Guideposts' February 2017 cover star shares how she overcame fear and failure to live her God-given purpose.
Posted in , Jan 5, 2017
I am no mathematician. That you can count on. I actually flunked math in college when, in a misguided effort to become someone I was not, I declared electrical engineering as my major. Me, an engineer? What was I thinking? But that failure led me to pursue my real calling, acting, and because of it I appear as a brilliant mathematician in the (Academy Award-nominated) film Hidden Figures. I play one of the masterminds behind the early Mercury and Apollo space flights, an extraordinary woman at an extraordinary time.
But before I get to her, a little about me. I grew up in southeast Washington, D.C., in a rough neighborhood. It was me and my mom against the world, and what a tough world it was. She worked long days at a department store. A trip to McDonald’s was a luxury! I can still see Mom hunched over a stack of bills at the kitchen table, rubbing her temples, the words Final Notice and Past Due written in red block letters. I remember tiptoeing up to her in my pajamas, trying to comfort her: “Don’t cry about money, Mommy. I’m going to be rich one day.”
I was lucky that my dad stayed in my life no matter what he was going through, and I always knew how much he loved me. Daddy was a Vietnam vet. He made decent money as a metal fabricator installing bars on windows through metro D.C. But as for so many Vietnam vets, his psychological war wounds went untreated. He battled his demons, turning too often to the bottle. Mom had to kick him out. The economy went south, and there were times he couldn’t pay his rent and had to live in his van. “What about all your things?” I asked him when he lost his apartment and everything that was in it. He had so little to lose.
He cupped my face and looked me in the eye. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “That’s just material stuff. What matters is I’m alive. I’m free.” Even during those hard times he would pick me up from school and spend part of his day with me. He eventually got his life together. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.
During the summer, Mom sent me down to North Carolina to live with her parents, former sharecroppers. It was a break for Mom. Not so much for me, an urban kid used to the stimulation of the city. I almost died of boredom. I’d turn to my imagination. A branch in my hand became an explorer’s walking stick, a huge rock would be a dinosaur’s toe. At dusk I’d chase fireflies, cupping them in my hands like diamonds.
Upstairs, in what had been my aunt Glenda’s bedroom, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror and sing into a makeshift microphone, imagining I was on Soul Train. Or I was Lucille Ball in one of her TV sketches, rolling up my pants, stepping into a barrel of grapes and feeling the disgusting squish of the fruit between my toes. I wanted to be an actress more than anything.
Back in D.C., I took an acting class at the Kennedy Center, paid for by my father’s older sister and my godmother Brenda. It took a village to get me up on that stage, but only a few magical seconds for me to fall in love with everything about being there. Yet falling in love can make you insecure. Does the theater love me as much as I love it? What if I’m not good enough? My father was my biggest cheerleader, like a corner man hyping up a prizefighter. “Taraji, you already got the glory. You’ve already collected your Oscar. You’re the greatest actor alive.” If I ever felt like I wasn’t going to make it, I could turn to him. “Fear is a liar,” he’d say. “Make a point of calling its bluff.”
Was it fear of failure that made me decide to major in engineering? I’d already failed to get into my first choice, Howard University, with its prestigious theater department—I bombed out in my audition. So I chose North Carolina A&T. My first semester, with my bad marks in precalculus, and my self-esteem reeling, it was Daddy who set me straight. I was sure he was going to blow up when I told him how badly I was doing. Far from it. “Good,” he said. “You had to fall on your face to see that’s not what God intends for you.”
I moved home, got a job as a secretary at the Pentagon and a second job performing on a ship that entertained tourists on the Potomac River. If I’d learned anything from my mom, it was the value of hard work. I was never afraid to hustle. I applied to Howard again and got in—world, watch out! Who knew there’d be more challenges?
