Cicely Tyson was an icon of the arts, leading a career of purposeful and exemplary roles that won her accolades in television, film, and on stage. Sadly, Tyson passed away on January 28, 2021.
Born in December of 1924, Tyson grew up in Harlem, New York where both of her parents immigrated from the Carribean. After quitting her typing job at just 18, she launched her modeling career after being discovered by Ebony magazine. She was soon drawn to the stage and began acting in off-broadway and soon on Broadway shows. However, her parents were devoutly religious and disapproved of her career choices, causing them to kick her out of the house.
Nonetheless, she was determined to pursue her career, making her a role model for Black women across the globe. Tyson insisted on having roles that portrayed Black women in a positive light. This made it difficult for her to get work at first, but after making her mark as Portia in The Heart is A Lonely Hunter (1968), she soon gained traction. In 1973 she then earned an Academy Award nomination for her work in Sounder. That year she was nominated along with Diana Ross, making them the second and third Black women to ever be nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. This then created a domino effect and Tyson earned more recognition, including three Emmy Awards (with 17 nominations total), a Tony award, and an Honorary Academy Award. Despite her astonishing performances in these films, Tyson was severely underpaid as a Black woman working in entertainment. This is still a prevalent issue today, and Tyson notes this in her memoir: Just As I Am. Despite the tribulations, she completely transformed the industry for Black women by persistently telling her truth.
The award-winning actress was just as pivotal off the screen as well. One CNN style column writes, “Early in her career, she caused a stir when she became one of the first successful Black actresses to wear hair in an afro. The true weight of that decision became clear in 1963, when she joined the cast of the CBS series “Eastside/Westside” — becoming the first Black woman actor to be given a recurring TV spot — with hair still shorn short.” When faced with criticism about her style Tyson said, “They’d been brainwashed into believing that all things relating to physical blackness were bad, negative, less than good and less than white. But I knew it was just a question of time before the whole picture took on its true colors.” Style represents who you are, and she understood this. Tyson broke barriers in the Black female community through her choices. By showing she was comfortable in her own skin, she set off a revolution in an era where white beauty standards were the standard across all races.
Cicely Tyson was a trailblazer. In a 2019 interview with Time she said, “When I made the decision to use my career as my platform, to try to make a dent in some of these injustices that I witnessed and experienced in life, I said if I just reach one person, one person, then I will be happy. There isn’t a day — I’m grateful to say — that when I walk out of my doors I don’t run into somebody who says, ‘I can’t tell you what you’ve done for me. You changed my life.’ To me, you can’t buy that. It just confirmed for me that I was on the right track and I stayed on the right track.” Tyson’s career spanned seven decades, and she always ensured she was making a path for the young Black talents behind her whilst serving as an icon for the community. Her work was extremely influential, and will always be regarded as iconic. Check out some of her roles in films like Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss. Jane Pittman, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman.