An Actress and Civil-Rights Icon for the Ages

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Cicely Tyson’s legacy in arts and entertainment feels infinite – as if she has always been there and always will be. Tyson, an almost divine figure for generations of fans, peers and students who died on January 28 at the age of 96, combined brilliant dramatic performances with an heightened sensitivity. She engaged in roles that she felt in some way as a sublime black woman, and although this sometimes led to periods of inactivity, it sustained a work as significant as it was gripping.

She was born on December 19, 1924 in Harlem, the daughter of immigrants from the island of Nevis. Growing up in a pious episcopal household, she was even forbidden to go to the cinema.

After being casually told to try modeling, Tyson appeared on a hair show and enrolled at Barbara Watson Modeling School. Soon after, she quit her job as a secretary for the American Red Cross and quickly became one of the best black models in the country. She later admitted that her time modeling was unfulfilled: “I felt like a machine,” she told Time Magazine.

Modeling was also just a stepping stone. While waiting for an appointment with Ebony Magazine’s fashion editor, Tyson was discovered by actress Evelyn Davis. Tyson said, “As I was walking by, she looked at me and said, ‘Lord, what a face! ‘She said I was perfect for a movie in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between fair-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the role and I got it. In fact, the film was never released because the money ran out – but here I am. “

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Her decision to act enraged her deeply religious mother and resulted in years of estrangement between them.

Tyson studied under such theater greats as Lee Strasberg, Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. In 1961, she joined the now legendary cast of the original off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, which featured a number of actors who became household names at various times.

The story goes on

“This piece spawned Maya Angelou, me, Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge (playwright Charles) Gordone, who won the Pulitzer Prize (for No Place to be Somebody). Every notable black actor survived this show, ”Tyson said in a 1995 interview. “It ran for three years, and in the course of its existence we would all go and go and do other things and come back. I’ve been there four times. “

Tyson starred alongside George C. Scott as a social worker in the 1963 television series East Side / West Side. For the first time an African American actor played a major role in a major television series.

Performance was a platform for Tyson. She used this platform to address civil rights issues at a time when the country was raging through turbulent change. “I was on stage. Every piece I’ve made had to do with the civil rights movement. Every single piece addressed it. “Your natural hair, shown on TV and in films, has been a revelation and revolution; She became the icon of a burgeoning movement for black women. As a prominent darker skinned woman, her visibility flew in the face of the persistent colorism, always associated with the systemic racism that black actresses were exposed to in Hollywood.

Tyson spent the 60s in several short Broadway shows before starring Portia in the 1968 film adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Another notable role came in 1972 when she played Rebecca Morgan in Martin Ritt’s Sounder, a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination. And in 1974 she delivered a career-defining performance in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an adaptation of the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Tyson received raves and two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of the life of a former slave.

An interviewer once told Tyson that she didn’t know black people had loving sexual relationships until she saw Sounder. The actress was surprised by the calloused ignorance in the statement. “When I calmed down, I asked her, ‘You thought we were less than humans?'” Tyson said.

She said the interviewer’s defense is that she never knew black adults or went to school with African Americans.

“Your fault for me is your innocence,” Tyson said, summarizing it briefly.

Tyson would take on other supporting roles in classic television mini-series. notably in the highly rated television adaptation of Alex Haleys Roots in 1977; and in the 1989 Miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, produced by Oprah Winfrey, based on Gloria Naylor’s novel. She won another Emmy for her appearance in the 1994 television movie Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and starred in a 1998 television adaptation of Haley’s mom, Flora’s family. During the 2010s, she had recurring roles on popular television series such as House of Cards and How to Get Away with Murder. Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in One Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful.

Tyson was nominated for only one Oscar in her career, but received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement from the Academy in 2018. When Tyson was asked about the Academy’s attempts to nominate and reward actors and filmmakers more heavily, it was open.

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United States President Barack Obama presents actress Cicely Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during an East Room ceremony at the White House on November 22, 2016 in Washington, DC

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United States President Barack Obama presents actress Cicely Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during an East Room ceremony at the White House on November 22, 2016 in Washington, DC

Alex Wong / Getty

“I have mixed feelings about it not happening to women,” Tyson said in 2005. “I wish African American women were in the same position.” I can name any number of men who star in this position and make that kind of money, but there aren’t any women who do that. I can count the fingers on one hand and not use all of them, so I really wish the day comes when I’m still here when I can say, hey, finally we have a position that suits men, and we are compensated in the same way. “

Her marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis in the 1980s was tumultuous and troubled. They dated in the ’70s and married in 1981, and both Tyson and Davis would remember their abuse at his hands. He struggled with alcoholism and cocaine addiction, and became a victim of jealousy and paranoia.

There was always speculation about how dark things got between the high-profile couple, but Tyson spoke philosophically of marriage: “You have two people so enriched, blessed with incredible talent,” Tyson thought in an interview with Don on CNN from 2015 lemon. “I thought it was him. He thought I was. And what it takes to live with it from day to day. A double life has so many facets that are completely alien to most people. There were some of the most incredible moments he gave me … Every moment is a learning experience for me. As soon as I experienced [the negative] and have lived through it and reached a different level of understanding from people, especially the particularly talented who don’t know how rich they are themselves, then I am better for this experience. “

Cicely Tyson’s life and career were not just a study of longevity, but also of enhanced grace and determination. She made a name for herself by portraying a number of unforgettable women while communicating her own kind of righteous opposition to racism, sexism, and abuse. During her career, she has been honored by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Council of Negresses. She was named a 2015 Kennedy Center Prize Winner. and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama the following year. Tyson’s memoir, Cicely Tyson: Just As I Am, was released on January 26, just two days before she died.

Her career spanned seven decades and her legacy is immeasurable.

“Age is a number, okay? We have the greatest gift we could ever have … and it’s this temple, okay? “Tyson told CBS in 2015,” And if you take care of it, it will serve you well. I’ve never been a person to drink, smoke, do drugs. Never. Because I love life. “

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Originally published January 28, 2021, 7:43 p.m.

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