Pioneering actress Cicely Tyson, 96, remembered for talent, activism, love for God

Cicely Tyson 1924 – 2021

Neziswa Kanju pays tribute to the African American matriarch of screen and stage who recently died just two days before her autobiography was released

“Just As I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and mother, a sister, and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by His hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” –Cicely Tyson

The pioneering actress Cicely Tyson died two days after her autobiography Just As I am was released. In the 400-page memoir she chronicles her extraordinary life filled with twists and turns of growing up poor in Harlem, being raised in the church, how she was discovered, her groundbreaking roles and what propelled her to use her craft as a tool for change and activism. 

Cicely Tyson was a celebrated icon in the African American community. She was viewed as a matriarch who deeply cared for her race and how black people — especially black women — were seen and portrayed in film. She played more than 100 roles in her six decades career winning many accolades. Ms Tyson was a beloved actress who acted in film, stage and television. Her most notable works include playing a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman for which she won two Emmys. Tyson received three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award.

Cicely Tyson 1924 – 2021

Tyson also starred as Carrie Watts in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful, winning the Tony Award, the Outer Critics Award, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013. In her illustrious career she was awarded many accolades. She was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. In November 2016 Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. 

Cicely Tyson was born on December 19 1924 in Harlem, New York City, to immigrant parents from Nevis in the West Indies. She was one of three children. “There were three of us in our family. I am the middle child. My brother was older and I had a younger sister. I am the sole surviving member in my entire family when I was not supposed to live past eight. I am now 93. The only reason that I believe that I am still here is that He is not quite finished with me yet,” she once remarked.

Cicely Tyson died aged 96 in her hometown of Harlem, New York City, where she was buried this week. Her body lay in repose at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church for her scores of fans and followers to bid her farewell. Hundreds came from as far as Atlanta, braving the windy cold to pay their last respect to their beloved icon. When one of them was asked why he would travel from far to come to Harlem to the viewing he said: “You have to honour the great ones, when I think about role models and when I think about great human beings this is one right here. Even in hard times, like right now, it’s important to honour people that contributed so much to the greatness of humankind.”

Cicely Tyson 1924 – 2021

Cicely made a decision very early on in her career that she would only play roles that brought dignity not only to her but to the black race especially black women. She made this decision after an interview with a white reporter who was interviewing her about her role in Sounder. Sounder is a story concerning an African-American family in the Deep South during the Great Depression. The reporter confessed his racism to Tyson saying that he could not relate to the young boy in the film referring to his father as “daddy.” Tyson realised that the reporter did not see black people as ordinary people with ordinary lives and much work had to be done in educating America about the black race. She has said in many interviews that she did not have the luxury of just being an actress. She decided to add her voice to the black consciousness narrative that was increasingly gaining momentum in her country. Her performance as a sharecropper’s wife in the 1972 movie Sounder cemented her stardom and earned her an Oscar nomination.

Tyson was buried on Tuesday following a private funeral where Bill and Hilary Clinton and Tyler Perry were among the mourners. Perry has described Tyson as a grandmother he never had. The two shared a close bond with Tyler Perry naming one of his studious after Cicely Tyson. He cast her in many of his movies and the latest, A Fall from Grace can be seen on Netflix.

Tyson grew up in a religious atmosphere. She sang in the choir and attended prayer meetings at an Episcopal church in East Harlem. “We were brought up in the church. We went to church from Sunday morning to Saturday night. I played the organ. I taught the Sunday school. I was steeped in the church. We were not allowed to go anywhere else on Sunday. This desire that I had to come no matter where I was, was inbred in me. There is not a day that I do not talk to Him. I talk to Him every moment of the day. Wherever He lead me I will follow.” Cicely Tyson loved God dearly.

This love for God was modelled by her grandmother, Dorothy M Holmes who was a Lowcountry pastor. Cicely shared that her grandmother “carried with her a set of Bible-based mantras she’d committed to memory. She revered her God fiercely and wasn’t ashamed to tell anyone with whom she came into contact about how good He’d been to her.” Tyson came from a family of believers. They were members of both Episcopal and Baptist churches. Tyson was very proud of her roots and said that it was a blessing that she was raised in the church “My mother was determined that our foundation be spiritual, just as hers had been,” she wrote. 

Her mother’s favorite hymn was Blessed Assurance a song that the audiences of a play, A Trip to Bountiful were exposed to. As soon as the curtains were raised for the second act in the Broadway production, The Trip to Bountiful, Cicely would sing the cherished hymn that brought back many precious memories to the actress, memories of her dear mother and the rest of her family worshiping together.

It was at the church that the seeds for acting were planted. “Church was the one place where my timidity fell away,” said Tyson. In the book, she told how the deacon’s wives would put on plays. “More than once I was cast in the leading role of Mary, mother of Jesus.”

Her pastor of many years Rev Dr Calvin O Butts said of Tyson: “I loved Cicely Tyson dearly. She was a dear friend to myself, to Mrs Butts, to our entire church. She carried herself as an actor of great renown. She would not prostitute her gifts. She wouldn’t sell herself to the highest bidder. She would not take just any role just to make a dollar. She sacrificed because of that but she was a woman of great dignity, great spiritual strength and great faith. She would come to church often and you would not even know she was here. She would just sit at the back and worship God. She was here every Sunday that she could be when she was not travelling and working”

Gayle King of the CBS This Morning Show was one of the last people to interview Cicely Tyson about her book Just As I Am, before she passed, “When your time comes, what do you want us to remember about you?” King asked Tyson. “How do you want us to remember you?” “That I did my best,” Tyson responded. “That’s it. That I’ve done my best.”

Ms Tyson has taken her final trip to Bountiful and she has a blessed assurance that Jesus is hers. She is  praising her Saviour, all the day long.

Just As I Am” by Cicely Tyson with Michelle Burford is published by Harper Collins. It is available in hardcover, e-books, and audio versions.

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