The world was taken for a surprise Thursday, January 28 when the news broke that legendary actress Cicely Tyson had passed away at the age of 96. The pioneering Hollywood actress left a legacy of grace, beauty, and immeasurable talent after starring in television shows and films for over 60 years.
Born in East Harlem, New York on December 19. 1924 to West Indian immigrant parents, Tyson found her love of the arts early. As a child, she sang in the choir and as she neared 30, she was discovered by a photographer for Ebony Magazine, a fateful moment that turned into a successful modeling career. However, there was more for Tyson to do and accomplish, for that, she turned to acting. In an interview with NPR, she shared that she began acting to speak thru other people as she was known to be quite shy for most of her life. “ I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer. I would sit and observe and listen and watch people’s actions in order to understand what they were. I wanted to know what prompted them to say and do the things that they did,” she told the publication. A natural at nearly everything she’s done, her skills of observing proved to create powerful portrayals bringing each role she was to take on to life.
Tyson landed her first role in 1951 on NBC’s Frontiers of Faith TV show and had several other small roles on TV and films, some of which included the likes of Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, and Godfrey Cambridge. In 1963, she was cast for a role on CBS’s East Side/West Side where she was the first and only Black actor at the time to have a regular role on a show. Although it seems like a moment to celebrate, Tyson stated that it often, “hurt me deeply,” because much of her success at the time was due to her skin tone and gender.
Though she’d garnered years of valuable work, her big push to stardom wasn’t until 1972 when she played Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder. Her role was followed by Oscar, Academy, and Golden Globe Award nominations, also winning the Nation Society of Film Critics and National Board of Review award for best actress. Tyson’s next roles earned her Primetime Emmy nominations and a few wins as she took on the lead role of the TV film, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the role of Binta in Roots.
Refusing to play roles that demeaned Black women, Tyson set a standard for herself. With each decade, she was able to transcend time, reminding us all of our worth time and time again, playing to roles that fit her age but spoke to every generation. Her roles in films such as Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman alongside the late great Maya Angelou and The Help, and How to Get Away With Murder as the main character Annalise Keating played by Viola Davis’ mother, introduced her to a group of people born in the late 90s and 2000s. Finding comfort in her spirit, many continued to follow her journey as she continued to work year after year on both television shows, movies, and within the theater.
Outside of acting, Tyson lent her talents to services to several charities and was a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969. Her charities included Urban Gateways, the Human Family Institute, and the American Film Institute. She received several honorary awards from the National Council of Negro Women, the NAACP, and the Capitol Press Award. In 2005 she was honored for her contributions to art, entertainment, and civil rights during Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama awarded Tyson with the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. and honorary degrees from several HBCU’s including Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, and the all-male, Morehouse College.
Unknown to us all, in her final years, Tyson continued to break barriers with her work and be honored for her contributions. In 2018, she was given an Academy Honorary Award and became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar and was also inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Just last year, she was also inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Days before her passing, Tyson published her memoir, Just As I Am on January 26, 2021. In one of her final interviews, Tyson stated, “I’m amazed every single day I live. What my life became is not what I expected. I had no idea that I would touch anybody.” Throughout her lifelong career, she’s most proud of staying true to herself, stating, “I done my best. That’s all.”
Tyson lived a full and rewarding life. It leaves the world great comfort and reassurance to know that a woman who lived her life to provide and serve others through her art, worked until her very last day, leaving nothing left but love and light onto the world.