Finding Me (2022) is the highly anticipated memoir from Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-award winning actress Viola Davis. Davis is unafraid to share the rawest, most intimate details of her life story, from the brutal hardship of her childhood on Rhode Island, through her tenacious years as a Broadway stage actor, to her arrival into the upper echelons of Hollywood celebrity.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Be moved and inspired by Viola Davis’s incredible life story.
Viola’s childhood traumas continued to shape her as an adult.
Viola’s road to success was strewn with obstacles and detours.
With her professional ambitions fulfilled, Viola still had to reckon with past traumas.
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Biography and Memoir, Social Sciences, African American Demographic Studies, Actor & Entertainer Biographies, Black & African American Biographies, Adult, Feminism, Cultural
Introduction: Be moved and inspired by Viola Davis’s incredible life story.
Winning an Academy Award is, for any film actor, the pinnacle of accomplishment. Viola Davis won her Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2017, for the role of Rose Maxson in the movie Fences. Poised and polished, she delivered her acceptance speech on the stage of Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre, wearing a crimson evening gown, clasping the gold statuette tightly in one hand: the epitome of a wildly successful actor and woman.
Hundreds of celebrity audience members watched the speech, as did millions of at-home viewers. But few of these people would have guessed what it had taken for Davis to get there – how hard she’d had to work, how many obstacles and traumas she’d had to overcome on the road to stardom.
Davis is finally sharing that story. And she’s not holding back. In this summar, you’ll hear about Davis’s childhood in Rhode Island – a childhood marked by poverty, trauma, and violence, but also by her fiercely loving bond with her siblings and mother. You’ll learn about the struggle, resilience, and camaraderie of Davis’s Juilliard years in a yet-to-be-gentrified New York City. And you’ll learn how the prejudices that held Davis back in her early years continued to dog her, even as she ascended to the pinnacle of success.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- how a childhood spent in poverty emboldened Davis to find her voice;
- how Davis “hacked” her audition for the prestigious Juilliard school of acting; and
- what uber-successful showrunner Shonda Rhimes is really like to work with.
Viola’s childhood traumas continued to shape her as an adult.
In 2015, on the set of Suicide Squad, Will Smith asked Viola Davis a simple question: “Who are you?” Smith explained that even though he was successful and wealthy, even though he’d starred in mega hits like Men in Black and Independence Day, in some ways he would always be the 15-year-old boy whose girlfriend had just dumped him. And now he wanted to know who Viola was.
Viola could have answered in any number of ways, could have told him any number of pivotal stories.
For example, she could have told Smith about one night when she was fourteen years old and her mom and dad – MaMama and MaDada, as she and her five siblings called them – were fighting. Again.
MaDada, or Dan Davis, worked as a horse groomer. It was taxing work. Still, it didn’t pay well enough to keep food on the table or cover the electricity bill. And it certainly didn’t pay enough to quench MaDada’s insatiable thirst for alcohol. Viola’s MaMama – Mary Alice Davis – was the oldest of 18 children born to South Carolina sharecroppers. She’d had her first child at 15, her last child at 34, and Viola in between. MaMama did her best to shield her six children from MaDada’s drunken rages, even if it meant she was the primary target for his blows. But the series of apartments the Davis family lived in, first in South Carolina and later in Rhode Island, were tiny. Privacy was a hypothetical concept, and MaMama couldn’t shield her children from everything. Viola vividly remembers the night that her father staggered home from the bar, bleeding from a fresh stab wound in the side of his stomach, begging his wife not to call the ambulance. And the time when MaMama and MaDada were screaming at each other in the yard and MaDada yelled that his wife should tell him if he should stay or leave. Her children willed her to answer, Leave! But she sobbed for him to stay.
On this particular night, when Viola was 14, the fight was more violent than usual. MaDada wielded a glass, threatening to break it over MaMama’s head. Until now, none of the Davis children had ever intervened in their parents’ fights, for fear they would make things worse. But on this night, Viola snapped. She inserted herself between her parents and yelled for her father to stop. He didn’t. He brought the glass down on his wife’s face. Viola remembers the screams, the blood. She remembers shaking as she refused to stand down. “Give me the glass!” she screamed at her father. “Give it to me!”
And, after what seemed an agonizingly long time, MaDada gave her the glass and walked away. In that moment, Viola realized not only that her life would be a fight – she’d known that for a long time – but that she had what it would take to stand up and fight back. [pause]
She could have told Smith another story. Like the time Dianne, Viola’s sister who’d stayed in South Carolina with her maternal grandparents, appeared like a vision in the Davises’ apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Viola remembers that day well. Not only had her long-lost sister arrived; it was one of the few days the hot water was turned on. But Dianne, who, unlike her siblings, was wearing properly warm winter clothes and smelled of soap, was unimpressed by the unheated, rat-infested Central Falls apartment.
She whispered to the then five-year-old Viola, “You don’t want to live like this when you’re older, do you?” Viola shook her head no. Dianne told Viola that she needed to work out what she wanted to do and who she wanted to be – and fast. And that she had to work and work and work, until she was who she wanted to be, doing what she wanted to do. There was no other way to get out. Viola decided then and there that she would become somebody. The question that tugged at her insides – Am I somebody now? – would become a repeated refrain throughout her life. Am I somebody now?, she thought after graduating college, after getting accepted into Juilliard, even after winning a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy. It was Dianne’s advice that day that spurred Viola on; everything Viola did from then on was to satisfy that five year old, the little girl who knew she wanted something better.
But, answering Smith’s question, there was one memory in particular that leaped out at Viola. She was in the third grade. While the rest of her classmates were walking home from school, she was running. She ran because, every day, a gang of male classmates had made it their habit to chase her, calling Viola ugly, hurling the worst kinds of racial abuse at her. Usually, she made it home, out of breath, snot dripping from her nose, scared. But on this day there’d been a snowstorm. The streets were too slippery for Viola to outrun her pursuers. They caught her, threw her to the ground and beat her.
Even though she had proven herself, over and over again, even though she was starring in movies with Will Smith and had Oprah’s number in her mobile phone, at heart Viola was still that terrified, taunted eight-year-old girl. What Viola didn’t know? That little girl still had something to teach her . . . but we’ll come back to that later.
Viola’s road to success was strewn with obstacles and detours.
Have you ever heard of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey? It proposes that every heroic story follows the same basic structure. The hero faces challenges, undergoes transformations, and finally gains a new self-understanding. Viola happens to be a big fan of Campbell’s work, perhaps because her life story echoes his structure. The first stage of the hero’s journey is the Call to Adventure. And young Viola’s call to adventure came in her Rhode Island apartment. She was sitting in front of a broken television, which was wrapped in aluminum foil. That broken television acted as a table, on which a functioning television sat. Growing up, the women Viola saw on that television were mostly white and mostly blonde. But one day, she saw an actor who looked exactly like her MaMama. The actor was Cicely Tyson; the film was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Seeing Tyson on-screen was, for Viola, the same as finally seeing a way out of the miserable apartment in Central Falls. Viola’s Call to Adventure had arrived. The adventure? Becoming an actor.
Not long after she was enchanted by Cicely Tyson on her television screen, Viola got her first big break. Central Falls Rhode Island announced a citywide talent contest. Viola and her sisters were sure that some white kids from the Theresa Landry School of Dance would win. But they didn’t care. They were going to enter anyway. They performed an original skit, based on the game shows that MaMama was addicted to watching. And they won! It didn’t matter to them that the prize was a cheap softball set, or that they’d just end up using the softball bat to chase rats out of their kitchen. They were winners. Better than winners, Viola thought. They were actors.
That talent show win wasn’t a one-off. Viola’s teachers constantly chastised her for falling asleep in class. (They might’ve had trouble staying awake, too, if they’d spent night after night with one eye open, waiting for their father to come in and start beating their mother.) Her fellow students complained that she smelt bad. (They wouldn’t have smelled so great, either, if they’d rarely had hot water and couldn’t afford soap.) But in drama lessons, Viola excelled. She was selected to join a performing-arts program called Upward Bound, for talented kids from underprivileged backgrounds. She mixed with kids who had severe disabilities and chronic health problems, and with recently arrived refugees, who told harrowing tales about bombs, murderous fighting, and refugee camps.
Compared to such hardship, Viola’s own problems, serious as they were, seemed to shrink to a more manageable size. Later, she auditioned to participate in a nationwide performing-arts contest for high-school students – a teacher had to lend her the $15 audition fee – and was selected to compete in the contest, in Florida. It was her first time flying on a plane. She was named a Promising Young Artist. On the back of her achievements in the performing arts, Viola won a full scholarship to Rhode Island College.
If it sounds like Viola’s life was on an upward trajectory – well, it was. And, at the same time, it wasn’t. At around the same time Viola was being named a Promising Young Artist, her family was evicted from their apartment. After months of unpaid rent, their landlord wanted them out. They were finally evicted after a violent altercation where MaDada attacked the landlord with a machete. Their new apartment was even more cramped. And when the authorities found out MaDada had been making a meager salary from his horse-grooming work, the Davises’ welfare was cut off. Viola’s success as a budding actor helped her see a path out of poverty. More than that, though, drama was becoming a reprieve from the painful realities of day to day life. Theater was a release. Performing was joy.
Viola wasn’t the only one of the Davis sisters with aspirations to acting. But it was the joy she found in performance that spurred her to keep chasing that dream. Her sister Dianne wanted to act, but she was too pragmatic to pursue a performance career. As Dianne told her younger sister, “I want health insurance!”
Viola wanted health insurance, too. But, more than that, she wanted to act. So she moved to New York, where she’d been accepted into the Circle in the Square Theater’s summer program. Her tuition was covered, but she needed money to live. So, during the day, she worked. She worked at a call center. She worked handing out leaflets. She assembled boxes in a factory. She lived on plain rice from the local Chinese grocery, sometimes eating canned mackerel for protein. At night, she acted. And she loved almost every minute of it. When the summer was over, she auditioned for the most prestigious drama school in the country: Juilliard.
Viola traveled from Providence, Rhode Island, where she was performing in a play, to New York for her Juilliard audition. She didn’t know auditions were a three-day process – and she had to get back to Providence to perform that night. She’d only budgeted 45 minutes of audition time. Perhaps the committee saw something special in the young Black girl who calmly told them she’d need to perform her two monologues – one as Celie in The Color Purple, the other from Moliere’s The Learned Lady – in under an hour. They rearranged their audition timetable, pulled other committee members from other auditions, and made it happen. Viola was awarded a place in the incoming class.
It’s a huge accomplishment to make it into Juilliard. Viola was incredibly proud. But she wasn’t always happy during her time there. When she arrived back in New York, and walked up six flights to an apartment she was subletting from a friend of a friend, she was shocked to find a squalid studio: a New York version of Central Falls. She started to wonder whether she’d chosen the wisest path on her hero’s journey. And while she loved the rigorous training Juilliard provided, she found the Eurocentric approach didn’t always allow room for her to express, or perform, her Blackness. She felt her light becoming dimmer, her voice becoming smaller. Shouldn’t she be shining brighter, speaking louder?
