In her Best Supporting Actress 2017 Oscar winner speech (for Fences), Viola Davis begged artists to tell the stories of forgotten ordinary people. “Stories found in the graveyard,” she said, “exhume those bodies, exhume those stories.” Davis, who is the first Black actor to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting (Emmy, Tony, and Oscar) described these as the stories of the people who dreamed big and yet never saw those dreams to fruition—“people who fell in love and lost.”
I continue to read novels that give voice to middle-class and upper middle-class characters who attend private schools, debate hybrid cars, and compare notes about the Riviera.
But where are the eleven-year-old characters who fumble out of bed at 5:00 every morning to mix formula to feed the newborn calves? “So I can sell a couple of ‘em and buy a car someday—well, maybe a truck,” she says without embroidery when I ask her why she does this. From the barn to the house we trek in silence, bending our bodies against the wind, swiping the tears from our cheeks before they freeze. Our headlamps sway with each step, sending playful shadows on the snow. She dresses for seventh grade, checks in with her dad who’s already at work, and commands two younger siblings in their breakfast-backpack routine before they all catch the school bus.
Today I was a visitor in her life. With two buckets in each hand, I saw her elbow into the pen and shove away the aggressive calves with her leg to allow the weaker and smaller ones to drink. With that shove, did she also plead for me to write her story? Or—and I can barely breathe the question—will she, and so many others like her, be one of those graveyard stories, where no one exhumes the body and writes the story?
What stories of forgotten, ordinary people do you know? I would love to hear how you might write them....or is it right them?
See video of Viola Davis' speech here.