Cicely Tyson: The Legend, The Icon, The Woman

Society for Readers, The Parlor Room

Cicely Tyson: The Legend, The Icon, The Woman

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Actress, innovator, activist, and icon Cicely Tyson left this world with a story to tell and one final performance for the world to see.

“With one mesmerizing performance, with one gorgeously poignant rendering of her character, Ms. Tyson gave me permission to dream.”-Viola Davis.

 

Cicely Tyson was a groundbreaking actress that broke the glass ceiling for many Black women who came after her. The 96-year-old icon died on January 28 of this year while promoting her published autobiographyJust As I Am. 

There are so many highlights, moments, and memories to capture from the memoir. The grace and humility Tyson exudes throughout the book are a clear representation of the woman she was. We were so moved & inspired by the memoir that we wanted to touch on some of the moments that spoke to us in the book. Here are some of the things that uplifted us from the autobiography:

She never intended to write an autobiography.

Cicely Tyson promoting one of her films.
Picture by Vanity Fair

Cicely Tyson never saw herself writing a book about her personal life. For her, it would dive into the experiences given the world. “It would be my story through the lens of Miss Jane Pittman,” she said. “Through Rebecca in Sounder and Binta in Roots.” For Tyson, it was giving her characters life. In the end, it was her manager, Larry Thompson, who convinced Tyson to write her book. He thought it would be wise for people to see the real Cicely Tyson. “Everybody thinks they know who Cicely Tyson is. But what they see are the ornaments on the branches, the decorations. They know nothing about the roots,” he said. THANK YOU, Mr. Thompson!

Her parents were immigrants.

Tyson’s parents are from an island called Nevis. It lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Their families were friends, and they grew up together. The two came to America separately; her father came to New York City first. Tyson’s father was skilled in carpentry and operated a fruit and vegetable pushcart. A year later, her mother came, holding a job as a sleep-in nanny. Their mutual love of faith and family brought them together, and eventually, they wed. Tyson’s brother, Melrose, was born a year after they were married. Two years after that, Tyson was born on December 19, 1924. Her sister, Emily, followed behind a year and a half after.

She grew up in the church

Tyson’s parents were very adamant about their children attending church. Besides attending church service on Sundays, the family also went to prayer on Mondays and Wednesdays. Tyson and her sister Emily were in the church choir and attended practice every Friday. On Saturdays, the family cleaned the church. Tyson’s mother encouraged Emily to play the piano for the church. However, she showed no interest. So instead, Tyson learned every hymn in the church hymnal. “When I tell you we were in God’s house all the time, I mean it,” she said. Tyson said that church was where her timidness fell away. She starred in the plays at her church; one of them being cast as the mother of Jesus.

Tyson’s mother made sure that the family was represented well in the church. She sewed Tyson and her sister Emily’s clothes to wear at church; making each dress more lovely than the last. Tyson’s mother would wear beautiful frocks with high heels and a hat, while her father dressed to impress, rocking stylish suits. Tyson described her mother as “swelegant”: a mix of swell and elegant.

Her mother used to say, “We may be poor, but once you leave your house, people don’t have to know whether you’ve got a pot of tea or a bak door to throw it out of.”

Cicely Tyson on the cover of Ebony Magazine in 1979.
Picture by Hub Pages

Cicely Tyson had many career paths

As a young girl, Tyson loved music. She learned how to play the piano, and taught herself how to play the organ. With her talents, she strived to be a concert musician. However, that changed when she was 15-years-old. She played a fifteen-page overture composed by Franz von Suppe. Tyson recalled that the Franz piece wore her out and the piano demanded too much of her time. Tyson would wake up early before school and practice the piano for two hours, and practice again after school. When Tyson was 16, she decided to be a hairdresser. She started a hair business, pressing and curling Black women’s hair in the church. For a short time, Tyson saw herself as a psychologist because of her fascination with people. In her adulthood, she held jobs as a typewriter.

People confused her observance with shyness.

When Tyson was a little girl, she would stand silently at her mother’s side, not uttering a word. Her mother would laugh it off, saying that her child was merely shy. “It’s not simply that I was shy,” Tyson said in her book. “I paid close attention to details, allowing the passing world and its peculiarities to seep into my pores.” When she did speak, it was to ask questions. “I longed to understand what motivated people to do and say what they did,” she said.

She got pregnant at the age of 17.

After a mere three-second long intercourse, Tyson got pregnant by a minister’s son named Kenneth. She was with a child a month before graduation. The principal and administrative staff, however, disregarded her senior year and made Tyson repeat the coursework at the school’s night program. Tyson’s mother convinced Tyson and Kenneth to wed in the summer of 1942 when she was 18-years-old. “It felt more like a funeral than a wedding,” Tyson recalled her wedding day.

Tyson gave birth to a baby girl, who she named Joan in the book, deciding to keep her identity a secret to the readers. Two weeks after her daughter’s birth, Tyson went back to school. Her husband cared for the baby during the day; Tyson would come home during lunch to pump milk for the baby. After work, she would return home and her husband would go to work as a security guard. However, her school stopped her again. The school had a policy that students were not permitted to indulge in “adult behavior” including sex. So the administrative board revoked her status as a student and made her credits null and voided.

