A modern-day goddess, Viola Davis is the only African American actor to date to have won an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Award. She helped make Thursday night primetime TV a riveting must watch event, in her role as Professor Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away with Murder,” and was a favorite among movie goers, when she played opposite to Denzel Washington as Rose Maxson, in the film adaptation of the August Wilson play, “Fences.” From theater to movies to television, Viola Davis is that woman who electrifies any role she embodies and is an unforgettable speaker.
I reflect on three things I learned from Viola’s Davis’ recent keynote address on Saturday, March 24, 2018 at the St. Louis Urban League’s Centennial Gala, in Downtown St. Louis at the Marriott Hotel. Hearing Viola speak at a time when I myself, as an artist am at a crossroads, gave me renewed validation and encouragement.
When Viola Davis took to the stage, she was beautiful. Glistening skin. Luxurious afro. Red lips. Standing confident and beaming with the kind of energy that said, “I’m here.” As Viola Davis began to speak, I took note of her words knowing I would receive gems of wisdom from the award-winning thespian.
1. No One Can Take Away Your Call to Adventure
Viola recounted painful memories, growing up in Rhode Island, impoverished and often bullied because of the color of her skin. She said she was “always fighting someone” to defend herself against being called the “N word” and being harassed in general as a young black girl. Viola remarked, “What I encountered are things within myself that were so damaged by a culture that tried to rip it apart. Telling me I wasn’t as good enough, I wasn’t as pretty, I wasn’t as worthy, I wasn’t as smart, I wasn’t as anything but when I acknowledged that and I confronted that then somehow it gave me the power.” What helped Viola make sense of her early pain and appreciate her journey, is what she called her “call to adventure.” Viola remarked that she “had a call to adventure when I was very young. A call to live a life bigger than myself and I didn’t know what the call was but I knew it was something great.” Hearing Viola speak about her life in terms of the hero’s call to adventure reminded me that we are all the hero in our own lives, particularly when faced with insurmountable challenges and traumas. And when we awaken to realize the challenges will and almost always do turn into blessings that further us on our path, we inch more closely to mastering our fate to achieve our dreams.
2. Service is a Characteristic of a Great Person
With all that is occurring in our world and society — violence, poverty, unemployment, inequalities related to gender, race, ethnicity, and class, if you are somehow able to live your purpose, be in your right and stable mind, and spend time with those you love — you are truly fortunate. Viola Davis mentions at the age of 52 feeling that even though she has reached the “glass ceiling” and is a “big celebrity” that she knows there is still more to do, in fulfilling her purpose. This fulfillment for her includes giving back to the community and speaking out against injustices. Viola Davis reflected on the Civil Rights era encouraging the audience to engage in current social justice work. She stated, “If we all picked up the signs. If we all did what all those beautiful people did back in Birmingham, Alabama who stopped taking the bus. The freedom riders the Fannie Lou Hamer’s that got beaten by a pipe and eventually succumbed to injuries…it’s like she said, ‘I was sick and tired of being sick and tired’ so she fought.” Each of us have an individual role to play in contributing to make our world a better place. You can do it with your voice, your art, working in the community, tutoring a child, giving a donation, and encouraging those who are doing great works.
3. There is Privilege in Being Who You Are
Sometimes on the path to achieving, we forget that we are the gem, the prize, and the dream. This doesn’t become true when you win the award, get the job, reach the glass ceiling or become validated by the world alone. Viola eloquently shared one of her common inspirational phrases, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” What this means to me is, instead of comparing yourself to others, being down on yourself, or not giving yourself credit for how far you’ve come, consider your life and who you are right now, to be a privilege. Viola Davis stated in her speech that we are our “parents, your grandparents, and ancestors’ dream.” I have often heard since I was young, that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, drawing strength and tenacity from their trials so that we can be better, stronger, and more accomplished than generations past. Viola told a story about her father having died of pancreatic cancer. Her sister mentioned to her then, “He didn’t do anything with his life, he had a second-grade education.” This was painful for Viola to hear. She later came to believe that this wasn’t true after hearing from someone else, “He did have dreams you’re his dream.” This was a powerful realization and one that has stayed with her.
Viola Davis’ keynote address reminded me that we the sum total of the dreams of our foremothers and forefathers. We have a right to continue to live our truths and continue to embrace our own individual call to adventure. Davis’ speech also reminded me that reaching a status of greatness also means reflecting back on your life and continuing to fulfill your purpose to lift and inspire others. Viola Davis is more than an actor. She is a symbol of what we all can be when we embrace our authentic selves and make peace with even the most painful aspects of our beginnings.