Students of Color Perspectives: Viola Davis


Hello! My name is Alejandra (Ali) Gatas Johnson and I will be one of your first-year bloggers for Students of Color Perspectives. I blog about what it means to be of mixed heritage (Afro-Venezuelan, American Swedish, and Warao Indian) and what it means to be a student of color in general here at Brown!

There is a student organization on campus, the Brown Lecture Board, that organizes two lectures a year. Last semester the lovely Jane Goodall spoke. This semester the one and only Viola Davis came and shared her story.

Viola Davis is undoubtedly an amazing person. Not only is she a Tony award winning actress (King Hedley II and Fences), Academy Award nominee (for her work The Help and Doubt), and the first African American woman to win an Emmy (for her portrayal as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder), but she is also a hero. She is a leading voice for women of color in the entertainment industry. Is there a better way  to spend the night on February 29, the last day of Black History Month than with Viola Davis… I think not! Viola Davis is the kind of woman I aspire to become- driven, compassionate, and honest.

Viola Davis’ lecture was an inspiring, intimate window into herself and her life. Viola Davis grew up in Central Fall, RI, in “abject poverty.” Her home was but a condemned, big rat infest building without plumbing and phones. Her home dynamic was not a healthy one. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was frequently victim to his domestic abuse. Viola Davis was bullied, chased home by a group of boys spewing death threats and calling her an “ugly, black n****r.” Despite a heartbreaking, difficult youth, she didn’t let her adversity to define her or bring her down. Claiming, “You are not your scars,” Viola Davis fought back. She fought the mob of bullies with crochet needles. She fought her circumstances by seeking opportunities to write and perform.

Inspired by her sister Diane and Cicely Tyson’s miniseries “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” Davis became driven to succeed as an actor. When she was 14, she earned a scholarship to the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in West Warwick. Her ambition was not wasted. She studied theatre at Rhode Island College and attended Juilliard and awarded a Brown honorary doctorate. Viola Davis has done fantastically in an entertainment industry that is unwelcoming to people of color, especially women of color.

Viola Davis claimed that the “elixir” to success is “living a life bigger than yourself”, if you aren’t then you’re not living a life at all. Davis advocates change in her portrayal of complex, emotion filled characters (like Keating) and by being honest. “The most powerful thing you can do in art and narrative is to tell the truth.”

Davis shared the message that everyone needs to be an advocate. “There are too many people who need help. There are too many people who are disenfranchised,” inspiring an entire audience to speak up and not live an idle, muted life. Ending her lecture posing the question “What is it that you could leave on this Earth that will live far past you. And what is stopping you?” 

Viola Davis is a queen, proof that being of color doesn’t have to keep you from living a successful life. Dreams can become reality with passion and drive. Live life honestly and boldly.

Photo Credit: Marianna McMurdock 

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments about this post or about being a student of color in general, please hit me up at or leave a comment in the box below. 




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