This did not stop Tyson. In the fall of 1943, Tyson worked as a part-time clerk while her husband watched their daughter. Then, Tyson would take Joan to her mother’s to watch her while Kenneth was at work and Tyson would attend night classes an hour away from home. When Joan was a year old, Tyson received her diploma.

She encourages the youth to think about their actions, and how they’ll impact their lives. “Until you are standing in the responsibility of parenting,” she said. “You cannot truly understand how it shifts your life’s terrain.”

Cicely Tyson modeling for a shoot in 1968.
Picture by Friggin’ Doo-A!

Tyson’s entertainment career started off in modeling

A stranger’s suggestion of Tyson becoming a model led the thirty-something-year-old to take modeling classes in the evenings. Standing at 5’4 ft tall, Tyson concentrated more on magazine modeling. She loved her career in modeling. For Tyson, it was a way out of her job as a typewriter into a more exciting and fulfilling role. “I suppose to be truly successful at any pursuit, you have to fall in love with it,” she said. “Surrender to its gravitational pull, allow it to carry you off to that would of giddy sleeplessness.”

Cicely Tyson playing Dottie, wife of a deckhand in the movie, Carib Gold.
Picture by MoMA

Tyson modeled for magazines such as Our World, Ebony, and Jet before actress Evelyn Davis discovered Tyson to play a lead role for the movie, The Spectrum. The director, Warren, introduced Tyson to plays on Broadway and sent her on countless auditions to learn the ropes of the acting world. The movie didn’t go into production, but it led to Tyson playing a small role in the movie, Carib Gold.

 

Tyson has only seen a handful of her own movies

She declared in the autobiography that she rarely viewed her own work. She stated that the only gratification needed was the creation itself; embodying a character that the audience can resonate with.

“Once I’ve played a character, that portrayal no longer belongs to me. It is an offering to those who witness the unveiling,” she said.

 

Her Broadway debut was as Barbara  Allen in the adaption of Dark of the Moon

Playwright Vinnette Carroll requested Tyson to play the role of Barbara Allen in her all-Black cast of the play, Dark of the Moon. Tyson said that Carroll helped mold her into the role; taking an interactive approach in her teaching methods. She would give Tyson homework and ask her to use her childhood tendencies to help build up the character.

Cicely Tyson as Rebecca in the movie, Sounder
Picture by MoMA

We almost did not see Tyson play Rebecca in Sounder. 

Tyson recalled the time the script of the movie, Sounder, was presented to her. She was originally offered the role of the schoolteacher. However, Tyson knew she should play the mother of this groundbreaking movie. “In that mom’s devotion-in the tender way she cared for their three children even as she rested her palm in the small of her husband’s back-I recognized my own mother,” Tyson said in the book. She was told that she was too young, too sexy, too pretty to play the role. That excuse wasn’t good enough for Tyson. “As an artist, I should be able to portray anyone.” The crew searched for their Rebecca with no luck, and months later, they gave Tyson the role. “I knew all the time that the role was mine,” she said. “I was just waiting for them to discover it.” It was Tyson’s first lead role in a major film. She was 47 years old.

 

Cicely Tyson posing for Jet Magazine, promoting the movie, Sounder.
Picture by Allure magazine

She stayed in character while on set.

From her acting classes she took with coach Lloyd Richards, Tyson knew how to get into character. Tyson was a professional through and through. While on set, she liked to be called the name of the character that she was playing. She held a strong demeanor; her strong, piercing eyes stared right through someone’s soul. And by the time her co-workers were trapped in her grasp, the director would say, “Scene!”

Cicely Tyson on the drama series East Side/West Side. Picture by The Criterion Collection

She was a trailblazer.

Tyson was unapologetically Black and proved that Black people are beautiful in their own right. In 1963, while filming the show East Side/West Side, Tyson was the first Black woman to wear her natural hair on TV.

 

Her role as Jane Pittman was the highlight of her career: for her & so many others.

The book opens up with Academy Award-winning actress, Viola Davis, recounting the day she met Cicely Tyson: onscreen. Tyson played Jane Pittman in the movie based on the book Miss Jane Pittman. “I couldn’t believe the same actress had played both the young woman and the elder one,” Davis said. “I stared at the screen, marveling at Ms. Tyson’s mastery of her craft, the brilliance with which she had transformed herself.” For Davis, seeing a Black woman represent her onscreen was a momentous occasion. “She was the manifestation of excellence and artistry, a dark-skinned, thick-lipped woman who truly mirrored me,” Davis said.

 

She rooted for her sisters.

“I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people-to change the way Black women, in particular, were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.”

-Cicely Tyson

She gave praise to other actresses. When Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for the movie, Fences, Tyson congratulated her. And to let her know she understood the struggle she had to endure to get to where she was in her career. ” ‘I know the road you’re on,’ “Davis said in the book. “By that, she meant she understood the world that a dark-skinned actress not seen as conventionally beautiful in the industry. That someone with my nose and my lips and my hair is told she isn’t enough.”

Cicely Tyson with actress Viola Davis
Picture by becauseofthemwecan.com

Throughout the book, Tyson speaks directly to Black women and reminds them that she too has endured trauma. But that also, she overcame her obstacles. “Black women,” she said in an excerpt. “Our essence, our emotional intricacies, the indignities we carry in our bones, are the most deeply misunderstood human beings in history.”

Let us not remember what Cicely Tyson, but who she is.

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