Viola Davis: ‘Poverty is invisibility. Nobody talks about the poor’

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Viola Davis stars in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which comes out on Netflix tomorrow, November 25. Over the summer Viola helped promote the No Kid Hungry program in her role as spokesperson. Viola grew up impoverished in Rhode Island and wants to give back the way that others helped her as a child. In an interview with AARP, Viola discusses how poverty is invisible and how growing up poor affected her self-worth. Below are a few excerpts:

On dreaming of bigger things as a child
Well, necessity is the mother of invention. While there were a lot of moments of joy in the house, there was a lot of alcoholism and violence, too. So we had a sense of tragedy and deprivation, along with poverty. What comes with poverty is invisibility. Nobody talks about the poor. We just wanted to be somebody, desperately. And that’s what happened.

You negotiate your worth. You’re saying you’re more than what your financial situation is. You’re more than your square-mile city of Central Falls. You’re more than your beautiful parents, who I love more than anything, even my dad. Not a specific dream necessarily, just the drive itself, because that’s what gets you out of the bed in the morning. A feeling of, I’m important.

Why she speaks out
Some of it could be survivor’s guilt, having come from poverty. And it’s the limitations and the disillusionment of success. After The Help and certainly How to Get Away With Murder, I had arrived. So what do you do? It’s like that final line from Willy Wonka: What happens when you get everything you always wanted? And you feel disappointment because it’s not what you thought it would be?

On what she wants to leave with people
To make everyone who comes in contact with me feel they’re worthy.

I’m not going to cry, though I feel like I’m going to cry. But I always say that I have one picture of my childhood. Every time I wake up, I look at myself and I’m that little 5-year-old girl — and I’m either healing her or comforting her, or I’m allowing her to have fun. I’ve tried to fight for it my whole life. Showing that, Look, I have some money in the bank. I have health insurance. We’re not on welfare anymore. My clothes are clean. I’m the right age. I put on some makeup so now I look cute.

There are all these tickets into worth. In this culture you’re always showing someone your worth. But the only real ticket into worth is that you were born. That’s it. Over and out. And I want everyone — anyone who comes into my home, anyone who enters into a friendship with me, anyone who works for me — to feel a sense of value, feel a sense of belonging and not shame, because they’re not on top of it all the time. I feel that lack of self-worth is the one thing that leads so many people down a slippery path.

“How does the importance of self-worth apply to the state of affairs in our country?”
That’s a four-hour question. But I’ll just say there is a strong caste system here. Whether you’re Black, white, Hispanic, dark, whatever, there is a status game that operates as soon as you wake up each morning. There are certain people who are valued over others. I can attest to that. Growing up living below the poverty line — you are no one’s demographic. No one’s fighting for you. And when you do get access to opportunity, the fight continues because you’re coming from generations of people who were not given access to opportunity, so you have to learn it on your own.

Do I believe that you can get out of it? Yes. But a lot of people don’t, because the world belongs to people who have a ticket into that society. I don’t want to get political here, so I won’t get into systemic racism and the history of the systems that have gotten us to this place. But I will say that without dismantling all of it, we get nowhere. Nowhere.

[From AARP]

Viola is the come-up and reach back poster child. I love the fact that Viola doesn’t try to distance herself from her upbringing but uses it as a source of strength and motivation. She is right, people who experience poverty from day to day are erased in our society. We blame them for being poor instead of looking at the systems that are in place that benefit from having impoverished sections of society. We don’t try to dismantle the systems that also create the working poor. What’s worse, most people who are born into poverty can never “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” It can be impossible to rise out of poverty on your own. It takes a village. Viola remembers the people who helped her and the difference they made. She has never forgotten moments like the librarian sharing her sandwich with her.

I am here for Viola speaking truth about dismantling systems of oppression. Most people are not ready for that conversation, but here we are. I truly believe that we have the ability and the wealth to end world poverty. But, in order to have these equitable societies we have been marching for, we will need to get our hands a bit dirty and our hearts a bit full.

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