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She’s tough, she’s talented. She’s from the block and been around the block.

As an only child who was born to parents who split when she was young, she was named for the Swahili words for love and hope (Taraji Penda), and was raised by her mother in a rough area of southeastern Washington D.C. Her mom, Bernice Gordon, worked in a distribution center for a local department store while her dad, Boris, played another important role in her life.

“We never lived in the projects, but we were in the ‘hood, lower midle class, living paycheck to paycheck,” says Henson.

As a budding teenager in the mid 1980s in D.C., Henson had a front row seat of what would become known as the crack epidemic.

“I remember watching our 13-inch black and white TV, and the newscasters were talking about crack. I saw the destruction happen firsthand in families, on the streets and in the schools. No hope, no jobs. Despair.”

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Celebrity Health: Taraji P. Henson: One Tough Cookie  was originally published on