Taraji Penda Henson was born September 11, 1970 in Southeast Washington, D.C., the daughter of Bernice (née Gordon), a corporate manager at Woodward & Lothrop, and Boris Lawrence Henson, a janitor and metal fabricator. Henson has often spoken of the influence of her maternal grandmother, Patsy Ballard, who was her date to the Academy Awards the year she was nominated. Her first and middle names are of Swahili origin, with “Taraji” meaning hope and “Penda” meaning love. According to a mitochondrial DNA analysis, her matrilineal lineage can be traced to the Masa people of Cameroon. She has said that North Pole explorer Matthew Henson is “the brother of my great-great grandfather.
Henson graduated from Oxon Hill High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, in 1988. She then attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University where she studied electrical engineering before transferring to Howard University to study drama. To pay for college, she worked mornings as a secretary at The Pentagon and evenings as a singing-dancing waitress on a dinner-cruise ship, the Spirit of Washington.
Taraji began her Hollywood career in guest-roles on several television shows before making her breakthrough in Baby Boy (2001) which she portrayed Yvette, alongside singer Tyrese Gibson and Snoop Dogg. She received praise for playing a prostitute in Hustle & Flow (2005) as Shug, the love interest of Terrence Howard, who portrayed the male lead DJay. The film was nominated for two Academy awards, winning one. And as a single mother in David Fincher‘s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) she appeared opposite Brad Pitt as Queenie, Benjamin’s mother, in a performance that led to an Academy award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She noted in an interview that, “Queenie is the embodiment of unconditional love.” She appeared in the comedy Date Night and co-starred in the remake of The Karate Kid, the film was a commercial success. Henson was also in Tyler Perry films The Family That Preys in 2008 and I Can Do Bad All By Myself in 2009.
Henson has featured as a regular cast member on television series such as The Division, Boston Legal and Eli Stone. From 2011 to 2013, she co-starred as Detective Jocelyn Carter in the CBS drama Person of Interest, for which she won an NAACP Image Award. Henson went on to star in the ensemble film Think Like a Man (2012) and its 2014 sequel. From 2015 onward, she began starring as Cookie Lyon on the Fox drama series Empire, for which she became the first African American woman to win a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series. She also won a Golden Globe Award, and was nominated for two Emmy Awards.
In 2016, Time named Henson one of the 100 most influential people in the world on the annual Time 100 list. Henson also released a New York Times best selling autobiography titled Around the Way Girl. Also that year, she received praise for her starring role as Katherine Johnson in the critically acclaimed drama film Hidden Figures, for which she won a SAG Award for Best Cast.
In 1994, Henson became pregnant and gave birth to her son Marcell. His father, her high-school sweetheart, William Lamar Johnson, was murdered in 2003.
In 2014, Henson said her son had been racially profiled by police and that his car had been illegally searched during a traffic stop that October 18 in Glendale, California. A video obtained by the Los Angeles Times showed Marcell had driven through a lighted crosswalk while a pedestrian was crossing, given verbal consent to search his vehicle, and admitted to smoking marijuana two hours before driving. Hashish oil and marijuana were found inside his car. Forty minutes after the video was made public, Henson said in an Instagram message, “I would like to publicly apologize to the officer and the Glendale Police Department. A mother’s job is not easy and neither is a police officer’s.
A supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Henson in January 2011 appeared nude in an ad for the I’d Rather Be Naked Than Wear Fur campaign. Henson joined PETA again for a 2013 campaign stating “Be an Angel for Animals”. In the ad Henson poses with her family dog Uncle Willie. The ad highlights the issue that, “Chained dogs suffer day in and day out. They are cold, hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, and lonely. Keep them inside, where it’s safe and warm.”
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