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Actress Shares Her Hidden Wounds

Viola Davis has been hailed as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. According to one film critic, watching her act is to watch someone draw on “private hardship” and then “witness a deep-sea plunge into a feeling.” Davis claims that there is one memory that defines her “private hardship.”

When she was in third grade, a group of boys made a game out of chasing her home at the end of the school day. They would taunt her, yelling insults and slurs, throwing stones and bricks at her, while she ducked and dodged and wept.

One day, the boys caught her. Her shoes were worn through to the bottom, which slowed her down. The boys pinned her arms back and took her to their ringleader, who would decide what to do with her next. They were all white, except for the ringleader. He identified as Portuguese to differentiate himself from African Americans, despite being nearly the same shade as Davis. Unlike her, he could use his foreign birth to distance himself from the town’s racism: He wasn’t like those Black people.

“She’s ugly!” he said.

“I don’t know why you’re saying that to me,” she said. “You’re Black, too!”

The ringleader screamed that he wasn’t Black at all. He punched her, and the rest of the boys threw her onto the ground and kicked snow on her.

Davis went on to be nominated for two Oscars. But she realized that not only had she remained that terrified little girl, tormented for the color of her skin, but that she also defined herself by that fear. All these years later, she was still running. … Davis’ early life is dark and unnerving, full of bruises, loss, grief, death, trauma. But that day after school was perhaps her most wounding memory: It was the first time her spirit and heart were broken.

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