The Strength of a Woman
VIOLA DAVIS is more than the iconic characters—a mother, maid, wife, First Lady, and warrior queen—we have seen on screen. In a world that often deems Black women invisible, the explosive and pressure-filled eruptions, also known as her life, brought a diamond to the surface. No challenge has broken or ever will break her.
Story by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms
Photography by Keith Major
Written instructions accompanying the invitation to the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios were clear: “No photographs.” The unspoken rules—such as, “Act like you’ve been somewhere before”—not so much. When I bump into Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham during the cocktail reception, I breathe deeply and make small talk. When I see Beyoncé and Jay-Z at dinner, I smile pleasantly and resist the urge to ask for a selfie. When chatting with Anthony Anderson, I laugh, but not too loud. When I spot Halle Berry, Maxwell and Michael Ealy across the venue, I know not to stare. But with Viola Davis, I couldn’t resist; the rules were dismissed.
It was my first introduction to the incomparable actor, who has an Emmy, two Tonys, an Oscar, and six SAG Awards to her name. In a room of stars among stars, Viola and her husband, Julius Tennon, were the ones who made me giddy. I pounced on them, eager and hard.
“Hi! I’m the mayor. Welcome to Atlanta! I adopted my children, too!” I exclaimed. And just like that, the ice was broken. What began as a pleasant exchange turned into a lengthy conversation that I cannot fully recall. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you did, but not how you made them feel.”
I felt a genuine connection with Viola that night, thinking it was because we shared the joy of having children born of our hearts. When we next spoke, this time over a quiet Zoom chat for EBONY, I knew my connection to her that magical evening went much deeper. I had read her memoir Finding Me, discovering it to be a shared sisterhood that speaks to the lives of so many who have searched for worth, fought imposter syndrome, resisted survivor’s remorse, battled demons, overcome the odds and proudly worn the “S” on their chest. Viola was much more than the characters I had seen on screen. Viola is a Superwoman—not because she is a star but because she is a survivor—and her secrets are no longer her kryptonite.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: What was it like to attend the unveiling of Tyler Perry Studios?
Viola Davis: What I saw that night was the solution. I saw legacy, vision, purpose. It was the answer for those who have a larger vision of what they want their world to look like. They grab that rope and create for themselves as opposed to waiting. It was very emotional for me.
KLB: It was emotional to read your book. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like for you to write it. What was that process like?
VD: It was a journey and just the power of memory—how it could still affect you and what you choose to remember. It was emotional because when you write it, you feel the moments that were and are still very painful. Then you see the moments that were also filled with strength and resilience. I began to revisit the Viola who was a survivor, who I sort of left behind. I always just thought I was a bad kid. We want kids in a category of either bad or good; it’s way more complicated than that. I was not a bad kid; I was a kid who was trying to work things out, who had a lot going on at home, who probably needed a creative outlet. I was a kid who probably had a lot of compassion and empathy, but who was hurt. All those things I began to remember. So it blew a hole in my world today, in terms of how I see myself. It blew a hole in the power of memory—a reintroduction to the fact that the past doesn’t have a hold on me anymore, but it absolutely created the person that I am today. I thought of all those things as I went back in time because I really needed to be reintroduced to her.
KLB: As I read your book, I thought, “Is this about me? Or will it resonate with Black women everywhere?” Did you write it for you or for us?
VD: I wrote it for everyone. As a mom, you begin to see your own shortcomings, that part in your life where your child becomes a mirror to your unfinished work. Nobody wants to fess up to their mess. You sit down with other women and nobody remembers a time when they felt awkward, sort of funky or didn’t fit in. I thought of all the people who feel like they’re going through something in life and all coming out of something in life—I guarantee you they feel very much alone. I did this to give people a great dose of truth. Yes, I have so-called made it to the “mountaintop,” but not without scars and bruises. That’s what life is; it’s the moment that you open up and say something that makes people feel less alone.
KLB: Your life with your family is so different from your childhood. How do you impart what’s needed to your daughter Genesis without her having to experience the trauma and the heartache and all those things that made you into who you are?
VD: That’s the hardest part of parenting; it’s impossible to protect your kids from the world. The only thing that I could do is give her what is in me. I don’t subscribe to any parameters; [what] I subscribe to is what I needed, what I longed for and was afraid to ask for. Those are the things that I give her, and I see her eyes light up. I wanted someone to guide me, but also wanted to see my parents as human. I wanted to see what was making my dad mad all the time. I wanted to understand how my mom got pregnant at 15, what she was afraid of and what she lived for—those were the things that would have helped me. Then when I went through them, I would’ve had at least some palette for it; I didn’t have a palette for self-love or self-anything.
KLB: What’s the biggest lesson Genesis has taught you?
VD: I said, “Genesis, you look so cute.” She said, “I know, right?” Oh, there is a party going on inside that head at 11 years old that defines absolutely who she is. The thing about that girl is that she absolutely celebrates every inch of who she is. That has absolutely been the biggest obstacle in my life, but not for her. I don’t see it [in myself] naturally. I love her confidence. We could all learn a lot from Genesis.