While studying, Viola won a place on a cultural tour of Africa, where she would witness living traditions of song and dance. She traveled from Banjul to Bakau, from the Gambia to West Africa. The further she traveled; the more food she shared on the floors of village huts; the more songs she learned and sung; the more she joined in the dances – dances that welcomed in joy and danced away pain and suffering – the freer and happier she felt. When she returned to New York, she hadn’t forgotten the power and magic she felt in her ancestral homeland. She wasn’t just a promising young student at Juilliard, diligently blocking scenes and learning the Alexander technique. She was a Black woman who danced to the beat of Djembe drums with Mandinka women. In Africa, Viola reconnected with her essence. She would never lose touch with it again.
With her professional ambitions fulfilled, Viola still had to reckon with past traumas.
If you’ve engaged with theater, cinema, or television over the past decade, this next bit won’t come as a spoiler: after graduating from Juilliard, and putting in time on Broadway and on tour, Viola attained the kind of stardom and acclaim that most actors only ever dream of. From theater premieres, to film festivals, to awards ceremonies, Viola has spent a lot of time standing on a stage with an audience applauding her. But there’s one stage and one audience that stands out above the rest.
Ever since Viola was a little girl, she dreamed of being an actress, standing on stage while people clapped and threw flowers at her. In 1996, on the night August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars opened on Broadway, that’s just what happened. Viola was playing the lead role, Vera. When the curtain fell, the applause was thunderous. Even better, Viola could see her parents in the front row. Her mom was in a gown, her dad in a tux. They were both so proud of their little girl. Making the moment even sweeter, Viola and her dad had begun to heal their relationship. MaDada’s drinking had slowed, and a different, more thoughtful man than the father Viola knew was beginning to emerge.
Viola was nominated for a Tony for her turn as Vera. And from here, her career went from strength to strength. Another big break came when she was cast as Mrs Miller in the film Doubt. Acting alongside luminaries like Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Davis was plagued with insecurity. She wasn’t a film actor; she wasn’t a big name. But her role in Doubt garnered her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, sending a clear signal that these great talents were her peers – and her equals. More film roles, and more award nominations, followed.
How was it, then, that when Will Smith posed that question – Who are you? – this accomplished, feted, famous woman still felt like an eight year old, running away from her bullies in the snow? Well, success is funny. It doesn’t automatically cancel out trauma. And fame and fortune didn’t protect Viola against the prejudices Black women face every day. In fact, being a dark-skinned Black woman in Hollywood, Viola bumped up against prejudice constantly. Despite winning critical acclaim, she didn’t have her pick of parts. The truth is, Black women rarely land leading roles – and those who do are typically light-skinned, with features and hairstyles that skew European. Viola didn’t fit that mold. Whenever she auditioned to play a conventionally attractive leading lady, she was rebuffed. For a long time, she felt she’d be playing the role of drug-addicted mother for the rest of her career. Viola may have been successful – but she hadn’t been wholly accepted.
Enter Shonda Rhimes. The showrunner had a new project, How to Get Away with Murder, and she needed to cast the lead role, Annalise Keating: a sexy, intelligent, take-no-prisoners criminal attorney. Shonda wanted Viola for Annalise. Viola was apprehensive: this role would be history-making, mold-breaking, a blow to colorism in Hollywood. But could she really do it? That eight-year-old girl inside her was causing her doubts. But Shonda coached her through and helped her find her voice. In the first season’s finale, Annalise confronts her nemesis, Ophelia Harkness, played by Cicely Tyson. The very same Cicely Tyson who inspired Viola to become an actress in the first place. At the scene’s climax, Annalise rips off her wig, proudly showing her natural hair. In that moment, Viola remembers feeling unapologetically beautiful and powerful.
In the background, behind her career and achievements, something else had been helping Viola step into her beauty and power: her relationship with producer Julius Tennon. The pair are still together – and they’re so in love that they’ve married each other in three separate ceremonies! They completed their family in 2011, adopting their daughter, Genesis.
A therapist once told Viola that the eight-year-old girl running through the snow wasn’t a victim but a survivor. Viola’s success, said the therapist, was because of that girl, not in spite of her. Viola shouldn’t push her away. She should embrace her.
At the time, Viola saw the wisdom in that therapists’ words. And yet she couldn’t embrace that girl. She wasn’t ready to feel whole within herself; she had healing left to do. Years later – thanks to How to Get Away with Murder, thanks to Julius and Genesis, and thanks to the work Viola herself put in to healing herself and her relationships with her family – Viola was finally able to turn to that little girl and follow her therapist’s advice: embrace her, thanking her for the strength and courage she had shown. In many ways, Viola still is that little girl – determined, persistent, scrappy. Only now, she’s not running away from trauma and prejudice. She’s running toward joy.
Viola Davis is an acclaimed, accomplished actor, but behind her success is a story of poverty, trauma, and prejudice – and a story of persistence, hope, and joy. Achieving her wildest professional dreams didn’t automatically heal Viola’s past traumas, but she’s now learned to accept and sometimes even embrace the struggles that shaped her as a Black woman and an actor.
And as a final take away, here’s some actionable advice: Artistic integrity doesn’t pay the bills.
Viola knows the struggle of being an aspiring actor better than most. Her advice? Don’t listen to well-paid A-listers when it comes to making artistic choices. They’re in the privileged position of being able to make artistic choices. If you’re in the position of needing to pay rent, book that Geico Insurance commercial! It won’t compromise your talent and it will get you paid.
About the author
VIOLA DAVIS is an internationally acclaimed actress and producer, known for her exceptional performances in television shows like ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ and movies like ‘Fences’ and ‘The Help.’ She is the winner of an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and two Tony Awards, and in 2021 she won a Screen Actors Guild award for her role in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’. In both 2012 and 2017, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Davis is also the founder and CEO of JuVee Productions, an artist driven production company that develops and produces independent film, theater, television, and digital content.
Table of Contents
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
About the Author
About the Publisher
In my book, you will meet a little girl named Viola who ran from her past until she made a life-changing decision to stop running forever.
This is my story, from a crumbling apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to the stage in New York City, and beyond. This is the path I took to finding my purpose but also my voice in a world that didn’t always see me.
As I wrote Finding Me, my eyes were open to the truth of how our stories are often not given close examination. We are forced to reinvent them to fit into a crazy, competitive, judgmental world. So I wrote this for anyone running through life untethered, desperate and clawing their way through murky memories, trying to get to some form of self-love. For anyone who needs reminding that a life worth living can only be born from radical honesty and the courage to shed facades and be . . . you.
Finding Me is a deep reflection, a promise, and a love letter of sorts to self. My hope is that my story will inspire you to light up your own life with creative expression and rediscover who you were before the world put a label on you.
Video and Podcast
OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • A HARPERS BAZAAR BEST BOOK OF 2022 • A PARADE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK • A MARIE CLAIRE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK
“Raw in its anger, shocking in its frankness, often downright vulgar—and wonderfully alive with Davis’ passion poured into every page.” – Associated Press
“It’s clear from the first page that Davis is going to serve a more intimate, unpolished account than is typical of the average (often ghost-written) celebrity memoir; Finding Me reads like Davis is sitting you down for a one-on-one conversation about her life, warts and all.” – USA Today
“Reading her memoir, Finding Me. . . you understand where her ability comes from: Only someone who has already been dragged into the depths of emotion readily knows how to get back there.” – New York Times Magazine
“An unvarnished chronicle of hard-won, well-earned success.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Davis gives readers hope, encouraging us to look back and embrace childhood dreams or failures, let go of shame, and move forward to become the best version of ourselves.” – Booklist
“Davis’s grit and determination are moving, and her unflinching reckoning with the “racism and misogyny” she faced in Hollywood makes her story of overcoming all the more effective. Fans will be utterly enthralled.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Davis’s grit and determination are moving, and her unflinching reckoning with the “racism and misogyny” she faced in Hollywood makes her story of overcoming all the more effective. Fans will be utterly enthralled.” – Time magazine
“[A] fulfilling narrative of struggle and success. . . . Her gorgeous storytelling will inspire anyone wishing to shed old labels.” – Los Angeles Times
“Brimming with love, heartbreak, and hard-won wisdom.” – Bustle
“This book is a testament to resilience, hard work, and the power of owning your truth.” – Real Simple
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
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!”
“Vahla . . . all ya uncles and aunties was in the house eating, dancing, waiting for you to be born.”
—MAE ALICE DAVIS
When my mom told me my birth story several years ago, I was quite surprised. It was a healthy, happy memory. “MaMama” (as I call her) has a tendency to spontaneously tell shocking stories: relatives messing around with each other; how she started taking care of her siblings when she was four years old; my father’s cheating. Well, buried in the midst of all these fabulously horrid stories, there was a sweet tale—my birth story.
MaMama has two very southern phrases that are a cause of heavy laughter and a source of great comfort for my siblings and me. One is “Ma” which she calls us—her children—as a form of affection. The other is “And stuff like that in tha.” She sprinkles this phrase into sentences liberally.
In her South Carolina accent, she said, “Vahla, when you were born and stuff like that in tha, all ya uncles and aunties and stuff like that in tha, everybody was there. They was drinkin’ and dancin’ and stuff like that in tha, waitin’ for you to come. Miss Clara Johnson and stuff like that in tha was late, so ya gran’mama delivered you. Everybody was happy!”
When she first told me, I allowed a long gulf of silence after she finished. I was waiting for the shoe to drop. I was waiting for some unbelievable, traumatic interjection; something that interfered with the beauty of it. But the horrible never came. It was a normal, beautiful story of family centered around my arrival in the land of the living. To my shock, my birth story didn’t confuse me or induce pain or numbness in the core of my being. It was simply a tale of love and life.
I love that story so much and ask my mom to repeat it often. I mean, a lot. And, every time she retells it, she tops the story off with this wonderful addition: that she ate a sardine, onion, tomato, and mustard sandwich right after she gave birth to me. A disgusting concoction, I know, but she explained, “It was the best sandwich I ever ate.” She named me Viola after my great-aunt on my father’s side.
On August 11, 1965, in St. Matthews, South Carolina, I was born, the fifth of six children, in my maternal grandmother and grandfather’s house on the Singleton Plantation. And yes, it was and still is a plantation. Not a farm. Drive down the long, dusty road leading into the 160 or so acres and you’ll come to the big, white, beautiful plantation home. Drive a little farther and there’s the tiny, one-room church. An even farther venture will deliver you to the doorsteps of the sharecroppers’ houses, outhouses, outdoor showers, and a well.
My maternal grandparents, Mozell and Henry Logan, like the other sharecroppers, had a one-room house with a big fireplace.
Their daughter, MaMama, the oldest of eighteen children, left school after the eighth grade because she got pregnant, but also because she was beaten a lot in school. I mean beaten to where it broke skin and she bled.
My grandmother and my aunt had to go to the school and confront the teacher, who was Black but lighter skinned, and suffering from the all-too-common, intraracial disease of colorism. She was punishing my mom because she was dark-skinned, came from the country, the backwoods, and had nappy hair.
MaMama’s family didn’t have indoor toilets, showers, or bathrooms. That, mixed with the sheer number of kids, and the desperate poverty, meant she often smelled like piss. Another shame that justified the teacher’s fear and anger toward darker-skinned MaMama. Once again, an association of everything that is wrong and negative with skin shade. All I know is, I felt a different level of being heartbroken for my mom when I learned the real driving force behind her decision not to return to school.
My mother pushed on with her life, nonetheless. She was married and had her first child, my brother, John Henry, at age fifteen. She had my sister Dianne when she was eighteen, Anita at nineteen, Deloris at twenty, and me at twenty-two. Years later, at age thirty-four, she had my sister Danielle.
Only eleven of Mozell and Henry Logan’s eighteen children survived, MaMama, obviously, being one of them. Several were stillborn, and one my mother constantly talks about died in a fire as a newborn. That baby was named Deloris.
MaMama tells me that she was about four or five years old and had the mammoth responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings. As she tells it, she would take the Binky from her own mouth to put in her brother’s mouth. That was how young she was. Like most children at that time, while the adults worked in the fields, the children were left home alone, unattended. Often, they cooked, cleaned, and changed diapers.
She was playing with matches one day in the open fireplace of their wooden shack, and the rug caught fire. It scared MaMama tremendously. She had the presence of mind to grab her younger brother Jimmy and run out of the house. As the house went up in flames, she couldn’t reach her younger sister, who was in the back room. When Deloris was found, she was perfectly, beautifully intact, but she had died of smoke inhalation.
“She was a beautiful baby, like a doll,” moaned MaMama. Unfortunately, MaMama was blamed for Deloris’s death and subsequently beaten by both her father and mother. She says she still has problems to this day with the arm that was beaten.
MaMama tells this story on a loop. Finally, after so many years, I told her, “You know that was not your fault. It was not your fault. I’m giving you permission to forgive yourself. Your parents were wrong for beating you. It was an accident. You should not have even been in that position.”
Painful silence. Then she simply changed the subject. I know MaMama will never forgive herself, even though years later we saw the death certificate that shows MaMama couldn’t have been more than three years old, not four or five, when her baby sister died.
I love staring at my mom. I take in every detail of her face, hands, skin. I see all the scars. Some I remember from abuse she endured, and some I don’t. The sore left arm. The scar on her right forearm made by my dad ripping her arm open. Scars on her face, legs . . . Scars. I think about the complexity of her childlike heart compared to the ferocious, maternal warrior who would angrily snatch her wig off to kick anybody’s ass who even thought about harming her babies.
I think about her bravery in fighting for welfare reform in the 1970s. Getting arrested. Holding us with one arm and waving her fist with the other as we were herded into wagons. Her speaking at Brown University: “I may have had an eighth-grade education and I was nervous, but I spoke.” I think of the woman who survived horrific sexual abuse only to marry my dad who was an abuser, yet after many years became a true partner.
All that comes to mind when I look at one of the great loves of my life, my mother, and listen to her retell the same stories.
“That doctor said you were gonna have a water bucket head, a big stomach, and bowlegs,” my mom said in between eating bites of rice and drinking her mimosa. She was telling a story of when I was about two years old.
“You was at Memorial Hospital. You was just a baby. They had you all hooked up to machines and all that crust and matter like that in tha around ya eyes and nose. Ya daddy went there to see you and it was the first time I seen him cry like a baby. I knew I had bad milk. The doctor said you weren’t going to develop like, you know, normal.”
MaMama was visiting my house in Los Angeles telling this story. It was on a day off from shooting How to Get Away with Murder. We were in the backyard. I knew the story by heart, but listened anyway.
“He wanted to experiment on you. He said he was gonna break ya legs to see if they grew straight. But I saw how he was looking at me. I ain’t dumb. He saw that I was poor and Black. I took you from that hospital. That doctor kept sayin, ‘Mrs. Davis, you’re making a big mistake!’ But I told him he wasn’t gonna experiment on my baby. I took you to Miss Cora’s house and she made you some lima bean soup, and you ate the whole bowl and drank a big glass of cold water and that was it.”
Miss Cora was our distant relative who lived in Prospect Heights, a low-income housing project in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
“Miss Cora said, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with this baby!’ And after you ate that soup you hugged Miss Cora’s leg and wouldn’t let go.”
I just listen, always silent. I have a vague memory of this moment hugging Miss Cora’s leg, feeling gratefulness, but just that moment.
“I know that doctor’s not alive now cuz this was when you were a baby. But I wish he could see you now,” she says, as always, with a great burst of joy, smiling, laughing. “You ain’t got no bowlegs or big stomach. Ya head is big, but that’s what make you a good actor!
“Vahla, make ya mama another one of these memeesas or . . . you know what I mean.” No matter what, I cannot get her to remember “mimosa” so I stopped trying because I sort of enjoy it.
I run to make her another mimosa—more juice than champagne—anxiously getting up the courage to ask a very risqué question. Anything to ply secrets from her. The “water bucket head hospital story” is one of her favorites. I grew up hating it. I let her get it out of the way before I ask her something more challenging. One of the beauties of getting older is really getting to know a parent.
“Uhh . . . Mom . . . did you ever have an affair? Fall in love with someone else? Did you have an affair with Howie?”
Howie was a really nice white guy who lived on the second floor of 128 Washington Street, an apartment building we lived in. Every time my father would beat my mom, she would run to Howie’s apartment. He would wash her wounds and let my mom hide out in his apartment until my dad calmed down. Picture the stereotypical ’70s hippie. That was Howie. He would play the guitar for us and give us candy. Just regular candy; no hippie “additives.”
“No, Vahla. I nevah did nothin’ with Howie. He was just a nice guy. Ya daddy always accused me of messin’ with him.”
I have to say, I was disappointed with that one. I was waiting for not only something salacious but sort of wanted my mom to have some story where she harnessed her joy, desires, or a tiny bit of happiness, even if it was from an affair.
She took another sip. “But I did fall in love with my gynecologist.”
I perked up. “OHHH! Really!”
“Vahla, I was pregnant with Danielle and, ya know, he was taking care of me, listening to me. I was so sensitive at that time, and he was so nice.”
I waited for more but that was it. She had feelings for a man who cared for her. As stubborn as a bull, as innocent as a child, and loyal even when she has been abandoned. Thank God for mimosas, or as MaMama calls them, “memeesas.”
When I was young, I thought, perhaps arrogantly, that I could do better than my mom. I was going to slay dragons. Be stronger and more confident. I wasn’t going to run from bad memories. I would be a “hero,” an overcomer.
But you know the saying, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” As a theater geek, I learned that tragedies always end with the downfall of the hero. Everyone who was influenced by them, who benefits from them, who relies on them is crushed in their downfall. Heroes always cause their own downfall, like Oedipus. I didn’t want to cause my own downfall. I didn’t want to move through my life and not be accountable for recklessness. I wanted to be aware of my Achilles heel. I believed awareness was what would release my blessings. I had no idea the mammoth task I was asking the universe.
In one of my mother’s episodes of dropping spontaneous and extremely important facts, without warning or context, she told me that although she has gone by Mary Alice Davis for most of her life, her real name is actually Mae. “M-A-E,” she always says, “not M-A-Y.” She renamed herself Mary early in life because all the girls in the country were named Mae, and she didn’t want to be like everyone else. How badass is that!
The woman I tried so hard not to be was the muse sitting on my shoulder in How to Get Away with Murder. She didn’t tell me or my sisters about her name change until much later in life. I was thirty-five when I found out. It wasn’t a legal change, just a personal one. When she told me, it was absolutely not a confession, but a correction. It was almost as if she was insulted that I said her name wrong. I was sending her money via Western Union, like I always did. “Vahla! Stop writing Mary!! My name ain’t Mary! It’s Mae. M-A-E! You keep writing my name wrong!”
Silence. “MaMama, what’re you talking about? You’ve always been Mary: Mary Alice Davis.”
“Vahla! I’ve always been Mae. I just never liked that name. Everyone in the country was named Mae.”
“I . . . I . . . I’m confused.”
“But my ID says ‘Mae,’ so send it to ‘Mae Alice Davis.’”
“Vahla?! You heard what ya mama said, didn’t you?”
“Uhh. Yeah. Sure, Ma.” I just went with it. As confused as I was, I didn’t want to ask questions because she didn’t seem to be open to it. Plus, she would whoop my ass when I saw her next. I’m not kidding. Two generations removed from slavery, as docile as she appeared at times, she had a brutal right hook. So I didn’t bring up that her sister’s name was Mary, an interesting sidebar to her name change from “Mae” to “Mary.”
As much as I try to chisel into MaMama to get at the core of who she is, I never can. There are decades of suppressed secrets, trauma, lost dreams and hopes. It was easier to live under that veil and put on a mask than to slay them.
Unlike my mother, my father was a simpler man. Dan Davis was born in 1936 in St. Matthews, South Carolina. As far as I know, he had two sisters. For the life of me I can’t remember, but he had, I believe, a poor relationship with his stepfather, whose last name was Duckson.
Daddy says his education went as far as fifth grade, but evaluating his penmanship over the years, I would say my father’s formal education ended closer to second grade. He may not have been educated, but he was not a dumb man. Illiterate at fifteen, he learned to read because his friend taught him by looking at billboards on the side of the road.
At fifteen, after years of abuse, he ran away from home to work as a horse groomer at racetracks around the country. He groomed some of the greatest racehorses in history, and yet he hated the work. MaMama woefully says that my father never groomed Secretariat. We still have photos of him in the winner’s circle because the groom was nearly always in the picture when a horse won.
I loved going to work with my father when I was younger. I loved being around the horses. Even the smell of the manure, hay, and horse food excited me. Looking at the horses in their stables, and feeding them with my father is a happy memory.
When the owners came and directed my father about how to brush the horses and how to feed them, the atmosphere transformed into something very different. When my father was around those men, it was almost as though he was a slave and they were masters. He would be juggling five tasks at once. The huge syringe with vitamin shots for the horse, the different mixtures of feed, the grooming brushes and hay. They had no understanding of how much they were asking him to do at any given moment. I could feel his frustration, his anger. But what choice did he have?
To make matters worse, grooms were barely paid a living wage. Imagine hauling your family from the South with all the hope in the world that you could do better. Yet all you have, all that you can do is not good enough to keep them alive and functioning. I could tell he was happy that I had witnessed the difficulties of his job. It was a way, I think, for him to validate that what was happening to him was real.
But my father, whom we called “MaDaddy,” was more than his work. He was a great storyteller. Dad was also a pretty good guitar and harmonica player. He absolutely loved soul, jazz, and the blues, especially BB King.
Because MaDaddy is gone now, I will never know what demons caused him to run away from his home at fifteen. As much as I love my father, I know those demons haunted him his entire life. They embedded themselves deep within him and boiled into rage and alcoholism. That rage was usually released on payday.
I’ve always been an introvert, and when I was young, I was extremely shy. At an early age, I became a keen observer of the world around me. I blended into the wall in almost every setting, and I was able to see without saying a thing. What I saw in my father was a man who, alone and single, could’ve kept his check and spent it all on women and booze. But he wasn’t alone. During my childhood my father had five children to feed (minus my sister Danielle who is almost twelve years younger than me). Every penny he worked for had to go to us. Even with the hard labor, enduring the disrespect from white horse owners, it was never enough.
So, he raged.
