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.
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.
She’s a great account to follow on Instagram. She always has something thoughtful to say. I signed up as a donor to No Kid Hungry months ago because of an interview she did. I think I saw it when it was posted here in fact. I think she does a lot of good works and I really admire her
Yes to all of the above. We need to talk about poverty and it’s impacts. We also need to talk explicitly about the fact that so many people who are held up as “self made” often had quite a bit of money and connections to smooth the way.
She describes the psychological damage of living in poverty so well. This makes me think of my mom, who immigrated here to the US in the 1950s and had the double stigma in high school of being a “DP” and poor. She told us about how they couldn’t afford toilet paper so they used pages from old phone books and how their apartment was practically an iceberg in the winter. I know it affected her throughout her life, always looking over her shoulder.
And today the income disparity is far more vast than it was back in the middle of the last century. I’m hoping with a Biden administration we find solutions to close that gap.
Wealth and income disparity is one of the biggest problems facing the country and unfortunately it is decades in the creation, but it needs to be faced. It is disproportionately burdened on people of color. So many families are living from month to month on what they earn; an unexpected large expense, such as a medical crisis or job loss, can devastate them. And our society is no longer upwardly mobile; generations of hard working and educated people are at stuck at the bottom, while 50 years ago they would be in the larger middle class. It’s immoral given the amount of wealth in this country enjoyed by a small amount of people.
I’d say it’s especially invisible in this country because we so strongly promote the idea of independent success and boast such a powerful economy – one that has increasingly minimized it returns it brings to anyone beneath the 1%. The regional disparity is also significant; people who’ve lived in, say, northern cities may have never seen the absolute dire poverty in places like the Deep South, which have literally never recovered from Reconstruction. The effects of generational poverty are also massively understudied and critically impactful to the economic growth and resource accessibility of some demographics – especially when you, say, live in a country that has purposefully excluded certain groups from climbing the socioeconomic ladder easily.
I grew up working class, not poor, but my mother very much did, and it’s impossible to articulate fully how much the impact of that is reflected in her even into her sixties. It has a profound psychological impact on people’s ability to feel secure, safe, comfortable and confidant in your abilities in the future. I’m glad Viola isn’t turning her back on her past; it can be very tempting to do so and shut the door on that era of your life. Staying grounded and compassionate is a lot harder to maintain at that level of income. She’s doing amazing work bringing attention to it.
She is so awesome. I look forward to all her interviews which affords me a view into areas I’m not familiar with.
Just taking a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of Viola Davis. Man, she’s beautiful and talented but also apparently a good and empathetic person, too? She’s in an industry that chews people up and spits out the bones but if anyone can stand up to that it’s got to be her.
Now about poverty, she’s got such a point. My mom’s family was so impoverished in her native country that they suffered malnutrition. They were living in caves and woods and running from bombs and horrifying stuff in WW2. Anyway that did not leave as much a mark on her as you’d think. She laughed about some of the stories of how poor they were. I think the fact it was an experience she shared with her entire people that made the difference.
It was when she came to America and lived here for awhile that she started to get messed up. It was the racism here. She knew what racism was. But to come to a land of wealth and plenty, it never occurred to her people were going to be treated as “less than” or intentionally kept from everything because of race. I think what really bothers her to this day is because she was yellow-brown not black she got slotted a bit higher on the pecking order. She was infuriated and mortified by that.
There was also a classism in that my dad was a college educated white collar worker choosing to live among working class in a lower middle class to poor neighborhood and he occupied a weird place on the pecking order. The working class white housewives wanted to discriminate against my mom on race, but held back because her husband had more status than their husbands. My mom felt the tension of that constantly.
Imagine coming from a region where everyone is the same race so you’re on a pretty level playing field that way. Then the culture shock of coming to the mess we have here that Viola is talking about.
And the invisibility of poverty has many facets as we learned. We had next door neighbors that were struggling so hard but we didn’t know it and missed all the signs until the day they were evicted. Both parents had jobs. They had cars and looked nice. So we didn’t see the struggle.
We could have fed the kids extra meals. They did come a couple of times begging my mom for food but we thought they just didn’t want to wait for their mom to cook dinner. They hadn’t lived there long enough for my mom to get to know their mom and ask. They were black. We had poor white families on that street too.
