I am not a supporter of affirmative action because of the negative associations it carries. Despite being a brilliant student, being part of a group associated with “quota” often leads to feeling like an outsider. However, imagine a child growing up in a ghetto without any dreams.
This child lives in a small and dilapidated apartment, infested with rats, and without electricity or warm water. The pipes often freeze, leaving her and her six siblings without water for days. Due to her dirty appearance, she is treated as an outcast even at school, where dreams are supposed to be nurtured. Then one day, she sees someone on television who looks like her.
This woman on the television has a beautiful appearance, with a long neck, dark skin, high cheekbones, thick lips, and a clean, short Afro. This sighting opens a new door for the child, blasting away the shame, pain, fear, and confusion she has experienced. It feels like a guiding hand, showing her a way out.
This was the life of Viola Davis, one of the most respected actors of her generation and possibly any other. This is not a call for affirmative action, but rather to demonstrate the power of seeing someone we identify with achieving extraordinary things. Viola Davis’ life is proof that even the most disadvantaged children can succeed. Viola has received numerous accolades and is one of the few performers to achieve the prestigious EGOT status, having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. She is the only African-American to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting and the third person overall. She has won awards not only in cinema but also in theater and television. In 2012 and 2017, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2020, The New York Times ranked her ninth on its list of the greatest actors of the 21st century.
However, her journey was difficult. In her poignant memoir, “Finding Me,” written in 2022, which I finished reading this morning, she lays her entire story bare. It is a story of poverty, with her and her sisters rummaging through garbage dumps to find something to eat. It is a story of abuse, with her father, often intoxicated, violently beating her mother. It’s a story of discrimination. Wait, is it racism when people of your race think you are not good enough for some roles? She felt doubt when those she felt understood the struggle gossiped that she was not female enough, sexy enough, beautiful enough, black enough to take on certain roles in Hollywood. Definitely not she was announced as the lead cast in How to Get Away with Murder.
As I listened to the audiobook, my jaw dropped multiple times. There are biographies, and then there are biographies. Of course, I am not naive to accept that she revealed everything there is to reveal. As with writing, she would probably read the book tomorrow and feel she’s omitted something. Such is the way of writing. But some of the things she revealed in the book about herself could better be described as ‘putting your soul on the floor’. She discusses the sexual abuse by her own brother, the pregnancy she terminated, and the instances of racism she encountered. It is raw, honest, courageous, and vulnerable. It is deeply moving and touching.
You need to read the book to truly understand. The story she shares in the first chapter about her encounter with a boy made me pause my evening walk and reflect. Her experiences at school, with teachers, and particularly what happened at 128 were shocking. How could a child endure such circumstances? To me, it is a condemnation of the American system. This wasn’t happening in the 1850s or even the 1900s but in the 1970s. While I know that Blacks like Walter Williams and Jason Riley have extensively written on these issues, and Viola might not necessarily agree with their perspectives, there needs to be a bipartisan agreement to ensure that young girls never have to endure what Viola experienced.
It’s a remarkable biography, trust me. You will learn a great deal from it. Now, I must revisit her body of work and watch her movies again, starting with “Doubt.”