My nemesis at Howard turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life, my acting teacher, Professor Vera Katz, with her shock of red hair and raspy voice. “Go deeper,” she’d implore me, interrupting my monologues in class, chastising me for being showy and superficial. “Think about your character and who she is. What happened to her before this scene? Make me believe you.” She was hard on me. Some days I pushed back. But every class I learned more about what it meant to bring a character to life.
At an awards ceremony I hosted not so long ago, I had the opportunity to thank Professor Katz directly: “You are a huge reason why I’m successful in this difficult business. You challenged me to be a thinker, to always stay alive and be in the moment. To respect the craft. To honor the audience.”
Successful? It didn’t look like that for a long, long time. Sometimes all I had to go on was faith.
While still at Howard I fell in love with a guy, the wrong guy, and did all I could to make it work. The truth was, we didn’t stand a chance. We were so young. He was stylish and different with a hint of danger to him. He hated school and wasn’t up for juggling classes and work. Without a college education, his employment options were limited, and even when he did get hold of a decent job, at Washington National Airport, he barely made ends meet. “You’re better than me,” he said one night. “You need to leave me alone.” His words were a punch in the gut. How could he say that? Didn’t love make everything right?
We were together long enough to have a child—my son, Marcell—and then the whole thing blew up. The father of my child was out of my life, but what kind of life would it be now? I still believed what Daddy told me—God had a plan for me. Had I let God down? I would just have to be like my mother, a single mom, the two of us against the world.
After graduation I didn’t do much acting. I was working hard to pay the bills. My father, who always saw bigger things for me, even when I didn’t see them, finally asked, “What are you still doing here?” I was feeding Marcell at home before my evening shift. “Didn’t you graduate with a degree in acting?” he said. “Ain’t no acting jobs here. How you expect to catch fish on dry land?”
My father had been through so much. Maybe he’d felt trapped after Vietnam. Maybe he didn’t want me to be trapped. Maybe my dreams had become his dreams.
So pretty soon I had a one-way ticket to L.A., where I moved in with a cousin, bought an old Nissan Sentra, put Marcell in the back, and didn’t have any qualms about showing up for auditions in a car littered with Cheerios, Goldfish crackers and toys. There were plenty of people to discourage me, but their words were like gallons of high-grade gasoline adding fuel to my fire. I had faith in God and figured I just had to try harder waiting for the tide to turn in my favor. Daddy was right. Fear is a liar. Time and again I called its bluff.
I managed to get an agent, doing two monologues in his office, using every skill I’d learned from Professor Katz. “You were great, kid,” he said.
“Did I knock your socks off?”
“Yes, you did,” he said. Then he reached down, unlaced his shoes and gave me his socks. I’m not kidding! I still have those olive-green socks.
Faith always pays off. I’ve been a working actor ever since, which is an incredible blessing. Daddy was right. I had to fail at math in order to get to a place where I was asked to play Katherine Johnson in the movie Hidden Figures. She was a mathematician, a “human computer,” hired by NASA in the days when black women at the agency worked in a separate space from their white counterparts and had to use segregated bathrooms and dining facilities. That didn’t prevent Mrs. Johnson from being called on, again and again, to make the calculations necessary for the earliest days of space travel. NASA trusted and relied on her. When John Glenn was circling the earth or when the Apollo astronauts were getting ready to go to the moon, she helped make it possible. Fearless.
I got to visit Mrs. Johnson in Virginia when we were preparing for the film. She’s 98 now. What I liked best about her was her team spirit. Whenever I spoke about some of the things she did, she would always turn to the plural—what we did. She was precocious, a math whiz from a young age, and she told a story about her grade school teacher complaining, “Katherine, I’m tired of you asking questions that I know you know the answers to.” “Well,” Katherine responded, “I know these six people around me don’t know, so I want them to understand it the way I do.” Teamwork. Like a cast. Math and acting—not so different after all.
Here’s one calculation I know: The odds were stacked against me from birth, but they don’t count for much in the face of faith and hard work and fearlessness. Fear is a liar. Call its bluff.
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