The horror we felt when we saw their stuff thrown out on the street. In America. They were the first family to go then a bunch of other families followed. I don’t remember what was going on economically at the time but this wave of evictions was a sudden and new phenomenon for our street.
My mom was never the same after that. She didn’t know how to process seeing working people with children get tossed on the street in a “land of plenty”.
When these people got tossed out the drug dealers moved in. That was a new wave of horror we lived with and got an education on.
Wow, Guest with Cat. That was hauntingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing. ❤️
Wow @Guestwithcat Thank you for sharing this.
It’s horrible that we place a burden of shame on poverty. The reality is so many people are struggling with a minimum wage job. You can’t move upward. Add in any type of debt or health issues and you’re stuck. We must address real change. Viola is such a phenomenal human.
And that a black woman raised in poverty shouldn’t have to be as incredibly talented as viola to get out of poverty, because if that’s the standard than most will not get out of poverty. They should be able to be as average as others and still not have to endure poverty
This is so true.
I think of people who are addicted as well. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people defend keeping everything open in my area of the world because opioid use has gone up and caused many deaths. And yes, I agree – that is a larger societal conversation that should have been had before the pandemic and for more than an economic excuse. Where was the concern beforehand? People weren’t willing to put money toward the issue of addiction, homelessness and overdoes before because these people were invisible and not valued. It is not like there are any more resources going to prevent opioid use or look at what underlies it now than there was before, they are just a talking point that makes people feel better about their capitalist priorities.
I love Viola and so appreciate that she continues to do the hard work of being open and vulnerable to share her truths, after all she’s been through, endured, overcome. She is such a beautiful person inside and out, and it’s wonderful to see the work and voice she gives to her own history and to amplifying the needs of those in poverty. Everything she says here is so on-point.
That’s why a system based on a culture of winners is quite dangerous. The myth of a meritocracy is you can get to the top of the pyramid as long as you work hard enough. Nevermind some people start on third base and others are not even on the field when the race starts. Strong unionisation, a progressive tax system, and very sophisticated regulation of industry and the private sector (esp tech and monopolies, which concentrate corporate power and erode the power of the worker) are possible solutions, along with the cultural stuff, which helps raise awareness in the first place but doesn’t really get much done (except perhaps inspire charity, which isn’t bad but suggests we don’t need to change tax rates and encourage unionisation as long as a few billionaires are donating some money). Anyway, Viola is awesome and I love how she speaks out about this so passionately and love her acting.
I wish that more people would listen to the Viola Davis’ of the world. People are so tired that they have to close themselves off from information, but the poor don’t get to do that.
My mom went to jail when I was about 11-12. I am a product of rape. I shared a coat with my sister. My uncle went to Jr High with the local heroin dealer, a kingpin so to speak, who kept all of the gangs from robbing us. He talked to his friend after he heard a bunch of men joking about how easy it would be to enter our house, overpower my wheelchair-bound grandmother, and then rape my sister and me. We were in elementary school when this conversation happened across the street from our house.
The caste system we live in makes it incredibly hard to move out of poverty. I made it out, but the challenges of poverty haunt, at best, or terrorize, at worst, my life. I am happily married and middle class, but it took a lot to get here, and I know that I had advantages as a light-skinned woman.
Her descriptions made me cry. Made me remember what it was like. Talking about it with middle class friends is hard. They just can’t imagine it and it’s so unpleasant who would want to hear it? But that is how we remain cruel to the plight of the poor. We need to put money into impoverished communities. We need to give reparations to Black people. We need to not patronize the poor. They don’t want sympathy. They want dignity and control of their own lives.
Sorry to ramble. Sort of a wreak today. Lady Viola is so humble and true to who she is. She is a heart touchstone for me: someone who made it and is not going to forget those who were left behind. My efforts to help through my work haven’t yielded much, but I hope all of us together can change this in the US with Biden and Harris.
Christina, thank you for your eloquent and thoughtful and heart wrenching post. Wishing you peace of mind and strength of heart.
I’ve mentioned it before but I’ve had a long and exhausting experience attempting to educate and reform white suburban pta moms and teachers about this issue. Nobody knows what a title I school is or how it operates or that half the people they know struggle and have food stamps or government healthcare. And they aren’t interested in finding out. It really fcking sucks.