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Finding Me: A Memoir

Finding Me: A Memoir PDF

Author: Viola Davis

Publisher: HarperOne


Publish Date: April 26, 2022

ISBN-10: 0063037327

Pages: 304

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Cocksucker motherfucker” was my favorite expression and at eight years old, I used it defiantly. I was a spunky, sassy mess and when I spewed that expression, one hand would be on my hip, my middle finger in vast display, and maybe my tongue would be sticking out. If the situation was especially sticky, as backup I would call upon my big sister Anita. She instilled fear in every boy, girl, woman, man, and dog in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She grew her nails to be a better fighter. She was tough, stylish, talented, and well . . . angry. “I’ll get my sister Anita to beat yo’ ass,” I’d say with confidence. But her being three years older than me, she wasn’t readily available to protect me.

While Anita was the fashionista fighter who was as loved and adored as she was feared, I was none of those things. I was the ride-or-die friend, competitive but shy. When I won spelling contests, I would flaunt my gold star to everyone I saw. It was my way of reminding you of who the hell I was.

In the third grade, I challenged the fastest boy at Hunt Street School, in Central Falls, to a race at recess. It was the dead of winter and everyone showed up. I had my crew, which was mostly girls, and he had his, which was, well, everybody else. My shoes were two sizes too small and my socks were torn—the part that was supposed to cover my toes. So I took them off and gave them to my friend Rosie who said to me, “Beat his ass!”

I didn’t beat him. We tied, which was great for ole underdog me, but humiliating for him. It was bedlam after that. Every kid in the schoolyard started chanting, “Rematch! Rematch!” “C’mon, Chris; you can’t let that girl beat you!” I peeked at them in a huddle, laughing, staring at me, whispering, “You can’t let that nigga beat you!”

When the teachers heard the commotion and saw my bare feet, I had to stand in the corner. In shame. As if I had done something wrong. Why all the vitriol? I was being bullied constantly. This was one more piece of trauma I was experiencing—my clothes, my hair, my hunger, too—and my home life being the big daddy of them all. The attitude, anger, and competitiveness were my only weapons. My arsenal. And when I tell you I needed every tool of that arsenal every day, I’m not exaggerating.

At the end of each school day, we had to get in line at the back door and wait until the final bell rang. The teacher would open the door, and everyone would dash out to go home. Everyone would get excited because it was the end of the day. Everyone, except me. As much as I could, I would push and shove my classmates, almost clawing my way to the front of the line, not caring in the least if they got pissed at me, because when that bell rang, I had to start running. I had to escape.

A boy in my class who was Cape Verdean, from the Cape Verde Isles off the coast of West Africa, was Black and Portuguese and as Black as I was. But he didn’t want to be associated with African Americans, a mindset I later learned was very common among Cape Verdeans in Central Falls. More often than not, they self-identified as Portuguese. They would kill you if you called them Black.

So my “Portuguese” classmate and eight or nine white boys in my class made it their daily, end-of-school ritual to chase me like dogs hunting prey. When that end-of-school bell rang, it was off to the races, running literally to save my life. For the gang of boys, it was sadistic-fun time. Every day it was the same madness. The same trauma. Me, taking off like Wilma Rudolph or Flo-Jo, and them tight on my heels.

While chasing me down, they would pick up anything they could find on the side of the road to throw at me: rocks, bricks, tree branches, batteries, pine cones, and anything else their devious eyes spied. But running me down and throwing projectiles at me wasn’t enough for them. Their vitriolic screams were aimed at the target of their hate. They threw, “You ugly, Black nigger. You’re so fucking ugly. Fuck you!”

Thank God I was fast. I had to run my ass off down Eben Brown Lane, the route I would take because it was a shortcut to get home, an idyllic road that looked like a scene from The Brady Bunch. At times, the boys would hide behind houses on that street and I would have to duck and dodge and crisscross. I was being hunted. By the time I got home, I was a snot-dripping, crying mess . . . every day.

One day after a snowstorm the snow was piled so high in the streets anyone could hide behind the giant mounds that seemed to be everywhere. My shoes had huge holes on the bottoms, which meant I couldn’t run fast in them because they would make my feet hurt worse than they did already. Because of this, during my daily runs for my life, I would usually take my shoes off, hold them in my hands, and run in bare feet. But with mountains of snow everywhere, I couldn’t this time.

As a result, they caught me. And when they did, they held my arms back and took me to their leader, the Cape Verdean boy. I don’t mention names because, well . . . their race is way more important in telling this story.

“She’s ugly! Black fucking nigger,” he said.

