Remembering Cicely Tyson: Life, Legacy, and Importance 

Rebekah Rahman, Copy Editor

On Jan. 28, actress, model, and author Cicely Tyson passed away at the age of 96. Tyson was primarily known for her positive portrayal of African American women throughout her acting career. Her extensive acting career spanned seven-decades. The news of her passing came mere days after the release of her memoir “Just As I Am.” The book put aside all of the accolades and accomplishments of her career, instead focusing on the story of her life, without the glamour, simply the truth in her own words. 

Tyson was not just a gifted actress. She served as a trailblazer and inspiration for African Americans, both in and out of the industry. Tyson was very particular about the roles she would and would not take. According to Variety, “Tyson refused to play drug addicts, prostitutes or maids, roles she thought demeaning to Black women. But when a good part came along she grabbed hold of it with tenacity.” As such, it was no surprise that Tyson became the figurehead for redefining, and more importantly, popularizing the image of the black woman in mainstream media. When describing the image of black femininity, Tyson writes: “The myth of the Strong Black Woman bears a kernel of truth, but it is only a half-seed. The other half is delicate and ailing, all the more so because it has been denied sunlight.” The New York Times described her as an “idol of the Black is Beautiful movement” who helped African American women “to embrace their own standards of beauty– including helping to popularize the Afro.” 

Tyson was also known for her dedication and love for her hometown: Harlem. She was an integral piece of the fine arts community in Harlem, with her being a founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1968 (shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination). At the time, there was little to no work for Black dancers, so this was Tyson’s way of giving back to the community that built her. Outside of her work as an actress and performer, Tyson could be seen interacting with politicians and other important figures within Harlem. However, as noted by the New York Times, “long before Ms. Tyson was brunching with the Harlem [elite], she enjoyed Harlem’s warm, maternal embrace.” When describing her humble beginnings in Harlem, Tyson wrote in her memoir: “My earliest memory is a street address. The memory is of arriving home and seeing the address on the building.”

Early in her career, Tyson realized the weight and importance of her place in life. One of her earliest and most important roles was in 1972s “Sounder.” At the time, it was one of the only movies to show the dynamics of a loving black family and household. During a press conference for the movie, Tyson recalled an interaction with a white journalist who was baffled by hearing an African American child call their father “Daddy,” just as his own white children would. Tyson recalls: “He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he… and I thought to myself, ‘Cicely, you really can’t afford the luxury of just being an actress.'” This mindset carried Tyson through more than 100 film, television, and stage roles. According to the New York Times, “she won three Emmys and many awards from civil rights and women’s groups, and at 88 became the oldest person to win a Tony.”

Tyson was a woman of strong, religious faith, and was a member of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for three decades. The dignity and beauty with which she portrayed her characters was fueled by her faith as well. Tyson writes: “My true identity isn’t rooted in our history, grievous and glorious as it is. It is grounded in my designation as a child of God, the daughter of the Great Physician. In his care, I find my cure.” For Tyson, her skill and ability came from God himself, and it was that faith that led her to her calling of acting. As such, it comes as no surprise that Tyson, when choosing the roles she played, simply trusted her gut. If the character did not jump out at her or grip her spirit, she would not take it. 

Although she may be remembered for her accomplishments and beauty on the screen, Tyson was notable for her kindness and wisdom. Her memoir, being of her own voice, gives a glimpse into that wisdom that was and still is revered to this day. On the topic of rejection, Tyson is no stranger to that either, yet she notes: “I have learned not to allow rejection to move me.” Tyson’s beauty was much more than skin-deep, and her philosophy towards kindness is acutely summed up in her own words: “That is, in this life, who we are for one another–fellow sojourners and witnesses. We are here to see and hear one another.”