Actress, Activist, and Author
From Lena Horne 80th Birthday party June 1997 © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001

“I think when you begin to think of yourself as having achieved something, then there’s nothing left for you to work towards. I want to believe that there is a mountain so high that I will spend my entire life striving to reach the top of it.”

Cicely Tyson, known for her bold choices and riveting performances, once spoke her lines so quietly during a rehearsal of a play that the Director fired her on the spot. Ms. Tyson’s journey, which spanned nearly seven decades, from a shy whispering performer to an award-winning actor and cultural icon, is one of conviction and empowerment.

Born to Caribbean immigrants in Harlem, NY, in 1924, Cicely was the youngest of three siblings. She and her family spent nearly everyday in the church where she played instruments and sang in the choir. As a shy child, she often spent her time observing her surroundings, which undoubtedly fostered her sense of wonderment. But acting wasn’t necessarily a part of her childhood dreams. Instead, it found her.

After graduating from High School and working as a secretary for several years, she was approached by a modeling agent. Soon after, she graced the pages of Ebony, Jet, and later Vogue; and, in 1951, landed her first TV role on Frontiers of Faith. After booking bit parts on TV and stage throughout the 1950s, she spent the better part of the next decade refusing to play stereotypical roles that she found demeaning to Black women.

Her groundbreaking role came in the 1972 film Sounder, where she played the matriarch of a sharecropping family in Louisiana. Sounder garnered Ms. Tyson the first and only Academy Award nomination of her career. And while her performance didn’t win her an Oscar, it did something far more impactful.

During the press tour for Sounder, a white journalist admitted that he was bewildered to hear the film’s black children referring to their father as “Daddy.” He believed that only white children referred to their fathers that way. Shocked and stunned by his revelation of bigotry, it was then that Ms. Tyson would fully commit herself to use her acting career as a platform to address racial issues in America.

In 1974, Ms. Tyson starred in the television movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, where she played a woman born into enslavement who lived long enough to participate in the civil rights movement. She received not one but two Emmy awards (Actress of the Year and Best Lead Actress in a Drama) for her performance.

Over the years, Ms. Tyson humanized the Black American experience through her work and blazed a trail for Black actresses of future generations. Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, and Zendaya, among countless others, credit Ms. Tyson with breaking barriers and paving the path for them to follow.

At 88 years of age, Ms. Tyson became the oldest actor ever to win a Tony award for her work in The Trip to Bountiful. And in 2016, then-President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and proclaimed that “Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, but she has also shaped the course of history.” Two years later, she would become the first and only Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar.

Marked by resilience and grit, Ms. Tyson has accumulated a slew of awards and accolades during her nearly seven decade career. But perhaps her greatest achievement is what she did with her life in service to others. Just as I am, her memoir, released just days before her death on January 28, 2021, would serve as her final work. There is no doubt her legacy will be far-reaching. And with it, she hopes to “be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves” and “did the very best that I could with what God gave me — just as I am.”

Written by Janelle Connor