“The moment anyone tries to demean or degrade you in any way, you have to know how great you are.” – Cicely Tyson
I first discovered Cicely Tyson while watching the 2019 Netflix documentary The Black Godfather about Clarence Avant, a man who “knows everyone”. I was struck by her glamour, her voice, and her gravity. I could see instantly that she was a woman who could tell any story and make it captivating: I couldn’t help but listen to her when she spoke. Shortly after watching the documentary I saw that she had passed away, as celebrities such as Kerry Washington, Michelle Obama, and Kelly Rowland paid tribute to her on social media. It is a great shame that only in her death I have discovered the brilliance of this woman, but it is never too late to let her legacy inspire you.
The Guardian commemorated the actress and model, stating “Tyson’s career embraced black history, achievement and aspiration in stories factual and fictional”. The first Black woman actor to be given a recurring TV spot in the 1963 drama series East Side, West Side, Tyson was a trailblazer throughout her career. She refused to take roles that she felt could have a negative impact on society’s perception of Black women. As CNN Entertainment put it: “Tyson consciously embraced breaking boundaries”, she is best known for playing strong, complex characters. It would be a fascinating look back at cinema to watch the films Tyson chose to be in.
“I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people – to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.” – Cicely Tyson
Tyson won three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award. She appeared in 30 films including The Help and A Fall From Grace, as well as countless TV shows such as How to Get Away With Murder and House of Cards.
Not only a prolific actress, Tyson was a fashion icon. CNN Style celebrates her as “an enduring picture of style, a star who loved fashion and indulged in beauty until the very end, known for her endless rotation of glamorous gowns and hats, and ever-changing hairstyles”. Dozens of magazines have reflected on some of Cicely Tyson’s outstanding fashion moments such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, and The Hollywood Reporter. I adore so many of her iconic looks, but for me it is her 2010 headdress at the ‘Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon’ that is the winner for me. Click this link and you’ll see why. The incredible pink and purple orchids, surrounded by huge, shining leaves are as happy and full of life and joy as Tyson’s own smiling face… A close second would have to be The Heart Truth’s Red Dress by B. Michael in 2009, the dress is vivid red, dramatic, with billowing sleeves – maybe I wouldn’t wear it, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t look incredible!
Cicely Tyson received the Medal of Freedom in 2016 from Barak Obama. To learn about a life full of dignity, grace, and conviction has been both fascinating and an honor. Not to mention my amazement to learn that Tyson achieved all of these things and had a daughter when she was just 17 years old.
Cicely Tyson died on the 28th of January 2021, aged 96. I think that we can all take some inspiration from her 96 years, be it her bravery at turning down roles for the sake of her morals and values; her unapologetically bold fashion statements; or her resolute self-belief.