“The word that I would like to eradicate today is ‘unspeakable,’ because I think everything should be spoken.”– Viola Davis
Viola Davis recently revealed her painful past struggles with hunger. When Viola Davis shot to overdue stardom in her role as maid Aibileen Clark in 2011’s The Help, a surprising number of African-Americans criticized her Oscar-nominated performance as one perpetuating stereotypes associated with our painful Jim Crow past. Davis stood by her character. She would not back down. From numerous talk show couches and award show stages, Davis defended African-American maids of past and present. She asked audiences to respect such experiences as valid Americana to document and fruitful material for Black artists to draw from. Now, she is using her own experiences as a child who grew up in what she describes as “abject poverty” to give more context to her commitments a few years back.
On Friday, October 10, Davis was both an honoree at Variety’s Annual Power of Women luncheon and a tormented inner child exposing the nightmare of hunger in America. Along with fellow actresses and businesswomen Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez, Variety commended Viola Davis for her enduring career and personal charity work. As the current star of ABC’s hit “Scandal” follow-up “How to Get Away with Murder,” and a thespian of searing gifts exhibited in such films as Doubt and Prisoners, Davis’s is not necessarily a face one would associate with hunger, starvation and malnourishment. Yet, these themes—not Hollywood glamour and artistic creativity—anchored Davis’s testimony. Her words were honest and heartbreaking:
“I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, and I did everything to get food. I have stolen for food. I have jumped in huge garbage bins with maggots for food. I have befriended people in the neighborhood, who I knew had mothers who cooked three meals a day for food, and I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame.”
For this reason, Davis is a champion and advocate for the Hunger Is campaign, which works to feed as many American children and families as possible through donations. The Safeway Foundation and Entertainment Industry Foundation collaborated on Hunger Is due to bleak statistics: 3 out of 5 K-8 teachers report children who come to school hungry, and 1 in 5 children in America live in households without adequate food.
To be fair, a rags-to-riches narrative of the American Dream is all too often the most interesting substance behind less talented celebrities’ fame and appeal. However, Davis’s story is extreme. She was born on a South Carolina farm in the middle of the Bible Belt and harrowing racist climate of 1965. Her father trained horses and her own mother was a maid, an appropriate explanation for Davis’s almost ethereal aptitude in the role of Aibileen. She was one of six children. Like many African-American heroines with similar starts—Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou—Davis credits academic prowess as her lifeline to a better life. She made a headstart on college as a teenage participant in the highly underrated and government-sponsored Upward Bound program, which exposes low-income children to life on a college campus. Through Upward Bound, administrators noticed Davis and her creative talents. She was offered a scholarship to Rhode Island College, where she majored in theater. She attended Julliard later, and worked Manhattan stages until several breakthroughs in film made her a sought-after actress.
From this triumphant other side of such turmoil, Davis confessed to hunger’s past powers over her. Food (or the lack of it) pushed her into selecting friends based upon whose mothers most often cooked, as well as drifting off from starvation during her SAT exams. How she got away with this starvation—which very few noticed or helped or stopped—seems more of a miracle than her acting chops. I was not as shocked as the high number of people who only learned Ms. Davis grew up in poverty due to this speech. As a fan I often visit her creative website Juvee Productions, laddered by her personal quote: “We grew up in abject poverty. Acting, writing scripts and skits were a way of escaping our environment at a very young age.” This statement welcomed and comforted me. I remember my own childhood spent in small houses but big homes—where the absence of expensive vacations and the latest gadgets fueled my peers’ creativities to do the same, to make the most of our Midwest acres as playgrounds around us, to improvise luxury with fun and imagination.
However, I never imagined Ms. Davis’s definition of abject poverty included jumping into garbage bins for maggot-covered scraps and suffering days without a meal. I have been an inner city educator throughout my adult life. The signs of hunger in children are not always clear. They often miscommunicate as misbehavior, defiance, inattention, crankiness, poor performance and even bad breath. Such signs must manifest chronically over a period of time before teachers and educators call parents or otherwise intervene. Most kids stay quiet because publicity for hunger can cause social suffering. Even in America, children are starving because many families do not have steady access to healthy food.
Ms. Davis’s punctuated her speech with the word ‘shame’—to account for why more teachers, neighbors and others who might help just do not know children are starving. It is a silent degradation compounding an unnecessary suffering; most schools, neighborhoods and even community shelters throw away healthy often. There is plenty to eat in America, given just small efforts to share. Yet another word holds many sufferers back in this struggle: pride. And African-Americans in particular have a lot of it.
Humorous family lore recounts an early time in my teenaged parents’ marriage. With only my father working, our household of two parents with three children received food stamps. The Caucasian postman was rumored to do a less-than-thorough job in our black neighborhood of low-income duplexes. If a package needed to be signed for or an envelope required special handling, he would not go through any extra effort to help residents avoid a trip to the post office. One winter, with our single car broken down and the post office a frigid 20-minute walk away, my father chased after the postman’s mail truck. It was a Saturday and a first of the month; the postman had skipped a small step of ringing our doorbell for someone to sign for food stamps. With my father working during the post office’s hours in the week and my mother caring for three children at home with no car, our food “money” would have been locked up in an office.
My father returned out of breath, but with our food stamps. However, the reality was his Mississippi-born parents lived around the corner. They cooked every day like food would go out of style. My mother’s large family full of aunts and elders cooked most days as well. It would have taken bundling up for a walk or a car trip, but we would have eaten. Yet, this is mistakenly what most people blow off as the extent of hunger in America. We accept food is expensive and precious, but we just expect people will eat. Fast forward to five years later. My sisters and I have all started school, therefore our mother is able to work full-time. Thus we have graduated from the low-income duplex to a mortgaged ranch home, in a working and middle-class subdivision, a “better” part of town. I was on Christmas break from a nearby Catholic school I attended on partial academic scholarship and needs-based financial aid. My parents and two sisters and dog and I were caught up in Christmas: wrapping presents, fixing up the Christmas tree, watching all the cheerful stuff on television. Someone came to our door. I answered. White people I vaguely recognized stood with a big box. I called my mother. My rather shocked mother thanked them, said this was nice and bid the visitors “Merry Christmas.”
My father came in from shoveling snow out back. He asked: “Who was at the door?” My mother told him it was Catholic folks from Kalisha’s school, and they brought us food. My father looked in the box and at the stuff my mother had started to put away. Before Whole Foods, my father did not like to eat out of boxes and cans. My aunts and grandmothers had gardens. The men hunted and fished. A few raised chickens and pigs. All the food in this box was in another box. Or, it was instant. Maybe it was canned. We ate such food—but only when money was low and we had to stretch out until paydays. This box symbolized neediness, an injury to progress and pride. My father threw the food back in the box. He stomped out of the door with it. We heard our car fire up. He drove around the corner. In a few minutes, he was back home. My mother asked: “What happened?” He said, “I gave those people back their food. We’re not poor and hungry. We work.”
He had a point. Because suddenly, where there had been none before, shame began to plague all for me that it should not have: my scholarship, special treatment in school, confusion or nervousness or sadness as one of the only black students but also one of the brightest. This event cancelled out that my parents were married, we had friends, we had fun and we had talent. This unrequested charity stigmatized our house and where it was, our names or complexions as they were, and our need for help to afford a private school; folks who knew little more about us theorized we starved for a box filled with food we did not eat. Helping has a fine line.
Looking back, had my father not allowed pride to lead him to what he felt best, we knew adults who were not employed full-time and who had larger families. We could have accepted that box and passed on its contents. Or, we could have saved the box and given it back to my school during their monthly assembly where children offered donations. I never offered any; my mother refused to let food leave the house for me to give to strangers. This duplicity—the shameful stigma of being marked ‘hungry’ coupled with the possessiveness over food at all times—is itself a symptom of hunger’s possibilities in America. Even when there is plenty, the threat of not enough is powerful.
Friends who open refrigerators without permission or leave whole plates of food on the table always fascinate me. No matter how much food was in the refrigerator or on the stove where I came from, I could not get away with that. And while some can laugh now about getting away with hunger back in the day, in a big way we call the American Dream, it is never romantic or heroic when children starve. Whether it is shame or pride or a little of both keeping poor folks in America hungry and hungry folks in America poor, it is time for this supposedly freest nation on Earth to get away from this—starting with more people who have experienced food trauma speaking up like Ms. Davis has, so more people traumatized by food now know it is okay to open up too. Such honesty may be the only way for 100% of Americans to open their mouths to eat.