He had open affairs. The only “other woman” I vividly remember was Patricia. Patricia was a very large woman who lived near Railroad Street in Central Falls. Railroad Street was at the edge of town, which was only a square mile. He would take me over there and always give me a dollar or seventy-five cents in quarters to not tell MaMama where we were going.
“Okay, Daddy,” I’d say, excitedly taking the money. I was no more than five or six.
My dad was always very well-dressed, and at various times would have a nice car. The car he had at this time was a convertible. Don’t ask me how he was able to afford the car, but I do think of this time period as the “good years,” financially speaking.
We would get to Patricia’s apartment and she answered the door naked, which absolutely traumatized me. Shut me right down. She in no way attempted to cover up, neither her naked ass nor her ill intentions with my father. Rather, she ran into my father’s arms, kissing him and giggling. “Oh, Dan! Is this your baby?” I wanted to say, Heifer, I’m MaMama’s baby! Not yours! I hated her. My father would just say, “Go downstairs and wait for ya daddy.”
Patricia would then close the door in my face, giggling.
I hated going downstairs. They wanted me to play with this little girl who was my age. She had the best toys, but she never wanted to play with me. She never wanted me to touch her toys, and her mom would come out and shoo me away. I ended up just sitting there by myself, wanting my mom more than ever.
My father would emerge after a long time and repeat, “Don’t tell ya mama where we been.”
As soon as we got home my mom asked, “Where y’all been?”
“We were at Patricia’s house! Daddy gave me seventy-five cents to not tell,” I blurted.
My daddy would roll his eyes and all hell would break loose.
The affair with Patricia ended when MaMama found out he was at the local bar with her. She told us that she would be right back. She left our apartment and went down to the bar and slapped the piss out of Patricia, who fell right off the barstool. My father was livid and slapped my mom.
Ironically, Patricia wrote my mom a letter explaining what a “no good asshole” my daddy was. She kept the letter under her mattress for a long time and would pull it out to read. It would always make her depressed.
My sisters and I would read it as well. In my fantasy, I always imagined her exploring what the hell to do with this information. I wish that MaMama could have acquired the tools to imagine a life free from that sort of pain. Rejecting everything her family had instilled in her about marriage and never giving up, never leaving your man even if he cheats, putting up with abuse. I imagined that if she had the language and the wherewithal, she would’ve simply said, “Help me.” “Guide me.” But even grown with multiple children, she was still that little fifteen-year-old Black girl from the backwoods of South Carolina who got pregnant and married before she could legally drive.
My older sister Dianne retells a story of my mom and dad having a fight outside. My dad was screaming, “Mae Alice! You want me to stay or leave? Tell me? You want me to stay or go?” My sister was sending telepathic messages in her mind, Please tell him to go! Tell him to go, Mama! But MaMama just screamed, “I want you to stay!” It was a choice that had resounding repercussions. Abuse elicits so many memories of trauma that embed themselves into behavior that is hard to shake. It could be something that happened forty years ago, but it remains alive, present.
Like I said, Mae Alice has a heart that simply is loyal. It attaches and asks for nothing in exchange. She shows her claws only when those she loves need protection or to protect who she feels belongs to her. She never raises her fist for . . . her. There is a very flimsy barrier between the asshole predators, abusers, and my mom. She is a “self-sacrificer” at the expense of her own joy.
My dad came home from the bar one night and collapsed inside our doorway. My mom screamed, “Y’all go to bed!!”
She helped him to their bed. He had been stabbed in the back. His lower back on the left-hand side. I got up to peek. My mom took his shirt off and used a rag and peroxide to wipe the blood. It was deep and tissue was hanging out. He kept moaning and saying, “Mae Alice, don’t call the ambulance. Don’t, Mae Alice.”
My mom finally just stood over the bed and cried. I remember coming and standing next to her. She put her arms around me and said, “I can’t do nothin’. I can’t do nothin’!” We just stood there and I remember waiting for him to die. I imagined what our lives would be like without him. I imagined a life with no more drunken rages and the constant abuse of my mom. I secretly felt how much better our lives would be. The next day, he was better. Death wouldn’t come until 2006, and man, my prayers at that time were different. Every last breath he took, I took with him.
Coming from St. Matthews, South Carolina, an area influenced by the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands, my father, as well as my mother, grew up believing in “haints,” evil spirits or ghosts.
My father made haints present in our lives. We could not sweep over by his feet or he’d become livid, saying it meant he’d go to jail. He said he had already gone to jail for stabbing a guy who pulled his shirt over his head. We couldn’t pass by a gravestone without crossing ourselves—performing the “Catholic” sign of the cross—or else the deceased person would not rest in peace. We’d have to spit on our finger, dig it in the dirt, and pass the grave again. We couldn’t stare at ourselves in the mirror for very long in the dark, without turning on the light, or we would turn into a monster. If we woke up in the morning drowsy, not yet moving or speaking, my father would run into our room, and ask, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Before we could answer, he’d say, “The witch is ridin’ the broom. It’s the haints. I, I, I got it.”
He’d get paper or cloth, sprinkle on salt and pepper, and wave it over us to get the witch to ride off. Of course, as we fully woke and started to slowly move around, that was proof to Daddy that he had warded off the haints. Victoriously, he would delve deeper: “What happened? Did ya have a bad thought about a old person who passed by ya?” Deloris or I would mention the hairy, old man down the street whom we thought looked like a monster. Mr. Miacca to be exact.
Mr. Miacca was a fictitious character in a Joseph Jacobs folktale (collected in his English Fairy Tales) who ate little boys for supper. Every time this man passed by us, we would whisper to our baby sister, Danielle, “Danielle!! Here he comes. Mister Miacca!” It would send chills up her spine and whatever bad thing she was doing she would stop immediately.
“That’s it. That’s it!” Daddy would say, again waving the salt-and-peppered paper over us. “Stop fuckin’ wit’ that man! You understand me? Stop even thinking bad thoughts about him!!”
Because of Daddy, the myth of haints was part of our lives. Haints, which are also mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird, were my parallel growing up to the Furies I later learned about in Greek theater. The Furies are goddesses in Greek tragedies who come from the Underworld to exact vengeance on a person who has done wrong. The purpose of Furies was to make the person accountable for their wrongdoing, even their part in generational curses. Daddy’s haint rituals reminded us to hold ourselves accountable. They bridged spaces that helped us learn to navigate life. They were interesting guideposts, of which I was never skeptical, until I was a teen. I bought into haints 100 percent until it didn’t make sense to me anymore. As I grew away from my parents, I tried to be my own person, dispelling what I’d been taught.
I had two parents who were running away from bad memories. Both had undiscovered dreams and hopes. Neither had tools to approach the world to find peace or joy. MaMama worked sporadically in factories and was a gambler.
My father was an alcoholic and would disappear for months at a time when we were really young. He always came back, but by the time I was five I never remember him leaving for any long periods of time. Only later did I realize he was numbing, which is absolutely without question an understandable solution to dealing with a fucked-up world. Then, he would come back, from who knows where, and beat MaMama. Lashing out instead of lashing in.
He was inaccessible to us for most of my childhood. I did not know how to reach him. He was the first man who loved me. Picked me up from school during lunch breaks before we had lunch in school. He would take me to a great mom-and-pop restaurant for wieners, hot dogs with ground meat, onions, and celery salt on top. He would put a quarter in the mechanical horsey machines and let me ride and smile from ear to ear and then drive me back to school. He loved me. That I know. But his love and his demons were fighting for space within, and sometimes the demons won.
One of the many defining memories of my dad is when I was fourteen. We were living at 4 Park Street, a two-story, two-family house. The upper floor had no electricity or heat, but at least it was two stories and we had the whole house. My baby sister, Danielle, was about one and a half years old. I would die for her. She was the most precious gift to all of us.
Well, my mom and dad were fighting. I never knew about what. Most of the time the fights just started because my dad wanted to vent. They were facing each other screaming and my dad picked up a glass. I grabbed my sister Danielle with one arm and put my other arm between my parents willing them to stop. None of my other sisters were home. My older sister Dianne left me a stern warning, “If they start fighting this time try to stop them.” Up until this time, we had never tried to stop them for fear it would get worse, because it would. With my arm between them I was gently saying, “Please, Daddy, stop.”
It didn’t work. “Tell me I won’t bust yo’ head open, Mae Alice? Tell me I won’t?”
Then he just swung his hand and smashed the glass on the side of my mom’s head and I saw the glass slice the upper side of her face near her eye and blood just squirted out. A lot of blood. I couldn’t anymore. I just couldn’t passively stand by as he lifted his hand to swing again. I yelled, “Stop! You just stop right now, Daddy! Give me the glass! Give it to me!” I saw my hand shaking uncontrollably. My heart was in my throat. I was immersed in fear.
He stood staring at my mom, wanting to swing again. My dad never looked at me. He kept his hand gripped on the glass, staring at my mom. His eyes bloodshot wanting so bad to hit her again. I screamed, “Give it to me!” Screaming as if the louder I became the more my fear would be released. And he gave me the glass and walked away. I took the glass and hid it, and my body felt like I had just been beaten up or ran thirty miles.
I had to stand up to my father, the authority figure. The one who should be taking the glass from ME, teaching ME right from wrong. The most frightening figure in my life and the first man we all ever loved. Frightening? Without knowing, I had already been imprinted, stamped by their behavior and all that they were. As much as I wanted my life to be better, the only tools I had to navigate the world were given to me by them. How they talked. How they fought. How my mom made concessions. How they loved and who they loved shaped me. If I didn’t bust out of all that, would this exhaustion and depletion be what I would feel after every fight in my life, even the small ones?
That fight marked the beginning of my shift. Looking back on that night when I stood up to my dad and wiped up my mom’s blood, I knew my life would be a fight. And I realized this: I had it in me.
“Central Falls! Central Falls! Brave Courageous and Bold! Long live our name and long live our glory and long may our story be told.”
—MOTTO OF CENTRAL FALLS HIGH SCHOOL
Two months after I was born, my parents moved to Central Falls, taking their three youngest kids, Anita, Deloris, and me, and leaving their two oldest, Dianne and John, with my mother’s parents. Dianne and John were raised by my grandparents for years until my mom could no longer stand to hear the stories of them being beaten in school. My parents sent for them to come to Central Falls.
Central Falls, Rhode Island, was a square-mile town with a single claim to fame—one of the most densely populated cities per square mile in the United States. Central Falls also had more bars and churches in its borders than any other city. Central Falls, by 1985, was named the cocaine capital because one of the largest drug stings of all time happened in its streets.
The sweet story, the idyllic story, was that it was once called Chocolateville because of the number of chocolate factories in town. To the naked eye, Central Falls seemed bucolic. There were several parks in Central Falls, but our favorite playground was at Jenks Park because of Cogswell Tower, the site where Native American scouts witnessed the approach of Captain Michael Pierce. This episode was a key part of King Phillip’s war, an armed battle from 1675 to 1678 between the Native Americans of New England and New England colonists.
We moved there because two of the biggest racetracks in the country were in Rhode Island. There was the Lincoln Downs in Lincoln, and the Narragansett Racetrack in Narragansett, affectionally called Gansett.
