In the August/September 2015 issue of AARP The Magazine, Viola Davis of ABC’s hit series, “How to Get Away with Murder,” talks about growing up in poverty and why giving back is important to her.
Now the star of a drama that has 9 million viewers on the edge of their seats, Davis said she is living her dream by just being able to afford a house. “When you grow up poor, you dream of just having a home and a bed that’s clean — that’s a sanctuary,” Davis said.
In her interview with AARP, the actress said that she grew up in a household with five siblings in an old building in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her mother worked in a factory and her father groomed racehorses. “But grooms don’t make money,” Davis said. “Definitely not enough to feed a family of eight.”
Her family received food stamps that paid for groceries which did not last the entire month. Occasionally, Davis had to resort to garbage dumps for scraps and sometimes she had to steal from a store. When she was caught, she felt so ashamed that she forced herself to stop. Davis then had to count on other means to eat.
“Most of the time, the school lunch was the only meal I had. I would befriend kids whose mothers cooked three meals a day and go to their homes when I could,” Davis said.
The summers were difficult because she did not have school to feed her, but the winters were not much easier. The pipes in the building where she lived sometimes froze over, so the family did not have water to clean with or drink. The furnace broke, and the family would have to use each other’s body heat to stay warm.
Despite her hunger and unstable home life, Davis performed well in school. She and her siblings wanted to make sure they did not live in those conditions in the future.
“School was their haven,” Sara Davidson, AARP The Magazine writer, said. “And they stayed late, participating in sports, music, drama and student government.”
School was not only Davis’ means for nourishment but also where she found her calling. She entered the Upward Bound program, which funded her education at Rhode Island College. After graduating, she attended Juilliard for their drama program.
Continuing in her success, Davis won two Tony awards and later received two Oscar nominations.
Though it seemed as if Davis’ rise to fame was only increasing, she still had her doubts about being cast in a lead role. In her childhood years, she had experienced racism every day.
“People would throw things out of their cars and call us the N-word,” Davis said.
Because of this, she thought she was too dark-skinned to earn a big part in a Hollywood movie. “That notion was upended when, in 2014, she was offered the starring role in How to Get Away with Murder,” Davidson said.
In addition, although Davis was more than pleased with her life as a professional actress, wife and mother, she yearned for something more. She was asked to be the spokesperson for Hunger Is, and now she is dedicated to giving back.
Hunger Is was formed by the Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The campaign seeks to end childhood hunger. With her own experience in the matter, Davis gave a touching speech about her childhood struggles. The two non-profits then donated $100,000 to the causes of her choice.
Davis divided this contribution between many organizations in her hometown including Central Falls High School’s Thespian Society.
Helping kids achieve their dreams, or even getting them meals, has brought Davis more happiness than acting. Although she had a difficult childhood, Davis is still looking up.
“There’s buoyancy and lightness in me. I’m not angry about my life. I’m not bitter at all. I’m happy,” Davis said.
To read more about Davis’ interview, visit the AARP website.
– Fallon Lineberger