Photos: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Emmys); portrait of Tyson photographed by Gabor Jurina exclusively for Zoomer magazine
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Cicely Tyson Dies At 96: Revisiting The Hollywood Legend’s Life In Her Own Words
In her memoir Just As I Am, the 96-year-old acting legend reveals her roots, dispenses advice for Black women and writes about her one true love / BY Ashante Infantry / January 25th, 2021
Screen and stage legend Cicely Tyson died today at age 96 — just two days after publishing her new memoir, Just As I Am.
“Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life,” Tyson’s manager of more than 40 years, Larry Thompson, said in a statement. “Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”
Zoomer recently spoke with Tyson about her life, career and new memoir for our upcoming February/March 2021 issue, which is available on newsstands on Feb.8.
And here, journalist Ashante Infantry, who interviewed Tyson for Zoomer, explores her new memoir, in which the actress reveals her roots, dispenses advice for Black women and writes about her one true love.
When Cicely Tyson reported to the set of How to Get Away with Murder in 2014, Viola Davis greeted the 90-year-old acting vet with a big smile and open arms. The Oscar winner had requested Tyson, her lifelong role model, to play the mother of Davis’ character Annalise Keating. But Tyson would have none of it.
“She walked right past me, reprimanding me with her stern expression, a mother putting a child in her place,” writes Davis in the forward of Tyson’s new memoir Just As I Am, which publishes today. “She knew that if she’d broken the moment by stepping out of character, her portrayal would not be the same.”
That focus and discipline, which has served Tyson well on screens and stages throughout a distinguished six-decade career, has also rendered the woman behind the resilient, no-nonsense characters somewhat of a mystery.
And for the longest time, Tyson was just fine with that, partly out of a desire for privacy and partly out of the satisfaction of letting the work speak for her, but also, the 96-year-old confesses in the book, because she’s still evolving. “Even now, in the winter of my life, I am just beginning to truly understand my identity.”
In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history – Barack Obama
Just As I Am charts her journey from humble beginnings in East Harlem, New York, to the pinnacle of Hollywood as a rare, dark-skinned Black actress who is prolific, respected and relevant. As she recounts her storied odyssey, it becomes clear just how much Tyson, noted for standout roles in films like Sounder (1972), The Autobiography of Miss Jean Pittman (1974) and Roots (1977), has in common with the brave and irrepressible women she has portrayed. And that’s by design.
Early on, despite the limited choices afforded even the highest calibre Black actresses, Tyson decided she would only take uplifting roles. “How is it that we are ‘sticking it to the man,’ as some proponents of Blaxploitation cinema argue that these films do, by committing narrative assassination of ourselves?” Tyson writes of the irreverent ‘70s genre she decries for glorifying ghetto life and vulgarity. “Why would we spend money reinforcing deeply stereotypical depictions of who we are?”
She has no regrets about “turning down roles left and right” during that era, and enduring a drought of work that required her to hit the college speaking circuit to remain solvent and to counter the “disgraceful” Blaxploitation offerings.
From the beginning, her courageous and practical decisions were guided by an innate steeliness informed by her Nevis immigrant parents’ work ethic and troubled marriage, “divine guidance,” and good old intuition. Pregnant at 17, she quit a brief marriage to her daughter’s father rather than continue toward the “utterly soul-destroying” future of “tedium and regret” foretold by the loveless, family-sanctioned union.
Years later, like a scene from a movie, the 30-year-old typist was strolling down Fifth Ave. on her lunch break when a dashing businessman suggested she become a model. Even though Tyson was insecure about her looks, the nagging conviction that secretarial work “was not the end of the career road … but rather a milestone along an alternate route,” prompted her to seek out modeling schools in the Yellow Pages.
Cue the fairytale ending: the slender beauty became a cover girl, was scouted for the big screen and wound up seated next to Marilyn Monroe in an acting class.
She evolved into an award-winning thespian, and crossed paths with a who’s who of American arts, culture and civil rights – Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor, Maya Angelou, Dizzy Gillespie, Coretta Scott King, Frank Sinatra, and of course, her husband Miles Davis – never accruing the equivalent fame of her white peers, but staying a purposeful, scandal-free course.
It is only in the recounting of her torrid, on-and-off relationship with the capricious jazz trumpeter that Tyson breaks character. And it’s hard to fathom why the proud, vice-free, swan of a woman would tolerate the “emotional lacerations” wrought by the musician’s drug use, infidelity and volatility.
“There is a love that gently guides your palm toward the small of another’s back, a care that leads you to ensure no harm ever comes to that person,” Tyson offers. “From the beginning, that is the love I had for Miles.”
Their co-dependence, outlined in detail – while she was away working, he entertained other women in the marital bed, and brought home a STD – makes the saintly Tyson relatable. Who, after all, hasn’t been strung out for love?
The contradiction of her indomitable image underscores a thread that runs through the book about Black women, for whom Tyson offers heaps of personal and professional advice. “Black women – our essence, our emotional intricacies, the indignities we carry in our bones – are the most deeply misunderstood humans in history… There is no archetype on file in which a Black woman is simultaneously resolute and trembling, fierce and frightened, dominant and receding.”
In chronicling both her hits and misses, the enigmatic Tyson sagely lays bare the folly of the Strong Black Woman mythology.