Jada Pinkett Smith has always been a one-of-a-kind woman. She’s worn a multitude of hats over the years, from actress and talk show host to rock star and mom. Her latest hat is author, and in her new memoir, Worthy, you get to learn that there are so many more layers to the star than what she’s divulged in the past, including on her former Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk, which was known for being a place people could gather to tell their unfiltered truths. As she would explain to me, even that circular platform came with its limitations.
“I get to give context and history in ways that that particular platform, I just didn’t have the time,” Pinkett Smith tells ESSENCE. “Imagine me sitting down trying to explain my relationship with Tupac at the Red Table. It’s just not the same versus having the written word and being in an intimate space with my voice. And now I really get to express a lot of things that I really wanted to at the Red Table, but I just didn’t know how to do that without giving you guys the history. And it’s just so much history to know about me for it all to make sense.”
That history includes growing up in Baltimore, selling drugs to make a good life for herself as her parents battled with drug addiction. It entails intense bouts of depression. It involves a long, winding relationship with Will Smith, falling for him at the time that his first marriage was ending and building a life with him that within 20 years would see them living separate lives while still shirking the idea of divorce. And it involves the path forward after a slap seen ’round the world.
In Worthy, Pinkett Smith speaks on it all, now that she has the space and proper platform to do so. She does this not for others to give her a break from the barrage of criticism that’s been aimed at her, but because she wants to help women like herself.
In preparation for Worthy’s release, Pinkett Smith talked to us in September about how the book came to fruition, the impactful relationships with the iconic people in it, making peace with the past, the “holy slap,” and why she’s not offended by the stories the public spins about her. Here’s what she had to say.
ESSENCE: As someone who, we find out, is so well-read and has had the chance to meet and have friendships with prolific authors, do you have a favorite writer now that you’ve stepped into this realm of being an author yourself?
Jada Pinkett Smith: Oh, man. There’s so many authors that I just love. I mean, bell hooks is one. But there’s so many. I could never say I have one favorite author. There’s a lot of authors that I really love, and writing is so… I mean, it’s so difficult. This was one of the most difficult things for me to take on. I have so much respect. And it’s a really lonely space. But yeah, there’s so many writers I admire. But I’d have to say bell hooks is definitely on the top of my list.
And why was it important for you to not only share your journey through this book, but simultaneously take back your narrative? I know over the years, obviously social media, with the creation of that, people create and spin narratives. So why was it important for you to be able to do this in this way and share your narrative from your mouth?
I was just thinking, the day that I’m gone, I don’t want my kids to have to defend me. You know what I mean? I don’t want my kids to have to tell that story, which they would’ve eventually had to do. And I didn’t write the book for that necessarily. It was just that wanting to really share my journey just for others that are going through similar difficulties. I mean, all of us are dealing with challenges in our life, right?
And so [it was about] really wanting to share my journey just to leave little breadcrumbs for those who are on their journey along the way. But I also thought about my kids and I was like, I don’t want them to have to really… I didn’t want to leave them with that job.
I love that. And were there any aspects of your story that were particularly maybe difficult to share or have you, through your spiritual journey, made peace with the past that you’ve walked and the things that you’ve experienced?
What’s so funny is that it’s funny when you’ve made peace with pieces, but then when you see all those pieces put together, it has a different level of intensity, right? And having to relive it all at once has a different level of intensity and it brings up new stuff.
So I would say that the journey itself was difficult. All of it was challenging, starting from even having to rehash and revisit what my grandmother went through, and thinking about what her mother went through being put in an insane asylum and left there, and just thinking about all of the generational trauma from my great-grandmother to my grandmothers to my mother and father down to me, and then being in the journey with my own children. So just looking at it from a generational standpoint and being able to connect so many dots was just like, whoa. It was a little overwhelming.
And speaking of things that you experienced that could be overwhelming but that you kind of worked through, I wanted to ask you, at the end of the book, were you surprised by how impactful, you call it the “holy slap,” by how impactful the Oscar slap and that situation and the “holy joke” was to not only the path forward in your relationship with Will and how you saw him, but also in loving yourself through so many misunderstandings and lies and scrutiny that was out there at that time?
Yeah. The Great Supreme works in the most mysterious ways. You know what I mean? Extreme situations can either amplify love or seriously deteriorate it. And I’m just grateful that as difficult, as challenging as that whole time has been, how it has brought us closer together as a family and has brought Will and I closer. And it’s definitely just reiterated or helped me just really solidify myself on my own two feet, in my own skin, and really be able to walk in knowingness of who I am, no matter what false narratives might be out there, and false perceptions.
And really recognizing that old saying that what people think about you ain’t your business. You know what I mean? Because when you are walking with your truth, and then I had to be with all the false narratives and ideas of me, how I got so comfortable being in the midst of all of that because I was so clear about who I am and who I’m not.
And so it was just yet another beautiful test of the Great Supreme for me to really get solid in my own recognition of self-love and self-worth. And really not needing it. The whole idea is just not to need it from any other source but you and your Great Supreme.
Because at the end of the day, that’s what you have. Because the outside world is very fickle, especially these days. We can’t depend on the validation of others. We can’t depend on that. It’s nice to have, but even when you have it and you don’t have it for yourself, it’s fleeting. But self-love is eternal.
Hence the title of the book. And as a segue though, I’ve always wondered, do public figures know about these narratives that people are concocting?
Over the years of being famous and starting your career in the late eighties, early nineties, what have you thought about these really just random stories and opinions that people have had regarding you, how you raise your children, your relationship, even your friendship with Tupac? What have you really sat and thought about these kind of conversations that people have had about your business?
That’s part of it. It’s like you can’t expect to be in the public eye and your life not be of interest. That’s just part of it. And being misunderstood is part of it. I mean, we all feel misunderstood in our lives, and so I just recognize that being in the public eye might feel as though what everybody’s going through is amplified on a certain level. But it’s the same thing we all go through. You know what I mean? People having misunderstandings and thinking that they know, or having fun in creating what they think might be going on.
And in knowing that, as I talk about in the book, I have to take responsibility for some of those false narratives out there and how I’ve participated in the distribution of a false narrative that actually contributed to other false narratives. So I also have to take responsibility for my part and just understand that it’s just part of human nature. And it’s actually nothing to take personally. It really isn’t. And I understand it.
That’s so mature. You also made some incredible friendships in the book. There’s Ruby Dee, Debbie Allen, so many relationships. But obviously one of the most prolific was your friendship with Tupac. And I know in the book you mentioned there were maybe guys you might’ve dated who were intimidated by that friendship, and moments maybe when he was in jail, where there were people who told you you need to separate yourself from that friendship. What has always made the connection that you guys started so long ago when you were young, what has made that relationship and protecting it, so important for you?
That’s been one relationship that I’ve kept close to the chest, which is why I understand why people have misunderstood that relationship, because I’ve never really talked about it in depth, and Tupac never had an opportunity to either really, I mean, to really explain what our history had been.
And I think the factor between he and I is that we always were able to show up for one another. There was such a loyalty between us that we just knew how to stand beside one another and without batting an eye in the most difficult times. And I think that our lives were always on a parallel line.
We were raised by single moms who had substance abuse issues. We both then came to California and our careers kind of took off at the same time. So the challenges and the struggles that we had within that, we had each other to lean on. We could always show up for each other. And mind you, that was really important because the people around us didn’t really understand what we were going through. And so once again, we had each other to lean on through all the different challenges that just life brought.
So we just knew how to show up for each other, and it just made for a really dope friendship.
That’s beautiful. And was writing Worthy, I know you mentioned that it could be lonely at times writing this book, but was this work an effort to do? Was it also cathartic in any way for you?
Oh, for sure, for sure. Very cathartic. I’ve been holding on to a lot. And I have to say, just kind of letting it go feels good, and being able to let it go in such a healing space. There’s been so much healing going on in the Smith household between Will and I, and just the family as a whole. And so it just seemed like it was just the perfect time. There’s been so much growth and expansion within our unit. This all just coincided with what was happening in my inner world at the time.
And how long has this book been in the works with you saying that?
I started shopping the book December 2021, and I started writing top of March. March 2022 is when I started.
As I just began, the whole Oscar thing happened and I was like, oh, you got to be kidding me.
Perfect time [laughs].
Yeah. I was just like, wow, this is crazy.
Nice. And my last question for you is, what is maybe the biggest thing that you learned about yourself in the journey of creating this book and kind of going back over this magnificent, complicated, colorful, enduring life that you’ve lived thus far?
I was really proud of myself, of how much I’d been able to overcome. You know what I mean? And just how much I’ve grown and how much I’ve matured. And I think being able to look at it all and embrace it all and accept it all, and just really look at my entire life. Like you just said, you just had the most beautiful adjectives, just colorful and just the level of perseverance. And I’ve been able to experience so many things on each spectrum from not so great to the most beautiful and it’s all been part of just a magnificent journey. Just really, really being grateful. And I think being able to see my life on paper in that way is just giving me the deepest gratitude.
Worthy is now available wherever books are sold.