Viola Davis Shares What She Would Tell Her Younger Self After Surviving Poverty and Trauma (Exclusive)

The Oscar-winning actress shares details about her memoir, 'Finding Me,' and opens up about her emotional journey.

Viola Davis is opening up about her traumatic past, celebrating her glorious present and looking toward her bright future. The Academy Award-winning actress gives it all to her fans -- "the truth straight, no chaser" -- and more in her upcoming memoir, Finding Me

Speaking with ET's Kevin Frazier, Davis admitted that reliving her past for the book was "ultimately very cathartic" and it helped her understand herself from a new perspective.

"I felt like I was in the middle of a really weird extensional crisis during the pandemic, a crisis of meaning," she shared. "Like, 'What is this supposed to mean?' And by revisiting my childhood, the purest form of who I was, I sort of began to understand just who Viola was from the very beginning before the world touched her. When I had dreams and hopes even with all of the trauma going on. The thing about it is the Viola of yesterday, even as hard as it looks, she survived. She made it through [and] I needed her now."

In her candid memoir, Davis recalls a childhood spent in poverty, witnessing domestic abuse between her parents and being regularly bullied by classmates for her appearance and her family's way of life. The actress was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, in her grandparents' house, where her grandfather was a sharecropper on a plantation. The family lived in a one-room house with no running water or indoor toilets. 

"A lot of us come from that past. I was born where you drive into the plantation and you see a big white house [then] drive further down the road and you see all the sharecropper homes," she shared, going on to explain that she decided to be so open about her past because she didn't want to be the kind of person "selling an image" rather than "selling the truth." 

"I don’t know how to filter myself or water myself down and I feel like the watering down is really motivated by shame," she added. "And at this point in my life, I don’t want that anymore. I feel like I’m worth more than that [and] it was very important that I told you the truth straight, no chaser."

That truth sheds some light on the harsh realities of being born in the South when the vestiges of slavery were still fresh. Davis was born a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. She was born months after the Selma to Montgomery marches protesting segregationist repression and five days after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed, legally securing the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. 

As someone who grew up in the not-so-distant past of Jim Crow Laws, Davis pointed out that the recent outcries against teaching the truth of our history aim to erase stories like hers. 

"I always feel like if you deny Black people our present struggles with racism and microaggressions then you deny the past," she told ET. "Trauma cannot happen without side effects and I think that a lot of times in this new societal trend people want to recreate their selves and deny the struggle because it makes the oppressor very, very comfortable. I can't do that." 

She went on, saying, "The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice. Because it is a huge injustice and when you do grow up poor, the thing about it is it's hard to get out of that cycle. Education is key, but even with education, you don’t have a lot of role models, you don’t have a lot of images placed before you. There’s always that one, our exceptions who get out, but there’s a whole drove of people who do not. I always tell people that unless you can see the needs of the least, you are never going to be able to tap into a huge amount of potential that is in the world."

"We're looking at hundreds of years of Jim Crow, Black codes, slavery generations being lost, this is [just] one story," she lamented.

When asked what she would tell her younger self, the 56-year-old said, "I would tell her that her environment does not define her."

"I didn't know how not to see it that way, I thought I was everything those boys called me," she explained of her childhood growing up in the predominantly white town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. "I thought I was the poverty, I thought I was the bedwetting, I thought [the domestic violence] was because of me. I didn't have a lot of people at that time telling me that I was beautiful [and] that there were possibilities for my life, you know. I think that people automatically assume that kids have that language and we don't. We cannot deal with anything in the abstract. I wish I had the imagination to see the future, you know?" 

She added, "I would tell the young Viola to hold on."

As a dark-skinned Black woman, Davis admitted it was hard for her to feel "beautiful" amid the cruelty she faced growing up. "The getting over is always a very precarious phrase but I am also a 'victim' of Jim Crow in that way of racism in terms of I am a dark-skinned woman," the actress said, adding that she was constantly forced to contend with not fitting the classical perception of what is beautiful -- even for Black women.

"A lot of Black people have driven the narrative with the paper bag test... until I had the 'aha' moment that I didn’t have to accept that as truth," the Fences actress said. "Because what science is there that says there is a classical beauty? What science is out there that says only women are considered attractive to certain men or certain women? You don’t know who someone finds attractive, and now... [thanks to] the LGBTQ+ community, I feel we're understanding the continuum of sexuality and you cannot put people in a box. That has been my saving grace, absolutely."

Her first saving grace? The late, great Cicely Tyson.

Davis recalled that it was Tyson who inspired her to dream, with the How to Get Away With Murder actress calling her former TV mother "a physical manifestation of my dreams, of hope, of possibilities, of who I could be."

She likened seeing Tyson onscreen to seeing "the rabbit coming out of the hat" because it allowed her to reach for a new reality that she didn't have to create on her own.

Nowadays, having created a life she can fully appreciate after reconciling with her past, Davis shared that she finds joy in her work and especially in her family

"When I got down on my knees [and] I had done enough work that when I asked God for what I wanted, I knew what I wanted," she said, adding that she asked for "a man who was accountable and a man who just loved me." 

She went on to recall having a conversation with her now-husband, Julius Tennon, who told her, "'I'm just looking for someone who wants to be with me.' He said, 'I wanna be with you' and I said. 'I know but I just want someone who's emotional.' He said, 'Well, I’m emotionally available,' and we were just silent. And I stared at him and I knew that he was a blessing -- that's what's most important, I knew he was the blessing. If I didn’t see that, if I hadn’t done the work, I probably would have sabotaged it, but he's been the biggest gift in my life."

"I don't think there is any way to go through life without having someone by your side that loves you," she added. "I was just watching Brené Brown's [HBO Max docuseries] Atlas of the Heart and her big thing was you have to connect but you cannot walk in front of someone and [you] can’t walk behind them. You gotta learn to walk side by side, and that’s how it feels to have someone in your life who loves you. That you're walking side by side with someone because that is all you have in the end."

Davis' Finding Me: A Memoir is out April 26 from HarperOne, in partnership with Ebony Magazine Publishing.