“When I told my mother that I wanted to be an actress, she said, you can’t live here and do that, and so I moved out. I was determined to prove her wrong because she was so sure that I was going to go astray. And that’s the juice that kept me going.” That “juice” allowed one of America’s greatest actresses of all time to become the amazing and inspiring woman she was today. Her name was Cicely Tyson and after a career that spanned over seventy years, she passed away on January 28, 2021.
Cicely was born in New York City and she grew up in Harlem. She was born the youngest of three children and her family were from the Caribbean. The first time Tyson experienced Hollywood was when she was discovered by Ebony Magazine and started modeling. However, in 1951, Cicely had strict parents so after she received her first acting role on NBC Show, Frontiers of Faith, she was forced to move out. But that momentum kept her going as she became a major component in breaking the stereotypes of the film industry for black people; even with the civil rights movement blooming in the 1960s, Tyson continued to achieve success.
In 1963 she became the first African American actress to become a regular member of a TV show for the drama series East Side/West Side where she played the role of Jane Foster. Tyson continued to do movies and TV shows as the years progressed but one of her most notable roles was Rebecca Morgan in Sounder. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and told the New York Times, “Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”
Besides Sounder, some of her most famous roles have been in Roots, King, The Marva Collins Story, The Help, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Trip to Bountiful.
Tyson received around 49 awards and 52 nominations. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977, the American Teacher Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. At 88, she became the oldest person to win a Tony in 2013.
Not only did she become a popular actress, but Tyson also helped with the “Black Is Beautiful” movement that inspired so many black women to love themselves. One of the ways she contributed to the movement was by helping young black women learn to love their natural hair by not being afraid to embrace it. After going natural for one of her shows, she started what she called “the natural hair craze.”
Additionally, she co-founded the Dance Theater of Harlem and allowed the center to name it after her if she was allowed to participate in the school activities.
Cicely Tyson’s legacy will always be remembered as she broke barriers and paved a way for so many other amazing black actresses and actors in today’s world.