A queen has exited
“I done my best,” is what Cicely Tyson told Gayle King of CBS’ “This Morning” when asked how she wanted to be remembered. Indeed, she did. In the interview, which took place earlier this month, Tyson confessed that she “had no idea that I would touch anybody.”
The Black icon touched many of us—especially Black people—before she left. A Black woman who was more than worthy of the title Queen has left behind quite a legacy of work.
In between her illustrious acting career, she showed the way for Black people to live with their heads held high in the midst of indignity, sometimes ignominy, and constant injustice. She was the living embodiment of a kind of quiet dignity, grace, and Black pride.
For those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and to a lesser extent the ’80s, Tyson was an institution.
Her movie career began in 1959 when she appeared in the Harry Belafonte film “Odds Against Tomorrow.” She would go on to star in “The Comedians,” “The Last Angry Man,” “A Man Called Adam” and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Though she had been burning up the screen and stage beforehand, she came to the attention of most moviegoers with her work in the film “Sounder,” released in 1972 to rave reviews and a large audience reception.
In the kind of tragi-drama, she plays a woman with courage and determination trying to hold her family together in Jim Crow-era Louisiana. Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
However, what catapulted her to stardom and etched her in the memory of many was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Jane Pittman in “The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman” in 1974. In the film, Tyson then-40something conveyed three generations in an amazing transformation that revealed her range and extraordinary acting ability. She admitted that she had closely studied older people to prepare for the role and it showed.
Few were unconvinced that Tyson was indeed the 110-year-old Ms. Pittman as she—in an act of rebellion and recalcitrance—leaned over and took a sip of water from the Jim Crow “White only” water fountain. Her act of resistance resonated with a Black community that was still in the process of overcoming the legacy of Jim Crow and trying to define itself on its own terms.
Tyson was born in Harlem in 1924, the child of immigrants. Her parents came to the U.S. from the tiny Caribbean island Nevis. When she decided as a young adult that she wanted to pursue a career in acting, she said her mother put her out. But she was undeterred.
Ironically, Tyson who insisted that Black women should not play criminals, prostitutes, and “never-do-wells’ was first recognized as an actor with her Broadway portrayal of Stephanie Virtue, a prostitute in the play “The Blacks,” in 1961. The play, which also starred James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett, Jr., earned her a Vernon Rice award and was the longest-running off-Broadway play of the 1960s.
“Cicely Tyson was my first screen mom,” tweeted LeVar Burton. “Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style, and abundant grace. She was as regal as they come. An artist of the highest order, I will love her forever.”
Burton starred as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV mini-series “Roots” in which Tyson played his mother Binta.
In the 1970s, Tyson starred with Richard Pryor in the comedy “Bustin Loose.” She portrayed Harriet Tubman in a made for television movie, “A Woman Called Moses.” She had a long list of television movie appearances including, “A Lesson Before Dying” and the “Rosa Parks Story.” She later played Marva Collins in the “Marva Collins Story.”
For many old schoolers, she is best remembered as the face of Black womanhood as she graced the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet numerable times during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. In 1968, she helped found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Tyson was the oldest person to win a Tony Award for her portrayal in the revised 2013 Broadway rendition of “A Trip to Bountiful.” Her last appearance on Broadway was in 2015 at the age of 90 opposite 84-year-old James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game” in which the two elder statesman and stateswoman play an elder couple who become acquainted over a card game.
Tyson appeared in dozens of smaller roles throughout her career that included television and cable series and smaller parts in movies.
Younger fans may recall her performance in Tyler Perry films, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “Madea’s Family Reunion” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” The actress also had supporting roles in “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Fat Rose and Squeaky,” “Idlewild” and 2011’s “The Help.”
Tyson received many accolades, most coming in her later years. At 93, she won an honorary Oscar. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018, and into the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. She also won a career achievement Peabody Award in 2020. The NAACP honored Tyson with an Image Award and she received awards from several women’s groups.
President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, stating, “In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
Though, 96, the pioneer had shown no signs of slowing down. She had just published her memoir “Just as I Am” only days before her passing.