Finding joy can feel like a monumental task after living through a year of instability, illness, racism, and fear. But for Taraji P. Henson, the 2021 Harvard Foundation’s Artist of the Year, joy is a necessity even in the darkest times.
“That’s all we have,” she said, speaking during an online ceremony honoring her work in entertainment, business, and advocacy Thursday. For marginalized people, she emphasized, “when you have nothing, all you have is joy, [and] you better tap into it.”
Henson’s appearance marked the culmination of this year’s Cultural Rhythms festivities — the annual show celebrating the diversity of Harvard College’s student body — and her focus on finding happiness and truth in all areas of life mirrored the celebration’s theme: “Acts of Healing: Speaking Truth and Sparking Joy.”
Henson is best known for her starring roles in films like “Hidden Figures” and television shows like “Empire.” She spoke with student moderators Joy Nesbitt ’21 and Arielle Corbin-Contreras, Ed.M. ’21, about lessons learned as an actor, director, and producer, like supporting other Black women in the industry and pushing for more diverse stories to be told onscreen. When she began acting in the 1990s, she was one of a few Black women booking A-list roles in a cutthroat and discriminatory environment. Rather than look to her peers as competition, she said, she endeavored to carve a path for herself.
“I didn’t want to be the only one, because I’m not the only Black story to tell. I’m not the only Black female story to tell,” she said. “We need all of us telling stories. That’s what representation is. It’s diverse, even in its Blackness.”