Remembering the Great Cicely Tyson (1924-2021)
She was Kunta Kinte’s mother. She brought Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman to vivid life in projects for TV. And for many, she will always be Miss Jane Pittman, the indomitable former slave who lives to 110, and in an indelible act of civil-rights defiance in the 1960s, takes a sip from a “Whites Only” drinking fountain.
Cicely Tyson, who died Thursday at a regal 96, brought dignity to any role she played, including an outrageous melodrama like How to Get Away with Murder as the mother of a contemporary great, Viola Davis, earning five Emmy nominations to go with the two she received for 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. (She also won a supporting actress Emmy for another historically driven TV project, 1994’s The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.)
Through her distinguished career, which includes an Oscar nomination for playing a sharecropper’s resilient wife in 1972’s Sounder, Tyson famously refused to play roles that she considered demeaning or stereotypical, including prostitutes, addicts or maids — though she later appeared in the hit film The Help with Davis, which subverted many of those maid clichés. She broke ground on TV as the first Black actress to star in a TV drama when she appeared on the gritty CBS drama East Side/West Side (1963-64) as the secretary of a social worker played by George C. Scott.
Always active and working well past the age many would have retired, Tyson won a 2013 Tony Award in The Trip to Bountiful, reprising the role of Carrie Watts in a film for Lifetime. She received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, and in 2018 was the first Black actress to receive an honorary Academy Award.
Her many TV credits include the original Roots, the miniseries King and portrayed a renowned real-life educator in The Marva Collins Story, all adding Emmy nominations to her resumé. She starred as a civil-rights activist and lawyer in NBC’s Sweet Justice (1994-95), getting yet another of her 15 Emmy nominations, and more recently appeared in Netflix’s House of Cards and OWN’s Cherish the Day in 2020.
Just this month, her memoir Just As I Am was published and, in a candid New York Times interview to promote the book, she declared, “I’m not scared of death. I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about? … I’m not in a hurry to go either! I take it a day at a time … and I’m grateful for every day that God gives me.”
Her advice for the younger generation: “It’s simple. I try always to be true to myself. I learned from my mom: ‘Don’t lie ever, no matter how bad it is. Don’t lie to me ever, OK? You will be happier that you told the truth.’ That has stayed with me, and it will stay with me for as long as I’m lucky enough to be here.”
Cicely Tyson’s truth shone through in everything she did. A bountiful trip it was, and we’re lucky to have been along for the ride.