KLB: Did it hurt to expose so much? You’ve had to relive a lot of the trauma in writing. How did you get past that and say, “I’m still going to do it anyway?” That could have just been your little secret. We’ve heard you talk about growing up in poverty. But in this book, you get into so much more of the layers and how it impacted you.
VD: I really hit a wall with the pandemic. Then it was Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. In my life, what was being played out is the disillusionment of being on top. There’s a huge part of that which I feel extraordinarily grateful for—and a lot of that is [crap]. I thought once you hit it, that’s it. All I felt was exhaustion, all I’m thinking about is getting back to my daughter and my house. All I’m facing is criticism and scrutiny and pressure. I’m like, “Is this it?” The strongest tool I had was to go back to a time when the world didn’t label me and I was still the purest form of who I was. I had to get the part of me out that is holding me back. I had to go back to who Viola truly was. What are my dreams? What brought me joy and peace? What would make me just scream and squeal with happiness? Every culture out there has some level of a ritual or a myth to help them navigate the mysteries of life—songs, chants, dances—they have community; they have a way to connect to the earth. We don’t have that. So when you lose meaning, the only ritual I had that I could find in the midst of this pandemic was to write my story. To put out all the piss and friggin’ broken glass out there. It’s like putting all the pieces of the puzzle on a big table and figuring out how to put it back together again. I knew it was going to hurt—I was going to feel vulnerable. But I knew I had to work through it. I still feel a huge level of fear because I’m a private person, but I was stuck in life and this memoir was the answer to it.
The world and life belongs to the people who are brave and courageous enough to go out there and harness it.
KLB: You write about secrets—how you were taught to keep them, and how they were weighing you down. We often don’t like to tell our stories. We want people to think that we woke up just like this. Then you write this book, and you tell so much. How do you think your family will feel?
VD: I hope my family sees it as a love story to them. bell hooks talks about it all the time. She’s like, “Why do you have to call me angry? I’m just speaking my truth. That’s a part of loving you. That’s a part of wanting to connect with you.” Secrets disallow you to do it. They disallow you to connect with yourself and the world. By the time I go to my grave, I want my daughter to know who I am. So when she goes through her life, she doesn’t have to feel like, “Am I a unicorn? Am I a monster? Oh, that feels bad,” as opposed to, “That’s a decision I made, but my mom told me something similar when she went through this.” She has a tool to unlock something. Secrets are rooted in shame. When you roll into that grave without ever sharing your truth, you are a mystery to the world. You might as well not have even lived. You haven’t left any sort of piss or anything in this world.
KLB: What was it that Denzel Washington said about he’s never seen a hearse with a U-Haul attached to the back?
VD: You can’t bring your makeup or billion-dollar salary to your grave and nobody has it on their gravestone. So then what is your life about? Everything I went through has made me who I am. I don’t care how many degrees and awards you had; you’re still going to go through some stuff in life. How you get through it and the tools you use absolutely makes you who you are.
Yes, I have so-called made it to the 'mountaintop,' but not without scars and bruises.
KLB: You talk about your struggles with fibroids, the surgeries and the adhesions. I’ve heard fibroids described as bundles of stress. Do you think that’s the manifestation of stress and trauma for Black women?
VD: Absolutely. A Black doctor said to me, “You’re prediabetic, but I’m going to treat you like you have Type 2 diabetes.” My theory is that only a certain percentage of us made it through the Middle Passage. We don’t talk about those millions of souls that are at the bottom of the ocean. The ones that did survive, this is what we’ve inherited: autoimmune diseases, inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fibroids, anxiety, being an enabler—all those things are in my DNA. I cannot stand it when people say you have to work 10 times as hard. I work really hard. But how the hell do you work 10 times as hard? I cannot tell you how many times I almost drove into a truck falling asleep behind the wheel. I have no memories of certain jobs. Stress, fibroids—that’s all I got from working 10 times as hard. What happens after you start feeling the anxiety and the stress from working that hard but you don’t listen to it? The only thing you think is, “I gotta just work harder. Someone else is handling it better than I am.” You begin to stop listening to that inner voice. It’s that inner voice that is your voice of truth.
[There] is this sort of puritanical notion in our culture that when you're idle and at peace, the devil is working. Idleness is the quiet meditation, the leaning into yourself. That’s God's way of telling you that's where you need to be.
KLB: I remember when I got my fibroids removed thinking, “Well, if these are my bundles of stress, then where’s the stress gonna go?” Because I didn’t remove the stress. I just removed the fibroids. How did you claim yourself for yourself and not feel the guilt that comes along with that?
VD: It’s ongoing. I started therapy [years ago, but] you can’t undo in a minute, week, or month what took decades of doing. There’s no conversation going on about mindfulness. How many people encourage you to listen to that inner voice? What if the inner voice tells you I’m not loving myself enough? [There] is this sort of puritanical notion in our culture that when you’re idle and at peace, the devil is working. The devil is getting in there to tell you that you’re lazy. That “idleness” is the quiet meditation, the leaning into yourself. That’s God’s way of telling you that’s where you need to be. He’s given you the biggest gift of navigating your life. You’re just not listening when you’re listening to the world. It’s an ongoing struggle and journey. Being at peace, not listening to the world and not measuring myself by what the world is doing is constant.