Mom-and-pop shops lined the streets of Central Falls. Sarah’s Restaurant had big wooden bench booths with high backs that fascinated me. Sarah’s had homemade rice pudding, corn muffins fried with heaps of butter, and the best hamburgers in town. Saint Vincent de Paul (also known as the Salvation Army) located on Washington Street had used clothes, shoes, toys, knickknacks, and furniture. It was our favorite playground of affordable leftovers.
Across the street from St. Vincent de Paul’s was Gabe’s Store, or, as we called it, Antar’s. We have plenty of loving memories at that store, but complicated ones as well. Loving because the owner, Gabe Antar, who was Syrian, was very kind to our family. It was a wonderful grocery store, stocked with everything you could possibly need. Whenever we were really hurting, he would give us a line of credit so that we could buy food. It was complicated, though, because oftentimes, MaMama and MaDaddy would ask Gabe for monetary loans.
Gabe kept a notebook under the cash register with a tally of what various neighborhood families owed him. Some of my most embarrassing memories are going to the store with a piece of paper, on which my mother had written how much money she needed. Sometimes, the embarrassment was so great that my sister Deloris and I would tear up the paper and refuse to hand him the charity request. Instead, we would just tell my mom that Gabe denied the loan. And sometimes when we asked Gabe, he would, in frustration, throw money at us because my parents had not paid their outstanding debts. This nice man would fly into a rage and scream, “Get out!” We would pick the money off the floor, humiliated, and walk out completely defeated.
When we were really hungry, though, Gabe’s was the easiest store to steal food from. Much later in life, I found out that Gabe had lost his son in Vietnam. It probably explained the frustration and sadness in his eyes. It might have also accounted for how kind he was to us as kids, and why he helped us when he saw our need. Our relationship with him was filled with love and appreciation mixed with the shame of having to cling so desperately to his willing kindness, which was all too often a lifesaver. When you’re clutching to live, morals go out the window.
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 bath towel.
One of our first apartments was 128 Washington Street. My sisters and I ominously refer to it as “128.” “128” is code for “Hell”! When we first moved in, it was a normal apartment. I was five years old at the time. There was a tailor on the ground level. And on the third floor where we lived was a nice little porch. The building was old, probably built in the ’20s or ’30s, but it had been kept in fairly good condition. But then the tailor moved out, and very quickly the building became condemned.
The tailor’s business was boarded up. Without attention, the wiring became dangerously unstable. There were several fires, and the building soon became infested with rats. In fact, the rats were so bad, they ate the faces off my dolls.
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.
We had to go to the laundromat to wash clothes. But having no money, five kids, and freezing cold weather meant that most of the time laundry would go unwashed for weeks. That, compounded with the bed-wetting, made for a home with a horrific smell. Closets and space underneath the beds would be stuffed with shoes, dust, miscellaneous items. We were afraid of even cleaning for fear rats would be lurking underneath all the “rubbish.” On the first day of the month food stamps would come and we would make a huge grocery run at BIG G market. In less than two weeks, the food would be gone.
A short time after we moved in, I remember Mayor Bessette came to the apartment and made a big speech in our living room, saying he was giving us the apartment for free. We didn’t have to pay any rent. That was because the building was condemned. In a year, the city planned to tear it down to build a school. Mayor Bessette sent someone to the apartment who knocked a hole through one of the walls that led to the apartment next door, creating a makeshift doorway. That apartment next door never had any heat or electricity. Never. Even in the short spans that our apartment had heat and electricity, the one next door never did. But we had that space.
We used it for bedrooms, running extension cords from the apartment that had electricity. Months later, I went to Mayor Bessette’s house to sing Christmas carols. It was on the other side of town, the part where the rich folk lived, or the people who had a little bit of money. His house seemed to have forty-foot ceilings, a fireplace, a huge staircase, and a Christmas tree that was the largest I’d ever seen in my life. The heat from the house just whooshed out at us, we who were shivering in the freezing cold.
“128” might as well be the code name for “the dungeon” for my sisters and me, although our time there was also speckled with good memories. My oldest sister, Dianne, had remained in South Carolina with my grandparents. She was growing up in segregated schools where the education was substandard, and dark-skinned students were frequently beaten with switches until they were bloody simply for refusing to be born “high yellow” or “Red Bone.”
Two years after we moved to Central Falls, my mom and dad finally said, “We got to raise our own kids,” and saved enough money to move my sister Dianne and my brother, John, to Central Falls with us. Dianne was nine when she entered Broadstreet School, the same school where I was in kindergarten. It went from kindergarten to sixth grade. MaMama took her to enroll in fourth grade.
After testing, her reading and math skills were marked so substandard she couldn’t be placed in the fourth grade. Mr. Fortin, the fourth-grade teacher, who always wore a nice suit and black-rimmed glasses and slicked back his hair, said the school would keep her in the third grade. Dianne remembers saying to Mr. Fortin, “If you work with me every day after school, I promise I’ll show you I can be in fourth grade.”
Mr. Fortin said, “I’ll do it.” And he kept his word. Every day after school she stayed, and he would sit right there with her. Dianne told us, “Because I’m the oldest, everything that I learn, I’ll teach you guys when I get home so you’ll be ahead.”
We bought a secondhand school desk from the St. Vincent de Paul. The chair was attached to the desk and had little beams on it. They really bought it for me. I would sit in it while Dianne taught us what she learned in school. I was mischievous in the crappiest way in school because I was bored. I’d say, “I already know this. My sister Dianne already taught me the multiplication tables.” Bored, I wanted to have a conversation, I wanted to play. “I already know how to write in cursive. My sister Dianne taught me.”
Dianne had another gift. She was a fantastic storyteller, like our dad, and could transport you to another reality simply with the power of her words. We would all sit down and clap, “Dianne. Tell us a story. Tell us a story.” She would stand in front of us and captivate us. A lot of her stories were anecdotes about her life down south, what that was like. Others were fables she made up, similar to ones told down south, fables of haints, witches, and old folklore. We totally believed.
The story I remember her telling us the most was, “One night, we heard something in the woods behind ma granmama’s house,” Dianne started. We all were sitting on the floor in the kitchen at 128. She would always stand. “I could hear it in the trees. I went out there to see what it was because everyone was scared. It was so dark, you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face. I didn’t even know what was in the woods.” That part always scared me.
“I heard a knocking and looked up, down and saw drops of blood everywhere! I went farther and saw Uncle Arnold.” Uncle Arnold was our closest uncle. “His legs were way over there! His arms were even farther away. His body was in the middle and his head was not even attached to his neck. I was in shock! I started screaming and then put my hands on my hips and looked at his head and I said, ‘Arnold! Pull yourself together!’” When we heard the punch line, we would fall out laughing our asses off. I would always scream, “Again, Dianne! Tell it again!”
When I met Dianne for the first time, it was a rare occasion when we had hot water. I was maybe five years old. Dianne was nine when she walked into our lives in Central Falls. I remember her so clearly: she wore a nice coat; she had money; she smelled nice. I was taking a bath and allegedly fussing about getting dressed when I heard Dianne say, “Where’s my baby sister?”
She came into the bathroom. I looked at her and she stared at me. It was love. In my child brain, part of the love was her offer to buy me candy from Gabe’s store. As an adult, though, I recognize there was something more important that made me love her.
She looked around at the disheveled apartment. “Viola, you don’t want to live like this when you get older, do you?” she asked in a whisper. She didn’t want my mom to hear.
“You need to have a really clear idea of how you’re going to make it out if you don’t want to be poor for the rest of your life. You have to decide what you want to be. Then you have to work really hard,” she whispered.
I remember thinking, I just want candy. I couldn’t understand the abstract. I was too young. But something I didn’t have the words for, yet could feel, shifted inside me. “What do I want to be?” The first seed had been planted.
Was there a way out?
Achieving, becoming “somebody,” became my idea of being alive. I felt that achievement could detox the bad shit. It would detox the poverty. It would detox the fact that I felt less-than, being the only Black family in Central Falls. I could be reborn a successful person. I wanted to achieve more than what my mother had.
From age five, because of Dianne, re-creation and reinvention and redefinition became my mission, although I could not have articulated it. She simply was my supernatural ally. Much later, after college, Juilliard, Broadway stages; after first being nominated for awards—Emmy, Oscar, Tony—I could finally actually articulate what that big moment was, prompted by my sister that day. It was the catalyst or agent that provoked a larger question: “Aren’t I somebody NOW?” What do I have to do to be worthy? That moment, that revelation, was the true beginning to my call to adventure.
“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
When I was six, my three older sisters, my brother—although my brother was almost never around—and I loved going to school. School was our haven. It was right next door and we were big on school, especially my sister Dianne. She absolutely loved school. She never wanted to miss a day.
It was the dead of winter and we had no heat. Next, the electricity was cut off. And then we had no phone. It just kept escalating. When you have no heat, no gas, you have no hot water. . . . It was subzero weather. Freezing. Absolutely freezing. And the pipes froze, so there was no running water. We couldn’t even flush the toilet. To make matters worse, we were all extreme bed wetters. Not going to school was unheard of for us, but that day we all stayed home. I remember sitting in the living room all day in subzero weather, all huddled together, pissy, freezing, watching my mom.
Mama was lost. Just lost. Didn’t know what to do. No running water. Pipes frozen. No heat. No phone. We clutched together, all shivering, and somewhere around midday my sister Dianne stood up and announced, “I’m going to school.” She spat on her hand. She wiped all the mucus out of her eyes, and she asked, “How do I look?”
MaMama said, “You look good, ma,” using her southern term. “You look beautiful, ma.”
“Okay. All right, I’m going to school.” And she went.
The rest of us were still there shivering when MaMama finally said, “We’re going to have to go and try to get some heat assistance.”
We layered on every item of clothing we could find. Even on the best days, we never had the right size shoes or clothes. A lot of times, we couldn’t even find socks. We almost never had clothes that were new. Every once in a while, we would go to Zayre’s, a clothing store like J.C. Penney back in the day, and get something on layaway.
For the most part, we went to St. Vincent de Paul. We loved going there because it was an adventure sorting through everybody else’s used stuff. Everything seemed to have a story: books, old toys, roller skates, Skippy’s sneakers, even fur coats and furniture.
That frigid day, we put on whatever we had and started out into the cold. The heating assistance offices were in downtown Pawtucket, one town over. Mom, Deloris, Anita, and I walked in freezing, subzero weather. I was still the youngest at that time, and I would cry in a minute—I was a total crybaby. As we started walking, I howled in tears. When we walked by the school on our way, the principal of the school, Mrs. Prosser, saw us. She was a great woman, tall and thin, with bright red hair. She always looked so regal to me and was both powerful and kind. She saw me.
Mrs. Prosser would call me to her office, and whenever she did, I would think, Oh my God. What did I do? because I was really a troublemaker. Even when I hadn’t done anything wrong, I would wait for the shoe to drop. But often she would call me to her office and shower me with bags of hand-me-downs that belonged to her daughter, really cute clothes and little purses. I would wear them to school and just stand in the schoolyard during recess and pose in the clothes she had gifted me as if to say, Look at me! It was like I was demanding or begging for attention, positive attention, not wanting anyone to touch my perfectly put together outfit.
