wrinkled charcoal gray French bulldog named K-Ball, has more than 41,000 Instagram followers; Henson manages the account with her sister.)
If I’m honest, I was particularly interested in coming to sit at Henson’s feet because, despite my commitment to vulnerability and mental health, the compulsion to keep it together is taking its toll. So, throughout our conversation, I ask Henson variations of the same question: How does she navigate her relationship to being seen as a “strong black woman”? Is there more to distancing oneself from that trope than crying a lot and getting a therapist? Can black women reject strength when our survival demands it? Over and over she tries to tell me that refusing to feel all of our emotions has an immense capacity to hurt us. Over and over she explains that people can’t help us unless we tell them what we need.
I don’t really get it until a few weeks after our conversation, when I burst into tears during a meditation class. My classmates and I are doing an exercise in which we break into pairs and practice mindful listening. I am partnered with a man. I speak, and he listens. Then, surprising myself, I start crying. I try to explain to the larger group that as a black woman in America, I’ve learned to live with the expectation that what I say won’t be valued, acknowledged, or even heard. The exercise awakened a basic human need I’d forced out of my awareness. I share this with the group, and my classmates comfort me. When I let them, I realize that this type of support can’t take root without my permission. Then, for some reason, I think about how depending on whom you ask, black isn’t considered an actual color. By some definitions, it’s a physical property marked by its ability to absorb all forms of light. Blackness contains every hue, but on the surface it looks deceptively cohesive. It's similar, I realize, to how black folks can experience a full range of emotions, but on the surface some people just see unmitigated strength.
Henson’s real lesson for me, I realize, is that taking care of yourself and making it out in one piece isn’t about wholesale rejecting the concept of being an unassailable black woman. It’s about exalting in and valuing the myriad ways that softness and support propel us forward. The work, for me, is in learning to cherish and use my sensitivity as much as I’ve learned to value and harness my strength.
“The shit we been through, the fact that we're able to put on a smile and be a friend. Girl, that's [a] superhero,” Henson says, her voice charged with tenderness, laughter, and an indelible confidence that comes when you share a truth that has settled into your bones.
When I ask her to coin another phrase for people like me, like us—deeply sensitive black girls who’ve hardened against their will or been forced to overcome hurdle after exhausting hurdle—she more than delivers.
“I'm a whole black woman, whatever comes with that,” she says. “All the emotions, all of the rage, the anger, the love, the hurt, the hope, the despair, the strength, the vulnerability. I'm all of that.”
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