- In her career, spanning over 70 years on stage and screen, Cicely was known for her dedication to truthfully exploring the broad spectrum of the African-American experience.
- She was at the forefront of a paradigm shift away from the one-dimensional, negative screen stereotypes of black women.
Another week and yet another loss of an icon in the world of entertainment. Pioneering Hollywood actress Cicely Tyson died on 28 January 2021, aged 96.
In her career, spanning over 70 years on stage and screen, Cicely was known for her dedication to truthfully exploring the broad spectrum of the African-American experience. She was at the forefront of a paradigm shift away from the one-dimensional, negative screen stereotypes of black women with her starring role in “Sounder” (1972), which was groundbreaking in its portrayal of the dignity, strength, and courage of a Depression-era African-American family.
The critically acclaimed film, and Tyson’s Oscar-nominated leading role opened the door to a whole new era of black story-telling, and she came to represent this strong and wise image of African-American women with revered performances in the “Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (CBS 1973) and “Roots” (ABC 1977).
Television offered a host of opportunities for this actress with a mission, and she went on to recreate renowned moments and figures in African-American heritage in “King” (1978), “A Woman Called Moses” (1978), and “Heatwave” (1990), among others.
Regardless of whether she was playing an educated professional, the backbone of a challenged family, or a woman moved by an extraordinary sense of purpose, Tyson continually raised the bar of African-American imagery on film.
Born in East Harlem on 19 December 1924 to William and Frederika Tyson who had emigrated from the sugar plantation island of Nevis (Queen of the Caribees), West Indies, which coincidentally was the early childhood home of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Tyson grew up in a devoutly Christian environment attending prayer meetings in an episcopal church and singing in the choir.
She began modelling while she was still a teenager, and wanted to become an actress, despite her mother’s objection. After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School, Tyson landed a secretarial job at the Red Cross, until, it is claimed, one day she stood up and declared “I am sure certain God did not intend for me to sit behind a typewriter.” After attending a modelling course, she quit her secretarial job and rose to become one of the top black models in the United States, appearing on Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.Tyson became the face of the Black is Beautiful movement with covers of Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines making the Afro natural hairstyle, a key standard of beauty.
In 1960, Tyson began her acting career in theatre when she starred in her first performance in “The Blacks” at the St Mark’s Playhouse. By 1963, she had landed a role in her first Broadway production of “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright”. Future icons, Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones acted beside Tyson in the play “To Be Young, Gifted, And Black”. In 1963, she became the first Black woman to hold a leading role, in the television drama “East Side/West Side”. By the middle of the decade, Tyson had moved her work from the stage to the screen with guest star roles on The Cosby Show, The Nurses, and I Spy.
Tyson truly came into her own in 1972, starring in the heart-wrenching film “Sounder”. At the beginning of that decade, Hollywood saw a burgeoning audience in the black community and, in what came to be known as “blaxploitation”, started making movies with black stars who were often cast in the stereotypes of drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, street hustlers, and other unsavory characters.
The American actress broke stereotypes of what it means to be a black woman, rejecting subordinate roles that were offered to her and other black actors, regardless of the money. Her roles included women of strength, respect, and courage, like former slaves, civil rights icons, mothers, and other deeply complex female characters. Tyson viewed her career as a powerful movement leading representation of black actors in Hollywood to refuse immoral roles.
Throughout her film career Tyson won three Emmys out of 15 nominations. In 2013, she won her first Tony as the lead actress on “The Trip to Bountiful” during her Broadway revival. She was the first actress to receive a Tony at 88 years old. Presenting Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, President Obama said that apart from her achievements in acting, she had changed the course of history. In 2018, she received an Honorary Oscar, leaving her film career with over 100 films, television, and stage roles. With many stories to tell, Tyson released her latest memoirs, “Just as I am: A Memoir”, just two days before her death remarking, “It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside.”
Apart from her modelling and film careers, Tyson was also involved in charity work with organisations such as Urban Gateways, the American Film Institute, and Human Family Institute in her contributions to the arts. She served as a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef from 1985 to 1986.
Diminutive in size, Tyson was a tower of strength, a woman of substance, a virtuous woman. Her truthfulness, elegance and grace will be forever remembered.