Mrs. Prosser knew our situation. When she saw us, she yelled from the window, “Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Davis.” MaMama stopped. We were huddled together, shivering when the principal ran out. She was so desperate to get to us that Mrs. Prosser didn’t even have a coat on. “Mrs. Davis, your kids aren’t in school. What’s going on?”
“We don’t have no heat, no electricity. We ain’t got nothing. And the pipes froze. There’s no running water. They can’t even wash up. We can’t do nothing.”
“Oh, Mrs. Davis, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tears welled in her eyes as she looked at us and she touched my face. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was something we could do.”
“We’re going to downtown Pawtucket to see if I can get someone to help us to pay the bills.”
“Okay. Well, just let us know if there’s anything we can do. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to know why your kids weren’t in school.”
That period of my life was filled with shame. The feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have stage fright or humiliation, that was the shame of 128. Shame completely eviscerates you, destroys any sense of pride you may have in yourself.
One day in class I had to use the bathroom real bad and I just kept my hand raised but the teacher never acknowledged me. I couldn’t hold it anymore so I peed in my seat. It dripped on the floor and flooded my seat. My teacher got me a dry pair of pants from the nurse’s office, put my wet clothes in a paper bag, and sent me home. But the most humiliating part of this was coming back the next day to find my desk in a back corner of the classroom with the same big puddle of urine still in my seat. It stayed there until it slowly dried up. What? My six-year-old piss was too disgusting for even the janitor to clean.
I was embarrassed a lot, and 128 only heightened that sense of humiliation. Our apartment building caught fire so many times. The first time it caught fire, I was in first grade. All the kids in school peered out their classroom windows at the red fire truck in front of the building right next door to school. We watched firefighters reel out the hose pipe and spray streams of water in the building, smoke billowing out.
I heard an orchestra of voices:
“Oh my God!”
“There’s a fire!”
“Who lives there?”
“That’s Viola’s house.”
The teacher, Ms. Picard, stared at me. “Viola, is that your house?”
I’m in my schoolroom with my first-grade classmates, who already looked down at me for being Black, now looking out at my home burning. “Yeah,” I answered, watching as firefighters ran inside of my building with hoses. I did not know if it was our apartment that caught fire. It was a perfect metaphor for the devastation I felt in my heart. Because the source of my deepest shame was now a source of horrified entertainment for people who had exiled me from the day they met me.
When I went home that day, the entire apartment was in disarray. It was our apartment that had caught fire. The fire damage was extensive, but the water damage was worse. The very water that the firefighters had sprayed into our house to save it also destroyed it. The linoleum was warped, bloated and curved like waves across the floor. Looking at the remains of our apartment, I thought not even the firefighters had respect for the place we called home. I knew it was shit. But it was my shit. It was my home.
So many of the fires were uneventful. I was awakened in the middle of the night, led down a dark and smoky stairway, and stood for a long time, sleepy, with my hair wrapped up. The source of the fire would be found and order was restored, so we went upstairs and back to bed.
Then there were times when Millie, our next-door neighbor, would come banging on the door, “Dan! Dan! Get ya kids outta the house! The house is on fire!”
Millie was Black and she had a daughter named Kim and a son, Reggie, who had been in Vietnam. Kim was a fast friend. She and my sister Anita were especially close, until they weren’t. Millie was one of those cigarette-smoking, hard-core, cuss-you-out-in-a-minute, light-skinned Black women. She was also the town crier.
“Dan! Get your kids out! This fuckin’ house is on fire! You can’t go down the stairs; there’s too much smoke!”
My father yelled and woke us all up. Black smoke was coming up the stairs and we were all on the third floor.
“Y’all go to the fire escape!” My father pushed us to the porch and everyone frantically started climbing down. Now, we were all experienced fire escape climbers. We were experienced climbers in general. We climbed the fire escape when we were locked out of the house. We climbed fences to pick apples, peaches, and pears from neighbors’ yards without permission. But climbing under duress when you are convinced you’re going to die is a different story.
Well, the fire trucks were there and the firefighters had already taken their hoses out. People lined the street, just looking and gasping. My family jumped off the fire escape one after another like the Incredibles. Only one, lone family member was left behind on the last landing. Me.
I just stood there crying my eyes out. “Mama!”
My mom, dad, and siblings were all screaming, “Viola! Jump! Just jump!” My mom was in an absolute panic. She started crying hysterically, “Baby! Jump to ya mama!”
I squatted down with my arms outstretched trying to reach her because I was terrified to jump. It was just too high. I imagined flames behind me, ready to engulf me at any minute, like Dumbo when he had to jump off that wire, but I just didn’t have those big ears that could help me fly. But, as sure as I’m Black, I saw my mom fly.
She took about five big steps back, ran, and just at the right moment, leapt in the air like Michael Jordan, grabbed my arm, and pulled me down. We both fell on the concrete together. She screamed in pain! My father picked her up and we just held on to each other, tight. My sisters just slapped me on the head. “Stupid. You shoulda jumped! It wasn’t that high. Mom almost got hurt.” I just watched my mom limping and saw my sisters and brother looking shell-shocked, lost, waiting for the fire department to clear us to go back into that hellhole. It was just a roof over our heads. Nothing about it was home.
The truth is no one cares. No one looking at the fire was aware of my little “dumb show” and there were no flames. We stayed at 128 for another two years. And yes, it remained a firetrap. But in my mind, no one cares about the conditions in which the unwanted live. You’re invisible, a blame factor that allows the more advantaged to be let off the hook from your misery.
At 128, the fires simply got more frequent. The rats multiplied. The first landing stairway had holes leading straight to the basement. A family of eight kidnapped children and two female guardians moved in on the second floor and many bloodied fights, scars, and stitches were a part of our day-to-day life.
Still, in the midst of the life shitstorm, there was one teeny, tiny light. A guide. A whisper. A voice.
That one question from my Dianne. “What do you want to be?”
“Ya Honor, these kids been messin’ with my children for a long time now! I had to do somethin’.”
—MAE ALICE DAVIS
128 continued to deteriorate. People continued to move in. It wasn’t until our last few months there that we were the only ones left in that death trap. But, at this point, in came the Thompsons.
You know, when you’re poor, you live in an alternate reality. It’s not that we have problems different from everyone else, but we don’t have the resources to mask them. We’ve been stripped clean of social protocol. There’s an understanding that everyone is trying to survive and who is going to get in the way of that? The Thompsons were a perfect example.
They were a family of eight kids, mostly girls. Their parents or guardians were two women we called bullfrogs. Why? They wore glasses that made their eyes bulge out and they both had underbites. They had these huge bottom teeth that came over their top lip. They were also meaner than mean. They would always scream at the kids and beat the shit out of them. Once again, no one cared. My father would beat us and beat the hell out of my mom, so we were in the same company. But the kids, who were all around our age or older, were especially violent. The boys would start fires in the basement. The girls waited in a group for one of us to come out of school to terrorize us. We all went to different schools at the time, so we all arrived home alone.
If I saw them lurking in the yard, I simply would hide out until they went inside. The “Bullfrogs” would carry a belt around and herd them inside like animals. We would hear their screams from outside.
One day getting out of school, they saw me from yards away. The two boys whispered to each other and pointed. They got on their bikes and started pedaling fast toward me and I ran. They caught up real fast. I was seven and so terrified I couldn’t speak. I ran and screamed! I knew they planned to run over me.
As soon as they got überclose and it was obvious I wasn’t going to outrun them, I screamed. They had me cornered. I lost it. I grabbed the front wheel of one of their bikes and started screaming and going crazy! I lifted the bike off the ground and just pulled, trying everything in my power to shake this bastard off his bike!
“Stop! Stop!” He and his brother were screaming.
“Leave me the fuck alone or I’ll kill you,” I shouted like a madwoman.
They finally turned back around and left me alone, plotting for their next torturous shenanigans. And there would be many. My sister Anita smashed a brick on a car and made herself drool to get the five girls off her one day. She literally acted crazy. A technique my father taught her. Deloris was slapped a couple of times by them.
One day, my mom was done. Four Thompsons girls were blocking my sister Deloris’s path to get inside the apartment building. They finally hit her and she ran upstairs. My mom went into an alternate reality. In other words, she lost her mind. She came running down the stairs to the door of the building. I ran behind her. I absolutely loved to witness any kind of fight outside of our apartment. It was better than prime-time television.
My mom raised her fist. “Y’all need to stop messin’ with my children! You understand me? Keep it up and I’ll beat yo’ ass myself!”
I was beyond impressed. My mom turned around after she made her point to come back upstairs. I looked at them as if to say, My mama told you!
Well, as my mom turned to walk up, the meanest of the mean girls, Lisa, said, “You bald-headed Black bitch.”
The best comparison I can make to what happened next is that boulder coming after Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If he didn’t run, it most definitely would’ve flattened his ass. Well, my mom was that boulder. She leapt down the one flight of stairs she was on and said, “What did you call me?” But it really wasn’t a question because she proceeded to slap Lisa so hard her entire body raised up off the ground and she fell flat on the dirty floor of our apartment building entryway. Her sisters were frozen. She didn’t stop there. While Lisa was on the ground, my mom pointed her finger and finished her historic “cuss out.”
“Don’t you ever call me any names! I’ll slap the piss out of you again! You understand me! And leave my children alone!”
She turned around and walked up the remaining stairs to our apartment cussing the whole time. “C’mon, Vahla!”
I was impressed and looked back at Lisa crying on the ground. “That’s right! My mom beat yo’ ass!” Then all hell broke loose.
The Bullfrogs were informed and decided to press charges. We were all terrified. We were sure my mom would go to jail. Words were exchanged. There was a lot of back-and-forth, cussing, fists raised. The strangest part of all of it was that the Bullfrog family would disappear for weeks, even months at a time and then suddenly appear in their car and stay for a while before disappearing again. And one of them always had a wad of cash in an apron pocket.
Every day my dad would pace back and forth and chain-smoke. “You done it now, Mae Alice. Oh man! The judge may send you to jail or give you a fine.”
My mom would only say, “I’m gon’ tell the man the truth.” She was still hot. Still mad.
The day came when my mom finally went to court. My dad went with her. It’s funny that there were moments within all the fighting, horrific abuse, and alcoholism that they had real moments as a united front, a team. But also in the presence of authority, my dad took the passive back seat and my mom dominated.
My dad prepared MaMama. “Mae Alice! What evah the judge say, you listen to. Don’t say nothin’. Don’t talk back. Don’t do nothin’. I been through this Mae Alice. I know,” he whispered nervously.
“Dan! I know how to talk!”
“But Mae Alice, you gotta say ‘yes ya honor, no ya honor.’ I’m tellin’ you.”
He should’ve kept talking to her. Because apparently when the judge called on them, my mom went off.
“Ya honor! These muthafucking kids keep messin’ with my children! Every time my children come home from school, they outside blocking they way in, hitting them, trying to beat them up! I got tired of it! And yeah, I slapped the shit outta her cuz she called me a bald-headed Black bitch! And yeah, I call they so-call ‘parents’ bullfrogs cuz that’s what they are. They eggin’ they kids on.”
My dad kept tugging my mom’s arm, saying softly, “Mae Alice! You can’t say that.”
“Dan, stop tuggin’ on my arm! I’m trying to talk to the man! I’m tellin’ him the truth about these common bastards.”
