I have always loved how memoirs enable me to step into another person's shoes, even when the shoes are made of cardboard and the feet have travelled a path nobody would willingly choose. This was the case while reading Finding Me by actor Viola Davis.
Davis has had a long and admirable career on stage, television and the big screen, but I had never heard of her until The Help became a literary and cinematic success.
Film icon, Cecily Tyson was a role model for proud, Black actors such as Davis. Tyson transcended stereotypical roles of welfare queens, drug addicts and happy-go- lucky slaves and servants.....(think of: Mammy in Gone with the Wind).
Both Tyson and Davis tapped into their experiences to express the inner landscape all humanity shares- love, fear, shame, hope and despair. Tyson won an Honorary Academy Award in 2018 for her roll in The Help.
Viola Davis wrote the forward to Tyson's memoir Just As I Am.... "Ms. Tyson, the daughter of immigrants, had herself risen out of poverty and onto the global stage. In her journey, I glimpsed possibilities for my own....For six decades, Ms. Tyson has shown us who we are: vulnerable, magnificent, pain-ridden and beautifully human....." and then..."in 2011, on the set of The Help, I finally met my muse. There before me on a muggy afternoon in Mississippi stood the divine giver of gifts, the legend who inspired me to act."
Poverty, Hunger and Survival
My first occupational therapy job was an early intervention position in Lynn, Massachusetts. I learned about the priorities- food and shelter, as I treated families living in shelters and tenements. Families often didn't show up for appointments. I also was not yet a parent so ignorantly expected parents to be punctual as well as find transportation. While I focused on evaluating muscle tone, explaining sensory regulation and suggesting toys to develop hand skills parents struggled to harness the excited siblings and politely listened to my suggestions on how to decrease overstimulation.... I don't know whether or not these children were hungry, but they lived on food stamps-hand to mouth and maintaining a roof over their heads was a constant concern.
Viola Davis describes growing up in Central Fall, Rhode Island..... "We were "po". That's a level lower than poor. I've heard some of my friends say, 'We were poor, too, but I just didn't know it until I got older'. We were poor and we KNEW it. There was absolutely no disputing it. It was reflected in the apartments we lived in, where we shopped for clothes and furniture-the St. Vincent de Paul-the food stamps that were never enough to fully feed us, and the welfare checks. We were "po". We almost never had a phone. Often, we had no hot water or gas. We had to use a hot plate, which increased the electric bill. The plumbing was shoddy, so the toilets never flushed. Actually, I don't ever remember toilets working in our apartments. I became very skilled at filling up a bucket and pouring it into the toilet to flush it. And with our gas constantly being cut off because of nonpayment, we would either go unwashed or would just wipe ourselves down with cold water. And even the wiping down was a chore because we were often without towels, soap, shampoo.... I damn sure didn't know the difference between a washcloth and a both towel. "
The Davis family continued to live in the building after it became condemned. The wiring became dangerously unstable, there were fires, rat infestations. The rats were so bad, they ate the faces off dolls. Davis continues: I never, ever went into the kitchen. Rats had taken over the cabinets and the counter. The plaster was constantly falling off the wall, revealing the wooden boards holding the house together."
Laundry went unwashed for weeks and bedwetting compounded the problem of smell.
School Should Be a Safe Haven
Viola Davis is very intelligent, talented and loved school. But school didn't love her back. Most teachers didn't question the thrift shop clothing that didn't fit, nor keep the family warm, an emotionally labile student who couldn't sleep due to hunger, rats, cold and fear of fires and the bullies waiting to get her on the way to school each morning. Her school clothing was hand washed when lucky, with soap when she struck gold. Bedwetting became chronic because it was too scary to find the bathroom in the dark when rats might jump out at you.
School should be a safe haven where teachers, therapists and counselors notice and respond to children living in crisis. Instead Davis would get called into the nurse's office because the teacher could not tolerate the odor and told her 'You need to tell your mother to get some soap and water and wash you! The odor is horrible.' Davis continues, "The nurse came in and gave a whole lecture of the complaints from teachers about our hygiene. She asked how we washed up. We said nothing. We were trained in the art of keeping secrets and we never, ever shared with anyone what went on in our home. Ever!"
It doesn't require a professional degree to know that if children are hungry, they can't focus- they have no energy. Davis explains- " School lunch was our stable, assured meal.... The invisibility of the one-two punch that is Blackness and poverty is brutal. Mix that with being hungry all the damn time and it becomes combustible. "
Viola Davis survived poverty. She has grit, brains, supportive sisters and had a little bit of luck to be recognized as a young, upcoming talent worthy of scholarships. She made it and even became a Woman King.
The psychological harm of racism and poverty can take a lifetime to overcome. Davis brilliantly describes that struggle. There is no excuse for hunger in the United States of America. I believe that it is incumbent upon society to step in when the children we educate are suffering from poverty, racism and any type of hate/bullying. Reading memoirs of courageous survivors is a great way to create empathy and hopefully improve a society that allows many of our fellow Americans, including the students we service to suffer......
Please tell your elected officials to do what it takes to end poverty.... especially hunger.