Viola Davis on Growing Up in Extreme Poverty: “People Don’t See You”

I have a clear memory from my childhood of sitting in a freezing cold house in Maine staring at pictures of roast beef and chocolate layer cakes in my mother’s cookbook because I was hungry and we had no food. We were poor. I wore hand-me-downs that did not fit, we used dish soap to wash our hair sometimes, we had a car that could not drive in reverse. And just like the actress Viola Davis, I have very few pictures of myself growing up.

In a recent interview with People, Davis, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress less than a week ago, spoke openly and candidly about growing up in poverty. Her family could not afford a camera or the cost of developing film (anyone still remember what film is?), and so this image of her in kindergarten is the only image of her childhood that Davis owns.

Of the picture Davis notes, “I have this expression on my face — it’s not a smile, it’s not a frown. I swear to you, that’s the girl who wakes up in the morning and who looks around her house and her life saying, ‘I cannot believe how God has blessed me.’”

According to the mag, Davis was born on her grandmother’s farm in St. Matthews, South Carolina — a farm that was once a slave plantation where her grandfather worked as a sharecropper. Starting out her life in a run-down shack, Davis would learn very quickly what it means to not only be poor, but also to harness her experiences in poverty and use them as motivation to be successful.

Speaking with People, Davis shared how she and her five siblings struggled with hunger, neglected housing conditions, and racism at the hands of schoolyard bullies.

The thing about poverty is that it starts affecting your mind and your spirit because people don’t see you.
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“I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me … [but] it became motivation as opposed to something else.”

— the thing about poverty is that it starts affecting your mind and your spirit because people don’t see you.”

Davis went on to describe how as a young girl she was determined to climb out of poverty, and that by starting out with so little, she is able to truly appreciate what she has now. She also credits her mother with learning that growing up poor is not enough to hold one back. At the age of two, Davis was sent to jail along with her civil rights activist mother after participating in a Civil Rights protest. During her Oscar acceptance speech, which moved the audience to tears, Davis said, “I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

If you were watching that night, you could no doubt feel the power of what her life experiences have meant to her, as she spoke from the Oscar stage. And it’s clear that now, so many years after those early days of struggle, Davis appreciates everything that has come her way since.

“‘I cannot believe my life,'” she told People. “I just can’t. I’m so blessed.”


As I listened again today to her Oscar speech — and as I look at her one and only photo from childhood — I feel a swelling of pride and heartache. Because I too know what it means to be poor; to be unseen. So, when strong women like her stand up and give voice to the voiceless through her compelling portrayals in film, and through her thoughtful and empowering speeches, it means giving hope to those who need it most.

If you didn’t know it before, now you do: Viola Davis is one amazing woman.

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Article Posted 3 years Ago

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