The judge interrupted her. “But Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis! You cannot hit other people’s children. It’s illegal.”
“Ya honor, I’m tryin’ to tell you, I had enough! They somethin’ wrong with those people. I had to protect my children!”
My father kept trying to both shush her and show his exasperation. “Mae Alice. Sit down! Be quiet, Mae Alice!”
“Dan! Stop trying to shush me! I’m tryin’ to tell the man what the situashin’ is.”
As unlikely as it may seem, the judge understood. MaMama was and always has been a charmer, even when she’s out of control. He let her go. And for the next several weeks, epic jabs were traded between our families. From our third-floor porch, we would see them across the street in a parking lot. The two Bullfrogs would shout, “You do it again, you see what you get.”
“I ain’t gon’ get nothing. But I’ll slap the piss out of them again if they call me a bald-headed Black bitch,” my mom yelled back, laughing. “I knocked her little ass down.”
“Don’t you touch my kids,” the Bullfrogs responded.
They’d yell and yell, trading jabs. It built up resentment and made us more afraid to be cornered outside. However, something else was happening. As the adults were yelling, the kids, all of us, were subdued. It’s as if we were saying it was too much. They knew that they had crossed the line and we just wanted it to stop. But the vitriol of our “protectors” was overriding our renewed feelings of wanting to, dare I say, bond? Be friends?
The catalyst of friendship would come days later. We were in the backyard playing softball. The Thompson kids suddenly came out and Lisa picked up the bat. She started circling the yard ominously. The others were behind her silently egging her on. My sister Deloris ran upstairs to get my parents. Only, my dad came downstairs. The Closer. The big dog. The one who cannot be named. Lord Voldemort. The HNIC. There was no stopping him and there was no buildup. He came out like a category 5 storm.
He grabbed the baseball bat. “Stop this muthafucking shit right now! You want to mess with me, muthafuckers?” He began waving the bat at them, beating the side of the house, the ground, the air. I believe even the Bullfrogs came out.
“Come at me, you Bullfrog muthafuckers! Mess with my kids one more time and I’ll beat all you muthafuckers! You hear me?” Then he dropped the bat and went inside the house.
There was dead silence. No one moved. My father, when he got mad, was a man of his word. He would keep various “toys” by his bed throughout our childhood. A pitchfork, a machete, an ax. And he used every last one of them. He chased Porky with the pitchfork; Porky was one of his friends who was about five feet tall, dressed like Elvis, and had a car with no backs to the seats. It was just a bunch of tattered foam. He came to the house demanding money for fixing my dad’s car. My dad showed him the pitchfork instead. I’ve never seen a man run with so much terror. My dad chased him by foot with his pitchfork and Porky was in his car. Dad came back home, started boiling a pot of water, and sat by the window waiting for him to come back. As for the ax and the machete? Well, those events would come much later.
Dad’s confrontation with the Thompsons and the baseball bat was effective. After that, believe it or not, we became friends. Good friends. There were smiles, protectiveness, laughs. We were all just figuring out how to love and connect. We were just ensnared in the trap of abuse. The constantly being beaten down so much makes you begin to feel that you’re wrong. Not that you did wrong, but you were wrong. It makes you so angry at your abuser, the one that you’re too afraid to confront, so you confront the easiest target. Those you can. Until your heart gets tired. No one ever, up until that point, talked to us, asked us what our dreams were, asked us how we were feeling. It was on us to figure it out.
There is an emotional abandonment that comes with poverty and being Black. The weight of generational trauma and having to fight for your basic needs doesn’t leave room for anything else. You just believe you’re the leftovers.
Many years later, my mom saw Lisa, the meanest of the mean ones, and Lisa apologized. She told my mom, “Mrs. Davis, I’m so sorry for how I acted back in the day, but I missed my mom. They had taken me from her. They took all of us and were committing welfare fraud. That’s why we had two different homes. All those girls were not my sisters, and the boys weren’t my brothers. Plus, those women were sexually and physically abusing us. They even accused you of burning John’s arm. We all knew that was a lie. I’m sorry, Mrs. Davis.”
Then came James, Bobby, and Frank. They were my best friends next door. They had a mom and dad who called them in for dinner and lunch. Their father, Tommy, even built them a little partitioned play area behind the house. They were rough-and-tumble boys, but kind, funny, and I felt, well, that I had some power over them. They’d listen to me. I was nine or ten at the time but the wise Seer who would bring information from my older brother and sisters.
Tommy was a man with a temper. The boys’ mother had cerebral palsy and the father constantly abused her. I didn’t know it at first because I was too busy admiring the fact that they had food and dinnertime, and a nice apartment. Also, I was too busy sanitizing the character flaws of people in general. There was just a basic understanding that they (everyone else) were better. They were victims of unfortunate circumstances and needed love and healing. I, however, was just born bad.
Everyone knew that Tommy abused his wife. The worst part of it is, my sisters and I found him sneaking out of his apartment around 9 p.m. at night to fool around with his next-door neighbor, Rhonda. We would see it because we always pushed our curfew by a few minutes and started snooping around like Sherlock Holmes. We all wanted to be secret detectives and, voilà, we uncovered the best-kept secret.
Tommy and Rhonda would sit on the stairway leading to her apartment and hold hands and kiss. We would watch, hidden, and then at an opportune time would jump out and scream, “Cheater!”
It pissed him off so bad. He would chase after us.
Now, we also had the world’s best pet at that time, our dog, Coley. Coley was a collie. My father brought him for us from the racetrack. He was a trained dog, very smart, and he absolutely loved us.
He was so loyal that my mom took him to City Hall with her one day. She finished her business but went out the back door instead of the front door where she came in. She kept calling Coley and wondered where he was. He was gone. She was in a panic so we all combed the city. We found him hours later at the front door of City Hall where my mom went in. He was whimpering and still waiting for her to come out.
One day, I got the epic idea of seeing the ghost of a girl who had died at Cogswell Tower. Cogswell Tower was in Jenks Park, our favorite after Washington Street Park closed down. During the summer we were involved in recreational competitions. At night, Cogswell Tower was as ominous as they come. It looked like a tower of terror. I had heard a very blurry story of a girl who committed suicide there. She morphed into an unsettled spirit whose only purpose was to roam the tower minaciously.
I told James, Bobby, and Frank the story. Like always, I had their attention and they were as fascinated as me. That night, I told them that I would help them sneak out of their apartment and we would walk to the park. Well, as soon as it got dark, around 8:30 p.m. or so, I went to their first-floor apartment and knocked on their bedroom window. I slowly helped all of them climb out. We were pumped, but scared and tired. “We’re going to see a ghost! But soon as we see her, we should run,” I instructed my crew. We started off walking toward the park. James, the youngest, was absolutely exhausted and I could tell that all they wanted was to go back home. We were in over our heads.
“Bobby! James! Frank!” A booming voice shouted behind us.
Holy shit! It was their father. He was carrying a belt and running. He started whipping them. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get back home! What’re you doing with my kids?” His last shouted words were directed at me.
I said, “They wanted to come.”
“You can’t play with them anymore! Find some other friends.” They walked off, the boys wailing and crying. I felt like shit and was a little jealous that their father came running out with a belt to find them. No one came running looking for me.
The next day Tommy, livid, approached my father and told him what happened. He ranted. He screamed, “She’s a bad influence on my kids! I don’t want her around them!”
My father kept saying it was a mistake, but Tommy started directing his anger at my dad for not controlling me. He was inches away from my dad. It occurred to me that these were two men who had similar anger issues. Finally, my dad grabbed his neck, “You white muthafucker! Don’t ever get in my face talking ’bout my children being a bad influence. You messin’ around on your wife, and yo’ kids are just as bad!”
He was choking him. Then he just pushed him away and told him to never get in his face again. Tommy walked off gasping for air, terrified, and humiliated.
The next day, Coley got real sick. He stopped eating and drinking water. He had foam around his mouth and matter in his eyes. Our friends, the Weigners, lived up the street and their father was what we called a “Dogcatcher.” He basically worked at an animal shelter. He came over and determined that Coley had been given rat poisoning. There was nothing we could do but put him to sleep. He was in so much pain that dementia had set in.
The last time we saw him, we all said good-bye. He was in the kitchen and was wagging his tail. He loved us so much. I clutched my mom hysterically. We were devastated. The loss of any pet is hard, but it’s especially hard when they serve a larger purpose that is fulfilling the deficit of loyalty and love.
Tommy poisoned the dog. Or at least, that’s what my father suspected. He said he saw Tommy in the yard.
Central Falls was my home, but it was also a minefield. It was a small town where you were constantly trying to dodge little and big explosions that could level you while trying to occupy space in it to be somebody. It was an emotional war zone made worse by the war zone at home. I didn’t know what boundaries were. I was constantly doing messed-up shit to be seen, exercising any semblance of power and authority I had to feel alive. I wanted to squeeze out any level of joy and laughs I could. But the worst part is, deep inside there was a demon, and another part of me that was wrestling with the “alive” me. She, the demon, kept whispering, “You’re not good.” But the other part, the fighter, the survivor, screamed back a resounding, “No!”
“It was like a hand reached for mine and I finally saw my way out.”
Our television set at 128 did not work, but it had another television set that did work sitting on it, one that relied on an aluminum-foil-wrapped antenna. Connected to an extension cord from one of the few working outlets, the TV sat in the next-door apartment. One evening while watching TV, a new world opened up before my very eyes. A woman who looked just like MaMama came on television one night, and something magical happened.
Suddenly, I saw her. I saw her. It was Miss Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She had a long neck and was beautiful, dark-skinned, glistening with sweat, high cheekbones, thick, full lips, and a clean, short Afro.
My heart stopped beating. The shame, pain, fear, confusion, all these negative feelings I had about my life and my situation were blasted through a brand-new doorway. It was like a hand reached for mine and I finally saw my way out. The beauty of that moment was that my sisters saw an exit too.
I experienced the true power of artistry. At that moment, I found my calling. How Miss Tyson transformed from 18 to 110 years old was supernatural. I wanted to be supernatural. I wanted my life to mean something, and this was it. I finally found it.
It wasn’t long after, I had my first performance—a skit, with my sisters in a contest at Jenks Park, sponsored by the Central Falls Parks and Recreation Department. It was a big deal. The whole city was buzzing. All the white kids who went to Theresa Landry’s School of Dance for tap dance, acrobatic lessons, and so forth—some of whom very freely called us nigger, nigger, nigger all the time—were favored to win. But anybody in Central Falls could create a skit and whoever won got a profile in the paper and a prize. My sisters and I decided we were going to win that damn contest.
Dianne, being the academic high achiever and oldest sister, took the lead and told us: “I studied this. We need a producer. We need a director. We need a writer. We need actors. And we need a wardrobe budget.” Dianne became the producer. I was a writer/actor, and Anita was an actor as well. Deloris was a bit of everything and took on director, actor, and coproducer.
We decided to create our own original skit called “The Life Saver Show” based on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal. MaMama was addicted to game shows. In our game show, contestants would come on and share their story about saving another person’s life. Whoever had the best lifesaving story would win the contest. Deloris played a Monty Hall–type talk-show host character. I played the Ooh-Wee Kid—that’s Ted Lange from the television show That’s My Mama. Dianne was Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son. Anita was Aunt Esther from the same show. We wrote our skit over the span of two and a half weeks, and we started early.
