Cicely Tyson believed in living a purposeful life. “The reason why I have been in this universe as long as I have been is because he's not ready for me,” the actress said in 2019 at age 94. “We have to honor this blessed gift that we have. That's what keeps your mind fluid — your heart, your whole being. You can't just stop, because that will be the end of you."
Tyson, perhaps best known for the searing 1974 TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, died January 28.
Her seven-decade career in television, film and on stage, which she began as a fashion model, was filled with memorable portrayals of African American women of grit and determination, from everyday characters to the historical Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King. Her “considerable reputation as an actress ... is primarily based on her ability to personify conviction under siege,” the New York Times once observed.
She was highly awarded for her performances, which garnered three Emmys, a Tony, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Peabody Award and four Black Reel Awards. She was also nominated for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award, and received an honorary Oscar.
However, beyond such honors, her impact and influence as an actor of color is almost incalculable. Growing up in Harlem, the middle child of three born to a domestic worker and a carpenter-painter, both of whom had emigrated from the West Indies, Tyson never thought of becoming an entertainer. She was too shy, and her family life revolved around the church.
When modeling led to acting (she was featured on the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar), she decided to use her career as a platform and “try to make a dent in some of these injustices that I witnessed and experienced in life,” as she put it. “I said if just reach one person, one person, then I will be happy.”
Once strangers began approaching her to express their gratitude for dignifying African American characters, “It just confirmed for me that I was on the right track and I stayed on the right track.”
Her mother, though, was so incensed that Tyson had taken up acting — after small roles, her break came with the TV series East Side/West Side in 1963 — that she ordered her from the house and didn't speak to her for two years. But the elder Tyson attended the opening of Sounder, the film for which Cicely won her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, and expressed pride over her daughter's landmark performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the saga of a woman born into slavery who lives to take part in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.
That maternal praise meant the world: “If she had not been able to participate in the recognition and the acclaim that I have gotten over the years, I don't think it would mean anything to me at all,” Tyson said. “She's my source of energy, and I used that to prove her wrong.”
Tyson, who carried a noble presence, was that rare actor who worked as much as she wanted, whether it was in episodic TV (from the ‘60s through 2020 with House of Cards, How to Get Away with Murder, and Cherish the Day) or groundbreaking projects such as Roots, the 1977 miniseries in which she played Binta, the mother of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton).
Binta was a small role for someone coming off of the success of Pittman, but Tyson didn't care. “First of all, [I] don't think there are any small roles.... When I read a script, and I say this all the time, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns I know it is something I cannot touch. I can't do it. When I get so excited, my skin [tingles], I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait!"
In 1981, she married troubled jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in a ceremony at the home of comedian Bill Cosby. It was her second marriage, after a brief union as a teenager. But life with Davis, who later credited Tyson for helping him overcome his cocaine addiction, was tumultuous, and she divorced him at the end of the decade.
Though she had no children, she took enormous pride in the Tyson Community School of Performing & Fine Arts, an elementary school in East Orange, New Jersey, with nearly 2,000 students. “That's where my heart is,” she said of it, and boasted of the high scholarship quotient of its graduates.
Tyson's Broadway credits include her luminous 2013 performance as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, for which she won a Tony Award, and The Gin Game, which she tackled in 2015 at the age of 90. She suffered a misstep, however, in the 1983 Broadway revival of The Corn Is Green, the New York Times citing her “stilted characterization.”
She easily rebounded in 1994, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. And she shown in an understated role in 2011's The Help, the hit film in which African American maids come to terms with their white employers in the Deep South of the ‘60s.
Tyson was much feted outside of the industry, receiving four honorary university degrees and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, and especially in Washington, D.C., where she received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 and in 2016 a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, who noted her “calls to conscience, humility, and hope,” her “commitment to advancing equality for all Americans — especially women of color,” and declared that her performances “illuminate the character of our people.”
HarperCollins published her memoir, Just as I Am, in 2021.
Her work helped shape who she was. “I am the sum total of each of the women I have played,” she said in 2019. “That they were able to survive the times, and the way in which they did it, made me a stronger person and allowed me to truly believe that all things are possible."