WASHINGTON –Taraji P. Henson, award-winning actress and Howard University College of Fine Arts alumna who graduated in 1995 with her baby boy in her hands, returned on May 7 as the commencement speaker. Henson was conferred an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, just before delivering remarks.
I would like to take this moment to reintroduce myself: My name is Dr. Taraji Penda Henson, Howard class of 1995.
This year, Howard University awarded 1,953 degrees, including 1,225 undergraduate degrees and 711 graduate degrees. Reinforcing its status as a preeminent research institution, Howard also bestowed 85 research doctorates, including 58 Ph.D. degrees. Graduates represented 43 states and 22 countries.
Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick hailed the graduating class for withstanding a global pandemic, cyberattacks, bomb threats, and a nation-wide U.S. racial justice awakening.
“The challenges you faced over the course of your Howard careers brought out the very best in you,” Dr. Frederick said. “You encountered disruption and responded with determination. You met uncertainty and countered that with resilience. You endured personal loss and struggle and answered with selflessness and service to others.”
Chairman of the Howard University Board of Trustees Lawrence C. Morse also applauded the class for persevering through struggles, and for ultimately earning their diplomas.
“Whether the challenges you faced were natural phenomena or concerted efforts to derail your education, you would not be deterred from your path,” Morse said. “You continued to walk forward at a determined and decisive pace until you reached this celebrated day.”
Alongside Henson, 2022 Howard University honorary degree recipients included renowned public historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Ph.D.; Robert L. Lumpkins, trustee emeritus of the Howard University Board of Trustees and a past vice chairman; Stacey J. Mobley, Esq., distinguished Howard alumnus and chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees; and Jonelle Procope, president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater.
In her address, Henson shared intimately about her early experiences in Hollywood as a single-mother and an undervalued Black actress. Henson spoke about how she was paid only $100,000 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a $167 million film project. Henson said the role came at a difficult period which included mourning the passing of her father. At the time, she said she “put faith over fear,” researched the role, and readied herself for the auditioning process.
“I had been too well-schooled in auditioning for roles at the Ira Aldridge to not show up or try to phone it in or to not be prepared,” Henson said, referring to the campus theater. “You know I did my homework.
“At the end of the day, I saw $30,000,” Henson said about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” after taxes and payouts. “I was angry. I was disgusted, and I was hurt. But instead of stewing in that negative space, instead of becoming cynical, I decided that I would allow hope not hurt shape my work.”
Henson spoke about how she used all of her energy to build the character Queenie in the movie.
“[Queenie] was three-dimensional. She was emotional. She was no-nonsense. She had a big heart. She loved big even though she was living in the Jim Crow South, barely 50 years after the end of slavery. And in honoring Queenie, I honored all of our ancestors and sheroes who dreamed of a better future for themselves and then led lives of dignity, grace, and determination, so fiercely that it made our present possible.”
For the performance, Henson was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Supporting Actress. Ultimately, Henson said portraying Queenie helped her cope with the loss of her dad – and led to Tyler Perry casting her as the lead in “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”
“Hollywood may not have paid me what my work was worth,” Henson said. “But I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to show the world what the countless Queenies had done and what their sacrifices had meant.”
About Howard University
Founded in 1867, Howard University is a private, research university that is comprised of 14 schools and colleges. Students pursue more than 140 programs of study leading to undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. The University operates with a commitment to Excellence in Truth and Service and has produced one Schwarzman Scholar, three Marshall Scholars, four Rhodes Scholars, 12 Truman Scholars, 25 Pickering Fellows and more than 165 Fulbright recipients. Howard also produces more on-campus African American Ph.D. recipients than any other university in the United States. For more information on Howard University, visit www.howard.edu.
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