We had a wardrobe budget of $2.50 that we put together by finding loose change, and for things we couldn’t afford to buy, we raided my mom and dad’s closet. They said, “You can take whatever is in our closet and use it.” We took the fur coat she got from St. Vincent de Paul, her straw purse, hat, wig. We got a suit of my father’s, which Deloris and Dianne wore, although it was totally oversized. The rest we bought from St. Vincent de Paul with the $2.50.
Our rehearsals were intense. We approached the skit like it was Shakespeare. If a line didn’t work, Dianne would stop the rehearsal and tell me “It isn’t landing.” Then, I would go into the closet to focus and come up with something better. To put it in context, this closet was filled with junk and rats, but I braved it for rewrites.
Finally, the day came. We had researched the skit to an inch of our lives. I had massive stage fright. Massive. I could barely perform in private with my sisters. My throat would constrict. My stomach would be in knots. I would just . . . freeze. But my sisters threatened me not to flake out or else. That’s how important this was. It seemed like the entirety of Central Falls was gathered in Jenks Park that day. Reporters and photographers from the Pawtucket Times were there. Kids and their parents were sitting on the grass and on the huge rock that was smack-dab in the middle of the park. Some spectators even brought folding chairs.
When it finally started, and the group of kids who were favored to win were introduced, the whole park screamed in excitement. When they finished, it was to thunderous applause, with the knowledge that they had found their winning group. I remember my sisters and I looking at one another, pumping each other with confidence.
And then they all sat back down and Dianne said, “Okay, you know we got to do it like we practiced. We’re up.”
We did our little chant, which consisted of “We’re gonna win! We’re gonna win!”
Dianne looked at me and saw my fear. “We’re not freezing today, Viola. Right?” I nodded reluctantly. The butterflies in my stomach were overwhelming, but so was the desire to not destroy what we created.
When they introduced us, there was clapping but nothing near the ovation for the previous group. That group stood near the stage with their arms crossed. We were the last group of the day. We started off by all singing our own rendition of the jingle from The Tonight Show. Deloris came on first and said, “Welcome everybody to ‘The Life Saver Show.’ I’m your host, Monty Hall. And I’m here to tell you that we have a show where everyone is asked to share your lifesaving stories. We’ve got the ultimate $1 million prize for each of you. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”
There was an interruption.
The interruption was me. I came on as the Ooh-Wee Kid and mimicked Ted Lange, the town gossip as best as I could: “Ooh-Wee. I got it. I got it. I’m here to report it.” Then nine-year-old me said, “Fred Sanford is coming on the show. He’s coming on the show. And he, and he’s about to mess things up. You’ve got to watch out for him.”
Dianne as Fred Sanford came on and shared his story that he saved a bunch of lives when he saw a group of people fall off a bridge and jumped into the water to rescue them. Anita as Aunt Esther came out and Fred said, “Aunt Esther, I should put your face in some dough and make some gorilla cookies,” and he and Aunt Esther started fighting, the way they did on the TV show.
Fred finally ends his lifesaving story by saying, “I jumped into the water to save Aunt Esther.”
Aunt Esther, played by Anita, was so moved she said, “You went in to save me, Fred?” To which he replied, “No, I went in to save the fish because you so damn ugly.”
They began to fight even more, and Fred tore off Aunt Esther’s wig, revealing her bald head underneath. The skit ended with a standing ovation. But nostalgia is powerful. The memory of the winning. The applause. The acceptance is my takeaway. But my lack of self-love and my complete inability to open up to anyone about my one driving fear—“My father is going to beat my mom to death one day”—couldn’t be voiced. The adoration is as powerful as that curtain was in The Wizard of Oz. It hid a lie that gave me temporary asylum. That’s what winning was . . . an instant protection and smoke screen to hide the fact that I was simply scared all the time. I felt like an “outsider” all the time.
We won! We got first place and I’ll never forget the faces of the chosen girls from Theresa Landry’s School of Dance when they watched us do our happy dance, too. “We won. We won.”
Some gift certificates, maybe to McDonald’s or a place like that, is all I think we won, along with a softball set. One of those plastic sets with the softball and a hard, plastic, red bat. We weren’t interested in the softball set. We just wanted to win. We wanted to be somebody. We wanted to be SOMEBODY.
“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”
—GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
My sisters became my platoon. We were all in a war, fighting for significance. Each of us was a soldier fighting for our value, our worth. We were all in it together; we all needed one another. None of us could fight individually. I know I didn’t have enough strength. We were fighting a war with seen and unseen enemies. Regardless, our commitment was to the whole. It was a together-or-nothing ethos. Eventually, we would separate and some would be left on the battleground intact but missing something. But, as children, we were in it together: Dianne, the oldest; Anita, one year behind her; Deloris, two years younger; and me, three years her junior. We all wanted out and our bonds of sisterhood helped make a way. Dianne was the brains. Anita the brawn. Deloris was the mastermind. Me? I was the one who could either drag the whole team down or up miraculously in the final hour.
We were transformed by Miss Tyson. Then, winning the drama skit contest shifted our lives because our sister platoon had seen a physical manifestation of winning our war.
The bat from the softball set, the red bat we won, became the rat catcher, a tool in our arsenal.
Rats always come out of nowhere. You could be sitting in front of the TV, watching your show, and all of a sudden, a rat jumps on the couch. Or one comes scurrying out of a hole in the wall and in a flash is underneath the couch.
Whenever we saw a rat, we told Anita, “I saw a rat!” Once she saw the rat, she got the prize we won—that red bat—out. We would all stand behind her, clutching her. Dianne said, “It went under . . . It went under there. Get it. Get it. Get it.” We were all really quiet, waiting for it to slow down. We saw its tail, visible under the couch. Anita waited. She, who, by the way, became an all-star softball player, timed it perfectly. Bam! She actually knocked the tail off the rat. She didn’t kill the rat. She just knocked its tail off.
The prize bat came in handy again when Mama was napping in her bedroom, her mouth open, in the middle of the day one weekend. Unafraid of our black cat Boots, the biggest freakin’ rat we had ever seen was on her pillowcase, slowly inching toward her.
We snuck out and told Anita, “There’s a rat. It’s about to kill Mom—bite Mama’s neck!”
Anita got the bat and once again, we were behind her, holding on to her, as the rat stealthily inched toward Mama’s open mouth. Why we just didn’t yell, “Mama! Wake up!” to make the rat jump off the bed and run, I don’t know. Boots leapt onto the pillow, viciously “Meowed,” and the rat darted into the closet and hid among the crowded clothes.
Mama awoke startled. “The rat is somewhere in the middle of the clothes,” we screamed. Was it in between the coats or hidden in the dresses? We were trying to figure it out, peeking to see its tail from behind Anita who wielded the red bat. “I think it’s right here,” she said. “Make sure you get it, Anita, because he’s somewhere in the middle of these clothes,” we chimed. Anita aimed perfectly. She timed it, just like she later hit softballs. And as hard as she could, she brought that red bat down and flattened the rat like a pancake.
The great memory of winning that contest—my acting debut, that started me on my journey toward becoming an actress—is accompanied by recollections of that red, plastic bat and its handiness as a rat killer. Rats are a huge part of that memory of winning. I’m terrified of rats to this day.
Our growing-up years were speckled with good moments. Happiness for me was Valentine’s Day. My father knew how to celebrate Valentine’s Day and other major holidays. He bought lots of chocolate, and believe it or not, for Easter he bought Easter eggs and gave us cards. Christmas, especially when we were younger, was festive and we would always put up a tree. Once I got to be about eleven or twelve, there weren’t many gifts. But still, we had a Christmas tree and my dad was the happy drunk when he would play his guitar.
I was seven or eight when my dad got us a pool table. It was a full-size pool table. My dad bought it because he liked playing pool at the bar. I loved playing pool. After a while, that pool table was jacked up, and we never had another one. But sometimes we would go to the bar—back in the day when parents could take kids to the bar—and play darts and pool and be treated to Sprite and potato chips.
These happy moments would soon be followed by trauma—the rage of my dad’s alcoholic binges, violence, poverty, hunger, and isolation. In my child’s mind, I was the problem. I would retreat to the bathroom, put something against the door so no one would come in, and I’d sit for an inordinate amount of time staring at my fingers and hands and try to erase everything in my mind. I wished I could elevate out of my body. Leave it.
One time, when I was about nine years old, I succeeded. I left it; my body that is, in a manner of speaking. I floated up to the ceiling, looking down at myself, observing my hair, my legs, and my face. Then I faced myself, staring directly into—me. Wow! I loved it. It was a magical, secret power, only I didn’t see myself as magical or powerful. I just felt free. It was my way of disappearing. It was my high. I couldn’t always control this out-of-body sense, but when I could, it was beyond fabulous. The power to leave my body, to be relieved of Viola for a while, was an ever-present image that followed me for decades.
I never liked how it ended, though. These out-of-body experiences would always seem to stop abruptly. I would come crashing down, like in movies where someone has telekinetic powers and would lift an item but couldn’t concentrate anymore, so the item would come crashing down. I was out of my body and suddenly, back in it. I tried to compartmentalize, to dodge those heavy emotions, until I couldn’t. The power was temporary.
Even now, me and Deloris have dreams about “128.” It created the backdrop for bonds of sisterhood. “128” was a womb of sisterhood. At night, we sisters would huddle on a top bunk for warmth, horrified at the sounds of rodents eating pigeons on the roof, eating our toys, squealing, when we felt the weight of their bodies as they jumped on our bed searching for something to eat. We would wrap bedsheets around our necks to protect ourselves from bites.
Going to the bathroom at night in the midst of this was not an option. Cutting on the lights and watching them scurry was not an option because there were no lights in the part of the apartment where we slept. The bathroom was a faraway place on the other side of the apartment, but it may as well have been on the other side of the world. If you didn’t go before bed, you could forget making that journey at night. So, we just peed.
We dreamed away our problems. When Dad was drunk or there was turmoil, my sister Deloris and I would disappear into the bedroom and become “Jaja” and “Jagi,” rich, white Beverly Hills matrons, with big jewels and little Chihuahuas. We would play this game for hours. “Ooh my, Jaja,” Jagi would say, “I bought this fabulous house and my husband bought me this beautiful diamond ring.” We played with such detail that it became transcendent.
We played with the backdrop noise of our mom being beaten and screaming in pain. But we believed we were in that world, until eventually, Deloris would break the spell, saying, “You’re not Jaja. You’re poor. You’re on welfare. You don’t have diamonds.” We’d fight and the game of pretend would be over—until the next time there was family tumult. It was how we escaped. We transformed into people we felt were “better.” People who existed in a world we only dreamed of; women who were not us. We played for fun and out of desperation. Jaja and Jagi were our pretend protection.
The majority of my most joyful memories were from my relationship with my sisters. We dreamed together so ﬁercely. We started a band called the Hot Shots. We were trying to be the Jackson 5. We never wrote a song or played an instrument. We had no money to take lessons. But what we lacked in ability, we made up for in dr…