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Cicely Tyson: The Life and Legacy of a Trailblazer

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Collage of Cicely Tyson
On January 28th, 2021, the world lost a legend. Cicely Tyson was an award-winning actress who's career spanned over 80 years. She was a trailblazer for black actresses who came after her, and was the TV grandmother to generations. Through the accolades and hardships, Cicely Tyson remained a strong force in the industry, working up until the very end. Above all, her elegance, poise, and character will continue to inspire many to come.
Let's take a look at the highlights of the life and career of iconic superstar, Cicely Tyson. 

 

Early Work

Born December 19th, 1924 (a Sagittarius), with a heart murmur, she didn’t think she would live past the age of 3. Cicely grew up in Harlem, NY, what she called “the slums.” Her family went to church regularly, and signing in church is what gave her a love of performing. But her mother was not supportive of her dreams to work in showbusiness, so she got kicked out (her mom later turned around). In the 1950s she lived with a friend while she worked to get on her feet. 

Before becoming a movie and TV star, she was a model. She never expected to get into modeling, but she was scouted at her day job and the rest is history. From there, she graced numerous covers of Ebony, Jet, and much more. 

Cicely Tyson Ebony Cover Cicely Tyson Ebony Cover  Cicely Tyson Ebony Cover

 

Her first film was “Carib Gold” in 1956

Cicely Tyson Carib Gold
Carib Gold. 1956. Directed by Harold Young. 

 

She had a minor role in 1959 with Harry Belafonte in “Odds Against Tomorrow” as a bartender, but her beautiful smile made her a scene stealer for sure. 

Cicely Tyson Odds Against Tomorrow
 Cicely Tyson in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

 

Cicely was the first black woman to wear her hair natural on TV.

Cicely is credited with starting the natural hair movement of the 1970s after cutting her hair short for a live taping of a tv show. From then on she starred in a CBS show called "East Side/West Side" rocking her short natural hair. Consequently, it started a natural hair movement because women wanted their hair to look like the girl on TV. 

Cicely Tyson East Side West Side
Cicely in East Side/West Side

Cicely spoke about the time in an interview with InStyle:

“In 1962 I was asked to do a live episode of Between Yesterday and Today, which was a CBS Sunday morning drama, where I played an African wife who wanted to preserve her cultural heritage in the United States. When I auditioned, they told me to leave my hair straightened, but I knew this woman would wear her hair natural. So the night before we taped, I went to a Harlem barbershop that was frequented by Duke Ellington and asked them to cut my hair as short as they could and then shampoo it, so it would go back to its natural state. When I arrived at the studio the next morning, I kept my head covered as I got my makeup done and put my costume on. When the director yelled “Places,” I took the scarf off, and everything stopped. He walked up to me and said, “Cicely, you cut your hair.” And I thought, “Oh lord, he’s going to fire me.” [laughs] And then he said, “I wanted to ask you to do it, but I didn’t have the nerve.” 

Blazing the Trail 

“Refusing to participate in the blaxploitation movies that became popular in the late ’60s, she waited until 1972 to return to the screen in the drama “Sounder,” which captured several Oscar nominations including one for Tyson as best actress.” 

Cecily Tyson Holding Her Son in Sounder

Sounder (1972)

 She received Oscar nominations for her role in Sounder but did not win. But 45 years later, in 2018, she received an honorary Oscar for her role. Kind of bittersweet because it shows the racism of the entertainment industry, but at least she was able to be recognized for her work before she passed. 

Cicely Tyson Holding Her Oscar 2018

45 years after her nomination for Sounder, she accepts the honorary Oscar in 2018.

 

Facing Discrimination

 In promoting her movie Sounder, a journalist admitted to being prejudice when he felt uncomfortable that the black son in the film called his father daddy. Cicely replied, “I said, do you have children? And what do they call you?” he said 'they call me daddy.' And I thought, my God, this man is thinking that we’re not human beings.” At that moment, Cicely knew she could not just accept any role. 

“I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress, and that I would use my career as my platform.” 

In her own words:

“I was only going to do projects that addressed the issues I found offensive to me as a Black woman. I wanted to alter the narrative about how Black people, and Black women particularly, were perceived by reflecting their dignity.” 

Cicely Tyson Time Magazine Cover
Cicely Tyson on the cover of TIME magazine, 2019

She Never Retired

Cicely Tyson and Arthur Mitchell created the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Cicely Tyson and Arthur Mitchell
Cicely and Arthur Mitchell, 1973

 

Tyson was in numerous Tyler Perry movies in her 70s, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (2005), "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006), and "Why Did I Get Married Too?" (2010). Another one of her famous roles include Constantine in "The Help" (2011). 


The actress was one of 25 Black women honored for their contributions to art, entertainment and civil rights as part of Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 Legends Ball.


Cicely Tyson and Oprah
Cicely and Oprah 

Her last role was working alongside Viola Davis in "How to Get Away With Murder", in which Viola expressed what an inspiration Tyson was to her. Cicely remembered:

“In fact, the wonderful Viola Davis, who I worked with on How to Get Away with Murder, wrote in the forward of my memoir that watching me in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman gave her permission to dream. There is no greater compliment”

“In unity there is strength!” In a recent interview, she was hopeful about the future of black actresses because, “back in my day, we would get a role and hide out of fear that it might be taken away from us.” Now she says that things are a lot more open, and black women are helping one another in ways that didn’t happen when she was early on in her career. Tyson always thought about how her work would move black women, and black people in general, forward. 

Cicely The Fashionista 

In addition to her acting career, Tyson had some iconic fashion moments throughout the decades.  

Cicely Tyson Arms Up 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

Via: Vogue, 1973, and 1974 with her Emmys won for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

 

Tyson presented Rosa Parks with The Eleanor Roosevelt Woman of Courage Award in 1984

 

And she looked so beautiful being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in February, 2020. 

Cicely Tyson TV Hall of Fame

Cicely Tyson TV Hall of Fame Red Carpet


Cicely loved working, and never retired. She explained that as long as she could work, she would because why not? “We have to honor this blessed gift that we have.” That’s how she managed to live so long, she never stopped moving. Her life was guided by a bigger purpose. Tyson leaves behind an incredible legacy that will never be forgotten. Her work led the way for black actresses and actors of today, and we will always be grateful for her.

Cicely Tyson Cicely Tyson Highlights Trailblazer

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