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.”