Cicely Tyson: A Queen Has Exited

pictured above: Tyson after receiving the Medal of Freedom from then President Obama in 2016

“I done my best,” is what Cicely Tyson told Gayle King of CBS’ “This Morning” when asked how she wanted to be remembered. Indeed, she did. In the interview, Tyson confessed that she “had no idea that I would touch anybody.”

 The Black icon touched many of us—especially Black people—before she left. A Black woman who was more than worthy of the title Queen has left behind quite a legacy of work.

In between her illustrious acting career, she showed the way for Black people to live with their heads held high in the midst of indignity, sometimes ignominy, and constant injustice. She was the living embodiment of a kind of quiet dignity, grace, and Black pride.

For those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and to a lesser extent the ’80s, Tyson was an institution.

Her movie career began in 1959  when she appeared in the Harry Belafonte film “Odds Against Tomorrow.” She would go on to star in the “The Comedians,” “The Last Angry Man,” “A Man Called Adam” and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”

Though she had been burning up the screen and stage beforehand, she came to attention of most moviegoers with her work in the film “Sounder,” released in 1972 to rave reviews and a large audience reception.

In the kind of tragi-drama, she plays a woman with courage and determination trying to hold her family together in Jim Crow-era Louisiana. Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

However, what catapulted her to stardom and etched her in the memory of many was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Jane Pittman in “The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman” in 1974. 

Tyson was born in Harlem in 1924, the child of immigrants. Her parents came to the U.S. from the tiny Caribbean island Nevis. When she decided as a young adult that she wanted to pursue a career in acting, she said her mother put her out. But she was undeterred.

Ironically, Tyson who insisted that Black women should not play criminals, prostitutes and “never-do-wells’ was first recognized as an actor with her Broadway portrayal of Stephanie Virtue, a prostitute in the play “The Blacks,” in 1961. The play, which also starred James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett, Jr., earned her a Vernon Rice award and was the longest running off-Broadway play of the 1960s.

“Cicely Tyson was my first screen mom,” tweeted LeVar Burton. “Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace. She was as regal as they come. An artist of the highest order, I will love her forever.” Burton starred as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV mini-series “Roots” in which Tyson played his mother Binta.

In the 1970s, Tyson starred with Richard Pryor in the comedy “Bustin Loose.” She portrayed Harriet Tubman in a made for television movie, “A Woman Called Moses.” She had a long list of television movie appearances including, “A Lesson Before Dying” and the “Rosa Parks Story.” She later played Marva Collins in the “Marva Collins Story.” 

She was the  face of Black womanhood and graced the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet numerable times during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.   In 1968, she helped found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Tyson was the oldest person to win a Tony Award . Her last appearance on Broadway was in 2015 at the age of 90 opposite 84-year-old James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game.”