Cicely Tyson, Who Spent a Lifetime Portraying Positive Black Womanhood on Screen, Dies at 96

Through her graceful presence onstage, in film and on television, actress Cicely Tyson created portrayals of proud, even majestic women that helped break down America’s stereotypes regarding African-American women. The iconic star, who inspired a generation of Black actresses, died Thursday at the age of 96.

Tyson was born on Dec. 19, 1924, in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood to deeply religious immigrant parents from the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis. Her father, William Tyson, was a pushcart operator; her mother, Theodosia, was a domestic worker. To help boost the household income, the young Tyson sold shopping bags on street corners.

After graduating from high school, she started working as a secretary for the American Red Cross. Tyson soon found the work dissatisfying and started searching for something else. (She would recall how she announced to her co-workers, “I’m just sure God didn’t put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter the rest of my life.”) She wound up modeling after her hairdresser asked her to showcase one of his styles in a fashion show. Not long after, she enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was soon doing photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross.

She became a top Black model after a photographer for Ebony magazine discovered her, and appeared on runways and in major magazines. Yet she soon lost her zeal for modeling, later telling Time magazine that she “felt like a machine.”

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Image: Time Magazine (TimeWarner Media)

Image: Time Magazine (TimeWarner Media)

Tyson was eventually asked to appear in the film The Spectrum, which focused on tensions between light- and dark-skinned African Americans. Though it was never released due to financial problems, the experience was enough to make her fall in love with acting. She enrolled in drama school and in 1959 performed in off-Broadway shows, including the musical The Dark of the Moon. Tyson was also an understudy for Eartha Kitt in the role of Jolly Rivers in Jolly’s Progress and had parts in films such as Odds Against Tomorrow and The Last Angry Man. 

In 1961 she was one of the original cast members in the off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s drama The Blacks. Other cast members included heavy hitters such as James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett Jr., Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. Tyson, who played a prostitute named Virtue, did such a compelling job that she won a Vernon Rice Award (now known as a Drama Desk Award) in 1962.

Tyson’s dramatic work blossomed from that point. Her first major film appearance was in 1966’s A Man Called Adam; she played the love interest of Sammy Davis Jr. She also appeared in 1968’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In addition, Tyson made frequent television appearances starting in the 1960s and 1970s, including on East Side/West SideI SpyNaked CityThe Courtship of Eddie’s Father and The Bill Cosby Show.

The advent of the blaxploitation movie found Tyson becoming very selective about the roles she would take on. She told People magazine in 1974: “The lesser of two evils for me is to wait, rather than do something that isn’t right. Producers know how I feel, and they’re very cautious about sending me things, although I read everything I get. They either make my skin tingle or my stomach churn. I’m really tired of the assumption that n—gers don’t like nothin’ but sex and violence.”

In 1972 she was nominated for a best actress Oscar and Golden Globe for her role as Rebecca Morgan, the matriarch of a 1930s sharecropper family in Sounder. In 1974, she won two Emmy Awards—including outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie—for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she portrayed a woman born into slavery who lived to see, and participate in, the 1960s civil rights movement. She was the first African-American woman to win the coveted award for a lead role. She would receive several more Emmy nominations in the 1970s, for roles in Roots and King.

Tyson continued to act into the 2000s, and she continued to earn recognition for her acting. She earned an Emmy nomination in 1981 for The Marva Collins Story and received another Emmy, for outstanding supporting actress, in 1994 for The Oldest Living Confederate Woman Tells All. In addition to her 1999 nomination for A Lesson Before Dying, Tyson was nominated in 2009 for yet another Emmy for her performance in Relative Stranger. In 2014, she was also nominated for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie for Trip to Bountiful.

Tyson also received a record 12 NAACP Image Awards and earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She appeared in the 2011 award-winning film The Help, and in 2015 she both guest-starred on the hit ABC TV series How to Get Away With Murder and was recognized with a Kennedy Center Honor. In 2016, she also appeared in Netflix’s political drama House of Cards—and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, the highest American honor awarded to a civilian. In 2018, she was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an honorary Oscar at the Governor’s Awards, and her hand and footprints were added to those in front of the city’s legendary TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theater. Just last year, Tyson was honored with the Peabody Award for Career Achievement.

An honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Tyson received an honorary degree from the all-male Morehouse College in 2009. In 2010, she became the 95th recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, which is presented to Americans of African descent for “outstanding and noble achievement.” A magnet school in East Orange, N.J., was renamed the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in her honor.

As responsible and disciplined about her health as she was about her craft, Tyson believed fervently in physical fitness and was a longtime vegetarian. A celebrity who also believed in keeping her private life private, she was married to jazz legend Miles Davis from 1981 to 1988. (Andrew Young officiated over the wedding ceremony.)

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, she released her memoir, Just As I Am through Harper Books.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

When looking back at her myriad of roles, Tyson says “there are traces of who I am in every woman I have portrayed” and each character has left her “with an emotional, spiritual, and psychological inheritance I will forever carry with me.”

We will carry you with us forever. Rest in heavenly paradise, Queen.

Nathan Odige