Viola gives a very powerful speech as she accepts the Icon Award at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards last night.
“Chrissy Teigen ruined it for me. [Tiegen had mentioned Davis’ coming remarks in her own acceptance speech earlier.] I actually don’t have much to say. I just find it so interesting that some of the greatest myths come out of people just dying to themselves and being resurrected. It always starts with a death. It always starts with just hitting rock bottom and having nothing left.
“You know, I came from a story where I didn’t feel just less-than or I just didn’t have a voice or not pretty. I felt invisible. I came from a long line of women who felt invisible. And they’re the ones who attempted to throw me an invisible rope. Courage is just fear said with prayers. And I feel that it takes a great deal of courage to hit bottom and feel invisible and then to share one’s story. But it’s in the sharing of the story in front of people who have empathy that kills shame. And once that shame is killed, guess what? You’re running. When I look at the zeitgeist today and look at what is happening with women in terms of sexual assault, in terms of poverty, in terms of politically what’s happening, I think to myself the change and the shift that needs to happen is the internal. It’s finding the courage to own one’s story. To say and wake up one day and feel, like, ‘Damn, I’m not perfect.’ Sometimes I don’t feel pretty. Sometimes I don’t want to slay the dragon. Sometimes the dragon I’m slaying is myself, but damn it, I am worth it. I don’t have to barter for my worth. I don’t have to pay someone for it. I came out of my mom’s womb worthy.
“At 25, which was a time in my life that I was at Juilliard, and they basically said, ‘You’re overweight. You’re going to play a matriarch your entire life. What kind of roles can you play, Viola?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I know I’m an actor. I know that’s what I was born to do. That’s what’s going to make my life worthwhile. I know I have something in me.’
“There was no one to give me the answer. So I remember I took a trip to Africa, that was paid by Juilliard, by the way, so I have to give them some credit. And I studied the dance, music, and folklore of four different tribes just for a very short period of time. And I went into a village of the Mandinka tribe. One day there were these group of women that came through the tribe, and they were dressed in oversized clothes, oversized shoes. They painted their faces. They had drums, and they had huge calabashes of food. They were screaming at the top of their lungs. Just screaming. They yell. They kept screaming like that and they kept making funny faces, rolling their eyes.
“And soon, other people came out of their houses, and pretty soon you saw hundreds of people gathering around them. Hundreds of them. They passed the calabash around of food and they all just slopped it in their mouths. And they slopped it and they ate it and passed it around. And then all those people were screaming. So loud I couldn’t hear myself. I was like, ‘What the hell is this? What ritual is this?’ I later found out these were women who were infertile. And the biggest blessing you could have as a woman in the Gambia was to have a child. These women felt that the reason why they hadn’t been blessed with a child is because God didn’t hear their voice, that God didn’t see them. So the ritual was about as making as much noise as you could possibly make so God could hear it and pour down a blessing.
“We don’t have that ritual here. We pray for connection. We pray to be seen. We pray that somehow that invisibility cloak will be unleashed and reveal us. I say it is up to me to lift that veil and to show you and to have the courage and the vagina to not have to get it together to show up. To show up imperfectly and beautifully and messily as I am. And it’s that truth that connects me to everyone in this room. It is that that allows you to unleash your story and do the same. You know, lighthouses don’t go around the island just shining their light and saving people. They just sort of stand there, shining. That’s what I choose to do with my work. I just choose to be me. And I think that is something that we can all do.
“Native Americans would kill the buffalo and take out the heart and eat it—sort of internalized courage, the courage and the guts to just slay dragons. Biggest dragons I think you can slay is yourself. I’ll tell you, 70 percent of women now…there’s been a 70 percent spike of suicide in young women. One of the main reasons is images on the Internet of women sharing their beautifully perfect life. That’s a known fact, according to the CDC. I say if perfectionism is driving the car, then shame is riding shotgun and fear is that nagging backseat driver.
“Be willing to own your story and share it. I’ll tell you one thing: You might as well put the bow and arrow behind you and the sword, because you will be the most courageous person in the world. That’s what my work inspires. That’s what my production company inspires.
“My tribe, the people who scream up to the gods for me and give me hope, are my posse right here: my Lisa, my Estelle, my beautiful Julius. My love of my life, my Genesis, my Elizabeth.
“Thank you so much Glamour, Glamour magazine. Thank you for this honor. I kind of have an issue with the word icon. Just a little bit! But if it means that you feel like I represent anything and that I inspire anybody to do anything. It’s like they say, you don’t die until the last person who has a memory of you dies.”
In her Women of the Year profile, Davis remembered the early days of her career, when she was a student at Julliard: “I was angry a lot…. Nobody asked me to do [classical roles] as a black actress.” Many “bad performances” (her words) and small parts later, her role in 2008’s Doubt would catapult her to wide acclaim and grant her more opportunities and agency as a performer. Now she can not only help create those narratives (via her company with husband Julius Tennon, JuVee Productions) but also inspire those following in her footsteps. As her How to Get Away With Murder costar Aja Naomi King said,”To be a black actress, and to have watched the evolution of her career, it’s altered the way I have looked at this entire industry. Every time she wins, it feels like success for all of us. Because here’s the face of this beautiful, tall, striking, dark-skinned, natural-hair-wearing black woman who is basically saying, ‘I dare you to tell me no.'”