My heart was beating so fast. I kept silently praying for someone to come and save me.

And the other voices sounded around me, “What should we do with her?” “Yeah!” “You’re, you’re, you’re fucking ugly!” “You’re ugly!” “You’re ugly!”

“I don’t know why you’re saying that to me,” I pleaded to the ringleader, the Portuguese boy. “You’re Black, too!”

And when I said that, everyone froze and fell deathly silent. For a split second, we were all in a movie, as all the now silent white boys looked at the Portuguese boy, eager to respond to anything he said.

“You’re Black, too.” I yelled it this time, calling him by name. The gang remained silent. So quiet.

He looked and looked and looked from one white boy to another, frightened and struggling to find a way to hide the truth of what I had just said. The kind of truth that’s rooted in a self-hate that we would rather take to our graves. Finally, he screamed in intense anger, “Don’t you ever call me fucking Black! I’m not Black! I’m Portuguese!!!” And he punched me in the arm, really hard. He looked down, ashamed at being called out. As if I exposed the ugliest, most painful truth.

“Get outta my face!” Then they threw me in the snow and kicked snow on me. My arm stiffened. It was in pain. I walked home, completely humiliated.

The next day I didn’t want to go to school. My mom was doing the laundry in one of those old washing machines where you had to pull the clothes through the wringer.

“What’s wrong with you,” she asked.

“Mama, those boys want to kill me! They chase me every day after school.” After keeping it from her for months, I finally told her about my ongoing daily trauma.

“Vahla”—the southern pronunciation of my name—“don’ you run from those bastards anymore. You hear me? Soon as that bell rings you WALK home! They mess with you, you jug ’em.”

“Jug” is country for “stab.” But if you know what a crochet needle looks like, my mom was actually being ethical. They are not sharp at all! She gave me a crochet needle and told me to keep it in my pocket. It was her shiny blue one.

“Don’t come back here crying ’bout those boys or I’ll wop yo’ ass.” She meant it. This was a woman with six kids. She didn’t have time to go to school every day and fight our battles. She absolutely needed me to know how to defend myself. Even if she had to threaten me into doing it.

The next day, it took every bone, muscle, and cell in my body to walk after that bell rang. I could hear the voices of the boys behind me. I could feel their rage. The hate. But I walked extra slow. So slow I barely moved. My fingers were wrapped around that shiny blue crochet needle in my pocket. The voices got louder and closer. Finally, I felt one grab my arm violently, and an anger, a finality, an exhaustion came over me. I whispered, “If you don’t get your hands off me, I’ll jug you.” He looked at me terrified, searching my face to see if I meant it. I did. He let me go and the rest of them walked away laughing. The ritual of chasing the nappy-headed Black girl had suddenly lost its luster.

Years later, a conversation I had on the set of Suicide Squad with Will Smith was an “aha” moment. Will asked me, “Viola, who are you?”

“What does that mean? I know who I am,” I replied with indignant confidence.

He asked again, “No, but who are you?”

“What does that mean?” I asked again.

“Look, I’m always going to be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. That’s always going to be me. So, who are you?”

Who am I? I was quiet, and once again that indestructible memory hit me. Then I just blurted it out. “I’m the little girl who would run after school every day in third grade because these boys hated me because I was . . . not pretty. Because I was . . . Black.”

Will stared at me as if seeing me for the first time and just nodded. My throat got tight and I could feel the tears welling up. Memories are immortal. They’re deathless and precise. They have the power of giving you joy and perspective in hard times. Or, they can strangle you. Define you in a way that’s based more in other people’s tucked-up perceptions than truth.

There I was, a working actress with steady gigs, Broadway credits, multiple industry awards, and a reputation of bringing professionalism and excellence to any project. Hell, Oprah knew who I was. Yet, sitting there conversing with Will Smith, I was still that little, terrified, third-grade Black girl. And though I was many years and many miles away from Central Falls, Rhode Island, I had never stopped running. My feet just stopped moving.

I had all the brawn in the world but hadn’t mastered the courage part. This is the memory that defined me. More than the bed-wetting, poverty, hunger, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. It is a powerful memory because it was the first time my spirit and heart were broken. I defined myself by the fear and rage of those boys. I felt ugly. I felt unwanted, even by God. I wanted so badly to fit into this world, but instead I was being spit out like vomit. Who I was offended them. The memory burrowed itself inside me and metastasized. It didn’t help that I was running back to a home where there was no protection. A home that seemed to cement all the horrific things those boys said about me.

