Celebrating Black History Month – Cicely Tyson, a life remembered

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Faith Arcuri, Managing Editor

At 96 years young, renowned actress Cicily Tyson died on January 28. Her passing was announced by her lifelong manager Larry Thompson, who did not specify the cause. 

In a career that spanned over 65 years, Tyson was an elegant, dignified presence on the stage and screen. She captured America’s attention in pictures such as Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She won an Emmy at 88 and a Tony Award. She also inspired generations of African American women to pursue careers in the entertainment field.

In an interview that aired January 31 marking the publication of her memoir, Just As I Am, Tyson told NPR’s Michel Martin that as an actress, “I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer… I never spoke… but I was a great observer.”

In 1972, Sounder was one of the first movies to show the strong bonds of a Black family. Tyson once told NPR that it was also the movie that made her realize she needed to look for roles that reflected her experience as an African American woman.

During a press conference for Sounder, a white journalist told her the film made him aware of his own prejudice. He said he was surprised to hear African American children call their father “Daddy”, just like his own kids call him.

 “He could not quite equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he,” said Tyson. “And really, I admired him for standing up in an audience and saying that, and I thought to myself, ‘Cicely, you really can’t afford the luxurious of just being an actress.’”

Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem; her parents were from the Caribbean. Her father was a carpenter and a painter; her mother was a housekeeper who was deeply religious. In 2005, Tyson told NPR that her entire life was spent in church. 

“We did everything in the church. I mean, I played the organ. I played the piano. I taught Sunday school. I sang in the choir. And then on Monday, we had prayer meeting, and Tuesday, we had young people’s meeting. Wednesday, we had old people’s meeting. Saturday, we cleaned the church and Sunday, we were right back in the church. My entire social life was in and about the church. And so that is the basis of my foundation.”

Tyson began her career in the spotlight when she started modeling after high school. Soon after, she was acting on TV and in movies- during the civil rights movement. New York was a place where Black artists formed alliances. Tyson performed with an all-Black cast, alongside artists such as Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones.

One of Tyson’s first roles was in the socially conscious but short-lived TV series East Side/West Side. Tyson played a poised, intelligent secretary in an office of social workers.

Tyson’s short Afro hairstyle inspired other Black women to also wear their hair natural. Tyson was on magazine covers like Ebony and Ms. She married jazz star Miles Davis; photographers swooned over the famous couple.

Cicely Tyson always looked for positive portrayals of Black women. In 1974, she took on one of her most famous characters — the lead in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a TV movie on CBS.

Tyson played Miss Pittman at various stages in her life. As a young adult, she’s beaten up by Klansmen. Friends and family members are murdered. Tyson captured her weariness — as well as her resilience.

It was a rare event for a television network to broadcast a feature film about the brutal struggles of African Americans in prime time, especially from the point of view of African Americans. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won nine Emmys, including one for Tyson.

It was a performance that inspired actress Viola Davis. She and her sisters watched the movie together in her family’s rundown apartment in South Carolina. At a press conference in 2015, Davis said Tyson was a revelation.

“She was the first actress I saw when I was 6, 7 years old that – where I saw craft,” Davis said. “Where I saw the magic of transformation.”

Davis eventually got her turn to experience that magic in her starring role as Annaliese Keating in hit television show How To Get Away With Murder, in which Tyson played her mother.

Tyson used to say, well into her 80’s, that she was looking for one more great role to play. At age 88, she found it: playing Mrs. Carrie Watts in a Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, with an all – Black cast.

In one scene, Tyson’s character strikes up a conversation with another character and breaks into a hymn. Overcome with emotion, she would stand up and start clapping, Sometime the audience would join in.

She was once asked about her secret on keeping active during her 90’s. Tyson said she took care of her body – but also that she lived a simple life.