Cicely Tyson

Stage, film and television icon Cicely Tyson dies at 96

It was quickly noted that stage, film and television legend Cicely Tyson died at the age of 96, just two days after the release of her memoir, “Just As I Am.”

But her death on Jan. 28, three days before Black History Month, made the loss of a cultural giant  — given the “queen” distinction of royalty among African Americans — that much more significant. For those who look to television as part of our annual lesson on the complicated, beautiful, defiantly idealistic story of resilience and triumph through the most insurmountable odds that is the Black American experience, Tyson was often our teacher.

In “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she embodied the soul of a woman who lived from enslavement to see the onset of the Civil Rights Movement.

The same year she portrayed Coretta Scott King in the “King” television miniseries,  which reunited her with “Sounder” co-star Paul Winfield.

She played Harriet Tubman in the made-for-television film, “A Woman Called Moses.”  

She also portrayed legendary educator Marva Collins, a woman who took the education of Black children in her own hands when she saw them being constantly underserved within the Chicago public school system.

Through her roles, Tyson showed Black America who we were — and what we were capable of.

“Unless a piece really said something, I had no interest in it,” Tyson told The New York Times in 1983 when discussing how she chose her roles. “I have got to know that I have served some purpose here.”

While embodying Black History, Tyson subsequently became Black History. With 1974’s “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” Tyson became the first Black woman to win a “Best Lead Actress in a Drama” Emmy Award.

The Television Academy was so moved by her performance, that she received an “Actress of the Year” special award.

She also became the first Black woman to receive an Honorary Oscar, an award she received in 2018.

In 2016, President Barack Obama presented Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Last year, she was inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame.

Tyson was one of three children born in Harlem to West Indian immigrant parents. Both from the island of Nevis, her father was a carpenter, while her mother earned a living as a domestic worker.

She was discovered by an Ebony Magazine photographer and worked as a fashion model before getting a few bit parts in television in the early 1950s. A few years later, the Tony Award winning actress made her stage debut at a Harlem YMCA.

Her film career was gaining momentum in the 1960s, but she famously refused to lend her talent to the Blaxploitation era.

“At a time when parts for actors who looked like her weren’t easy to come by, she refused to take on roles that reduced Black women to their gender or their race,”   

Obama said, in a statement on Tyson’s death, “Sometimes, that meant she would go years without work. But she took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being  —  flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections.”

Just before her death, Tyson spoke with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King about the decision to be intentional about her work as she made her rounds promoting “Just As I Am.”

Tyson was moved by the reaction of a White film critic discussing how he connected with the humanity of Black people for the first time, through the depictions he saw in “Sounder.” Tyson’s Academy Award nominated, leading lady debut was as the matriarch of a family of sharecroppers.

“I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress,” Tyson said. “I would use my career as my platform.”

Within that platform came giving girls and women, who didn’t live within the color lines of the traditional spectrum of Eurocentric-inspired beauty standards, the opportunity to see themselves beyond the confines of exploitative and stereotypical roles.

“She was the personification of beauty, grace, wisdom and strength, carrying forward a flame that not only guided her for 96 pathbreaking years but lit the way for so many of us,” former First Lady Michelle Obama said. “I smile knowing how many people she inspired, just like me, to walk a little taller, speak a little more freely, and live a little bit more like God intended.”

Tyson’s life included connections to the St. Louis region. She appeared alongside St. Louis native Maya Angelou in the original cast of the groundbreaking early 1960s production of French playwright Jean Genet’s, “The Blacks.” The show was the longest running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, running for 1,408 performances.    

Tyson and Angelou forged a close friendship that would endure for more than five decades. Tyson was one of the speakers at Angelou’s memorial service.

Perhaps her best-known connection to the area was her complicated, dysfunctional, yet enduring relationship with East St. Louis native and music icon Miles Davis. Their love story stretched two decades.

Though their marriage lasted eight years (1981–1989), Tyson told King that Davis was the love of her life. Davis was often quoted as saying that it was Tyson who helped him adopt a healthy lifestyle and finally kick his drug habit.

When King pointed out the turmoil of their marriage, Tyson responded with her typical grace.

“People who are hurting hurt [others]. It’s always the person who is closest to them that they hurt,” Tyson said. “He was a beautiful human being.”

Tyson became visibly emotional when King brought up that Davis mentioned Tyson among his last words when he died in 1991 at age 65.

“He said, ‘Tell Cicely I’m sorry,” Tyson said before King had a chance to read the words.

Reflecting on her 60-plus year career, Tyson admitted to King that it was a beautiful surprise. “What my life became is not what I expected,” Tyson said. “I had no idea that I would touch anybody.”

Though in her late 90s, her death blindsided the cultural community. But Tyson faced her mortality with the same dignity and fearlessness as she approached life.

“When your time comes, what do you want us to remember about you?” King asked Tyson. “How do you want us to remember you?”

“That I did my best,” Tyson responded. “That’s it. That I’ve done my best.”

Job well done.

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