At the age of twenty-eight, I woke up to the burning fact that my journey and everything I was doing with my life was about healing that eight-year-old girl. That little third grader Viola who I always felt was left defeated, lying prostrate on the ground. I wanted to go back and scream to the eight-year-old me, “Stop running!”

I wanted to heal her damage, her isolation. That is, until a therapist a few years ago asked me, “Why are you trying to heal her? I think she was pretty tough. She survived.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was speechless. What? No poor “little chocolate” girl from Central Falls? She’s a survivor?

He leaned forward as if to tell me the biggest secret, or to solve the biggest obstacle of my existence.

“Can you hug her? Can you let her hug YOU?” he asked. “Can you let her be excited about the fifty-three-year-old she is going to become? Can you allow her to squeal with delight at that?”

I sat there with my arms crossed. No way! I’m the one who made it out. I have the authority. I looked over at the empty space next to me on the couch and saw my younger self so clearly. She sat there waiting . . . to be embraced? To be acknowledged? To be let in.

He leaned toward me, staring at me, tough, stout, insistent, and said, “It’s the fifty-three-year-old that needs some help.”

Silence is all I could muster by way of response.

“That little girl SURVIVED!!!!!!” he stated emphatically.

I kept my arms crossed. Steely.

He leaned back and waited for those arms to uncross. They never did.

The final stretch to finding me would be allowing that eight-year-old girl in, actively inviting her into every moment of my current existence to experience the joy she so longed for, letting her taste what it means to feel truly alive. The destination is finding a home for her. A place of peace where the past does not envelop the Viola of NOW, where I have ownership of my story.

For my speaking gigs, the title of my presentations is always the same: “The Journey of a Hero.” I learned from writer Joseph Campbell that a hero is someone born into a world where they don’t fit in. They are then summoned on a call to an adventure that they are reluctant to take. What is the adventure? A revolutionary transformation of self. The final goal is to find the elixir. The magic potion that is the answer to unlocking HER. Then she comes “home” to this ordinary life transformed and shares her story of survival with others.

That’s exactly how I describe my story. As a child, I felt my call was to become an actress. It wasn’t. It was bigger than that. It was bigger than my successes. Bigger than expectations from the world. It was way bigger than myself, way bigger than anything I could have ever imagined. It was a full embracing of what God made me to be. Even the parts that had cracks and where the molding wasn’t quite right. It was radical acceptance of my existence without apology and with ownership. I saw that young girl so clearly that day in my therapist’s office. I could hear her saying, You are my home. Let me in.

When she still didn’t receive a hug, she got more passionate.

That younger self was sitting there saying, So, what? You’re not going to let me in? I ran my fucking leg of the race! I passed the baton to yo’ ass! All those cocksucker motherfuckas! Shit! I know I was inappropriate, but shit, it got you HERE! Telling those boys to “kiss my Black ass”?!! The crying! The pissin’ the bed!! I still see her sitting, staring, arms to her side with her little ’fro and hand-me-down jeans. Waiting. . . .

My journey was like a war movie, where at the end, the hero has been bruised and bloodied, traumatized from witnessing untold amounts of death and destruction, and so damaged that she cannot go back to being the same woman who went to war.

She may have even seen her death but was somehow resurrected. But to go on THAT journey, I had to be armed with the courage of a lioness.

Man, I’d rather go ten rounds with Mike Tyson than face some inner truths that have lain dormant. Hell, at least with Mike, I can throw the fight. But this inner battle, this inner fight I couldn’t throw.

That day in my therapist’s office, the goal was clear and repetitive. Individuals on the journey eventually find themselves experiencing a baptism by fire. It’s that moment when they are just about to lose their lives, and they miraculously, courageously find the answer that gives their life meaning. And that meaning, that answer, saves them.

In the words of Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero. The hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth, or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposites, his own unsuccessful self, either by swallowing it or by being swallowed.”

I still see my younger self so clearly from that fateful day in my therapist’s office. She stands up, in tears, on a mound of snow. Pissed off, she shouts, “Bitch!!! I’m not going to be swallowed!”



Title Page



Chapter 1: Running

Chapter 2: My World

Chapter 3: Central Falls

Chapter 4: 128

Chapter 5: Minefield

Chapter 6: My Calling

Chapter 7: The Sisterhood

Chapter 8: Secret, Silent, Shame

Chapter 9: The Muse

Chapter 10: The Starting Block

Chapter 11: Being Seen

Chapter 12: Taking Flight

Chapter 13: The Blooming

Chapter 14: Coming Into Me

Chapter 15: The Wake-Up

Chapter 16: Harnessing Bliss

Chapter 17: There She Is

Photo Section

About the Author


About the Publisher

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