It was 1947. While the government of Canada was helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a woman named Viola Desmond (née Davis) was in a legal battle with the province of Nova Scotia. She was seeking justice after being thrown out of a movie theatre near Halifax while she was watching “The Dark Mirror,” a film starring Olivia De Havilland.
Her crime? Sitting in a section of the movie theatre reserved for white Canadians. Viola Desmond lost her case in court.
In 2015, actress Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy in a dramatic role in the 66-year history of the award. She used her acceptance speech to call out Hollywood, shining a spotlight on the vast chasm that is a lack of opportunity for women of colour in the industry.
By way of a phone call from another woman of colour (a dear friend and actress herself), I was given the opportunity to tell the story of Viola Desmond in a new Historica Canada Heritage Minute released to mark Black History Month.
There’s something profoundly poetic about the intersection of the lives of these two Violas with my own.
As an actress in Hollywood, I know a little of the uphill battle that Viola Davis faced to reach that pinnacle of achievement on the night she won the Emmy. Born into South African apartheid, I also know what it’s like to be treated as a lesser human, just as Viola Desmond was that day in the movie theatre.
South African apartheid was at least honest. Blatant. Legal. You knew where the lines were drawn, knew the ins and outs of how you could expect to be treated, that the rules of the game were squarely stacked against you.
But the racism in North America is covert, the rules not always clear. North American racism blindsides you when you’ve been lulled into believing in what Malcolm X called “being a diner.” You can sit in a restaurant, but you’re a diner only if you’re eating what’s on the menu.
So often, people dance between their unconscious racism and their curiosity about me. They ask:
“What’s your background?”
“What other languages do you speak?”
“You’re mulatto, right?” (which means “mongrel” or “much milk”).