Finding Me: Viola Davis (book review)

Viola Davis is a wonderful actor. If you’ve seen her in The Help, Doubt, How to Get Away With Murder, Fences or any of her other acting roles, you already know how talented Davis is.

This is a difficult, although highly rewarding book. Davis is blunt, direct and does not hold back. Her early life was one of poverty, abuse, racism and exclusion. It is miraculous that Davis survived her own life, but she did because her will to succeed was stronger than the weight of the challenges.

Davis’ childhood in Rhode Island could have been that of a child in a third world country. Rats, no heat, no telephone, food insecurity, danger, violence, substandard housing – here in America.

Now a Hollywood star, a slew of awards, big earner, large house – life is good. Still, the Rhode Island neighborhood and family crises constantly reach out and grab at her. It was those struggles and that environment that made her the acting and personal success she became. She lived the struggles and drew on the experiences that would shine through her work. A Julliard graduate, Davis used her emerging talent to move beyond those times, but never forgetting them. Success is not a measure of happiness or understanding life’s meaning. Success can be a veneer we build over unresolved issues that we can afford to keep at a safe distance.

Oprah selected this Finding Me for her book club and many other tributes have been bestowed on the book.

Here are some excerpts from Finding Me because Davis’ own words best describe both the book and her incredible journey.

“When I was onstage, I could ingest the applause, audience member tears and words saying they were so moved and they never saw a performance like that before. It gave me temporary self-love from the outside. But it would soon wear off because self-love from the outside, by definition, really isn’t self-love. So I quickly went back to my ordinary world where I felt awkward. I could handle my quirkiness, pain, shyness when I could put it all in my character. It would be accepted in
a way that made me feel even more awkward and not accepted in my real life.”

Juilliard proved to be a transformative opportunity for Davis, as as actor, but even more importantly for own being.

“I was about to go into the belly of the beast. Juilliard was about to rip apart my world. I would come face-to-face not with God, but with me. Juilliard forced me to understand the power of my Blackness. I spent so much of my childhood defending it, being ridiculed for it. I was always on the outside of Juilliard because I wasn’t on the inside of me. I was fighting an ideology about what an actor was, and it was all born in the depth of white superiority. The notion of ‘the classics’ being the basis for everything. Yet I was in the land of the
classics. In Africa, there is the equivalent of every ‘classical’ instrument known to man and it predates any European instrument.”

“My biggest discovery was that you can literally recreate your life. You can redefine it. You don’t have to live in the past. I found that not only did I have fight in me, I had love.”

As her daddy neared death, she better understood what he was to her. Full of rage, alcohol and violence, he changed abruptly and permanently later in life, somehow letting go or coming to grips with his life. A fifth grade education, forever struggling to provide for his family, and whatever dreams long ago abandoned.

“What became apparent to me as he was dying was that we were his dream; his children and grandchildren were his dream. For a whole generation of Black people we were the dream. We were their hope. We were the baton they were passing as they were sinking
into the quicksand of racism, poverty, Jim Crow, segregation, injustice, family trauma, and dysfunction.”

Davis struggled with her own self image of being Black, especially a dark-skinned Black. The perceptions and treatment of others had great challenges as an actor, especially being a dark-skinned Black woman.

“What made it worse is that it’s not just presented by white executives, but also Black artists and producers. You begin to adopt the ideology of the ‘oppressor.’ It becomes the key to success. Culturally speaking, many believe it and they have adopted the belief that if you are dark, you’re uglier, harder, more masculine, more maternal than your lighter-skinned counterparts. It’s the paper bag test mentality that many still refuse to believe.”

Davis felt the racial divide, not just as a Black woman in a predominantly White entertainment business, but as a dark-skinned Black woman compared to lighter-skinned Black women. Even Black producers and directors engaged in this prejudice.

“It is a widely held belief that dark-skinned women just don’t do it for a lot of Black men. It’s a mentality rooted in both racism and misogyny, that you have no value as a woman if you do not turn them on, if you are not desirable to them. It’s ingrained thinking, dictated by oppression.”

Davis forever saw herself as the eight-year old girl, scared and facing insurmountable challenges, the biggest ones inside of herself. We have to learn to accept ourselves, forgive ourselves and most importantly, to love ourselves.

“The eight-year-old girl who had never been told ‘You’re worthy; you’re beautiful’ suddenly found herself as a leading lady, and a mouthpiece for all the women who looked like her. I had no weapons to slay those naysayers, to change culture itself. The obstacle
blocking me was a four-hundred-year-old racist system of oppression and my own feeling of utter aloneness. My art, in this instance, was the best healing tool to
resolve my past, the best weapon that I had to conquer my present, and my gift to the future.”

Shame is a heavy load to carry through life.

“I’m no longer ashamed of me. I own everything that has ever happened to me.”

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