Haddish shares ‘curses,’ life lessons at book festival

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Entertainers Tiffany Haddish and Kerry Washington were among the many guests appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC April 20 and 21.

Haddish was promoting her third book, a compilation of humorous essays entitled “I Curse You With Joy,” which chronicles the trials and tribulations Haddish experienced as a foster child growing up in Los Angeles, her personal struggles as well as the challenges of being a Black woman in the entertainment industry. 

As a youth, Haddish, 44, harbored a secret she hid from everyone: she could not read.

“I could read cuss words,” she said. “If I saw a word, I could not finish that word for you. I would guess.

“My drama teacher discovered that I could not read,” Haddish added. “My brain was a little different. She would make me come to her office and read newspaper articles and sections of books. 

“She gave me the fundamentals that I needed to read and I’ve been reading ever since. Sometimes you need somebody to show you how to use the tools,” Haddish said.

Haddish broke through in the entertainment world in 2017 with her role as Dina in “Girls Trip.” That led to her hosting “Saturday Night Live,” the first African-American woman comedian to host the show. She won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for that appearance.

The actress spent several years in the county’s foster care system. She broke into tears recalling how she was forced to move from foster home to foster home.

“I was placing my things in trash bags, and that made me feel like garbage,” she said. 

Haddish has become a staunch advocate for foster children and founded the She Ready nonprofit foundation that focuses on the welfare of foster youth, assisting them with housing, internships and life skills.

Haddish also talked about some of the celebrities she has worked with in Hollywood. 

“This famous celebrity and I were working on a project and she invited me up to her room to drink some marijuana tea,” Haddish said. “She started talking about how she wanted me to get arrested with her. This is a white woman.

“I don’t know any Black people who want to volunteer to get arrested,” Haddish said she told the unnamed celebrity. “I remember she said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll both get out (of jail) by tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Yeah, probably you will get out by tomorrow, but I’ll probably be in there for a couple of days. I don’t know if that is going to work for me.”

She also talked about the changes South Los Angeles has experienced over the years.

“When I was growing up there in the 80s and 90s, South L.A. was off the chain,” she said. “It was like the wild wild west. I used to wonder: did I need a bulletproof vest? So I wore a backpack with a lot of books in it.”

A supporter of the slogan “Don’t move, improve,” Haddish said she wanted to be an example to the youth in the community “to let them know that you don’t have to leave (South Los Angeles) — you can make it better.”

“I feel like staying in the community is safer,” she said. “I’m comfortable here. This is home. 

“I used to walk through USC all the time even though I wasn’t a student. I used to run around the track trying to get a football player boyfriend,” she said with a laugh.

Haddish also read from her new children’s book, “Layla, the Last Black Unicorn,” at the children’s stage.

Also talking part in the festival was actress Kerry Washington, who was promoting her memoir, “Thicker than Water.”

Washington said she started writing the memoir after her show “Scandal” ended its six-year run on ABC. 

“When ‘Scandal’ ended, I actually sold an idea for a book but it was about all the things I learned from Olivia Pope because she changed me a lot,” Washington said. “She had a huge impact on me.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Washington said she always felt that there was a dark secret being kept from her.

“Then I got some real life-changing news from my parents who sent me a text message,” she said. “I found out that my dad who raised me is not my biological father. And it was information that my parents were never going to tell me. I was stunned.

“I really didn’t want to write the book to be honest with you, but I realized that I was going to have to write about these deeper truths. I even tried to give the money back [to the publisher], but eventually I decided to try to write the book even if it was just for myself and my kids.

She said her mother got pregnant with the help of a sperm donor.

“My mom asked the doctor, ‘Can he be Black?’ and the doctor said ‘Sure.’ That’s all she knew,” Washington said. “And then when I was a toddler she went back to the doctor’s office and asked him to burn all of the records because she didn’t want anyone to have any record that I was not biologically related to my dad. I started to have compassion for the choices my parents made.

“My dad is my dad and he will always be my dad,” she added. “But there is this other factor in my life —another 50% of my genetics — that is missing that I wanted to be honest about or otherwise I thought I might be lying in the public eye.

“When we keep family secrets, it’s usually because we are so afraid that if it gets revealed that we won’t be loved, that there will be resentment and anger about whatever it is the secret was so that once the weight of the secret lifts, we can be free.

“One of the first impulses that I had was to tell my dad how much I loved him,” Washington said. “That nothing was going to change and that nothing was going to be different. And that really felt like my deepest truth and it still is. 

“Everything has changed, but my love for him hasn’t. Actually, my love and intimacy with my parents actually deepened with this exchange of information.”

Washington named the book “Thicker than Water” because she is an avid swimmer. 

“I like to talk about my love for water and my love for swimming,” she said. “Even to this day, I am more comfortable in water than I am on land.

But I know this fact is important to share because I know in particular in the Black community that there are a lot of us who are afraid of water because we don’t know how to swim. The number of children that we lose every year to drowning in the Black community is astounding.”

Another incident Washington reveals in the book was that she was a victim of sexual assault.

She said she attended sleepovers where a boy in the house would creep into her room.

“This sexual assault was happening at night,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening and when I approached the person who was doing it he told me that it was in my imagination, that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I was crazy.

“And that became a framework that I found myself fighting against a lot of my life,” she added. “If I had an intuitive thought about something, there was another thread in my brain that said ‘You’re crazy you don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s not really true.’

“I spent a lot of my life trying to beat back the messaging that I didn’t know my own truth.”

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.