KLB: Your family’s story is incredible on so many levels. The forgiveness of your dad, the strength of your mom. Do you experience any type of survivor’s remorse? How do you put those boundaries up to protect yourself when everybody else seems to be looking to you to save them?
VD: That’s ongoing, and people have a real sort of messed up relationship with money. They just see you as the meal ticket and ATM when you’re in the public eye and your survivor’s guilt sometimes feeds into that. Like there is no way to celebrate your successes if you don’t give someone something. It’s your way of also keeping people close to you, until you get tired of it.
KLB: Your mom and dad, the two who in many ways you did want to save, lived in an 800-square-foot apartment with 14 people and wouldn’t move. What made them hold on to that physical space?
VD: Money cannot change anything that’s not manifested internally. I could’ve gotten my parents a 10,000-square-foot house and it would not have changed anything. The enabling addiction issues would’ve made the problem bigger. When I started therapy, my therapist said, “You wouldn’t be able to cross the street unless it was covered in crap and piss because you wouldn’t see it as normal. What you see as normal is messy.” You sort of follow what you know, even if it’s negative. That was a huge part of my parents, just doing what they knew to do—growing up with no indoor toilet, parents who were alcoholics. You don’t just read a book, go to therapy or on social media and go, “Oh, I saw a Ted Talk, ‘10 Rules to How to Succeed in Life and How to Overcome a Traumatic Past.’” It doesn’t work that way. It’s hard-core work to transform, and I’m tackling it like a friggin’ warrior. I give my parents huge credit for surviving. I give my dad huge credit for transforming his life into a very loving man. But in terms of their physical space, that was a hard one.
KLB: You and your husband seem to balance each other well. How do you keep that balance when you are the one in the spotlight?
VD: We put us first. There’s got to be a sacred space in your life that is untouched by the outside world, something that you hold tried and true, that cannot be defined by anyone else, that can’t be touched by anyone else—the place you call home, metaphorically and literally speaking. That’s what we have. When I prayed for a man, I was very intentional. The first thing I said was country; that’s the code word for a mensch, for people who live in that truth no matter what. They don’t care how many people are judging them; they are absolutely who they are, without apology. We laugh a lot. I mean, every single day rolling-on-the-floor laughing. He loves coming in and just saving me; he loves being the fixer. He has my back; he stands in the gap. I tell Genesis that the key to life is to find people who love you—even if it’s one or two people. You can do a lot on your own, but you need people in your life who just love you. They see all the ragged edges, but they love you. They’re rooting for you. They’re sitting by you when you’re crying, when you’ve failed, and when you’ve succeeded.
Secrets are rooted in shame. When you roll into that grave without ever sharing your truth, you are a mystery to the world. You might as well not have even lived.
KLB: I remember the first time I bought a set of tires while dating my husband and he couldn’t believe it. It took me a long time to figure out ways to allow him to feel needed. Did it take you long?
VD: A long time. When I was single, I’d carry bags on my head, two on my shoulder and I’d go up five flights of stairs. Suddenly, I had Julius who was saying, “Let me help you.” I was like, “No, I could do this on my own.” Once again, it’s subscribing to everything everyone has told you about relationships, being independent, being successful, being Black, being confident. You subscribe to every definition out there until you get to a part of your life where you’re like, “I really reject it.” I reject anyone saying, “I don’t compromise even in marriage. I don’t believe in compromising.” And I’m like, “There’s no compromise?”
KLB: That marriage is not going to last very long.
VD: That’s the narrative that’s out there. You do whatever you do on your own and that’s it. No, that’s not it. You have to be on a no-carb diet and lighter than a paper bag to be classically beautiful. You have to have a thinner nose and lips. You can’t be sexual if you have a deeper voice. I got to the point where I’m like, “Who said that? I make my own rules.” Inner truth is a revolutionary radical disconnecting from any definitions of the world and creating a definition for yourself. The only agreement is you sort of got to love each other and love yourself through it. Everything else I reject—even the people who said I was ugly. Looking back, can I just tell you how many dudes thought I was pretty cute? So, it’s a lie; fitting in and acceptance is for the oppressors. The world and life belongs to the people who are brave and courageous enough to go out there and harness it. I love the quote that says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
KLB: Amen, Viola! Amen.
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN
PHOTO DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
HEAD OF VIDEO/ASSOCIATE CREATIVE DIRECTOR STEVEN CORNELIO
STYLING ELIZABETH STEWART
STYLIST ASSISTANTS JORDAN GROSSMAN, BYRON WILLIAMS
HAIR STYLIST JAMIKA WILSON
MAKEUP ARTIST AUTUMN MOULTRIE
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS COLIN JACOB, DOMINIC RAWLE
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
ON SET PRODUCER ANDREA STREIBER
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT DANIEL JACOBSON
RETOUCHER DIGITAL 805 RETOUCHING