Academy-award winning actress, tour de force, and “Queen Mother,” Cicely Tyson died on Jan. 28 at age 96.
She was, for at least all of this century, our crown jewel of Blackness. Her voice, steady. Her style, impeccable. Her mind, agile. Her smile, vibrant. Her example, enduring.
She was more than our bright shining example that Blackness is beautiful—not merely to ourselves or even to each other. She was our bragging right to all others—ageless, timeless, and seemingly effortless.
In a dark chocolate body, unmarred by the constant challenges she faced during her almost century-long life, Tyson’s petite 5’4, 125-pound frame towered over us all the while, holding us up while she held us down.
Born in Harlem, New York, on Dec. 19, 1924, to West Indian immigrants William Augustine and Fredericka Huggins Tyson, her parents were deeply religious.
Despite becoming a single mother to her fiercely private only child, a daughter Joan, at age 17, Tyson defied her mother’s edict to give up her love of acting.
But its pursuit was too dear to mid-twenty-year-old Tyson, who found both professional and personal affirmation in the art form.
Whether she rocked an Afro, cornrows, an assortment of stylish wigs, or—my personal favorite—a single frontal silver streak in bone straight permed hair with a bump at the ends, Tyson utilized her roles to affirm Blackness, Black stories, and Black people.
While her 70-year acting career began in 1951, professional stardom first came to Tyson during the 1970s.
During the decade, Tyson’s groundbreaking roles included the now-iconic television and films Sounder, Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an Emmy nomination for Alex Haley’s Roots, and King, when a more than 50-year-old Tyson played a 20-something-year-old Coretta Scott King.
The 80s and 90s brought additional acclaim from roles in The Marva Collins Story, The Women of Brewster Place, A Lesson Before Dying, and Sweet Justice, in which Tyson played a civil rights activist and attorney based on Dovey Johnson Roundtree.
Although into her seventies by the turn of the twenty-first century, Tyson became known to yet another generation of filmgoers for professional appearances in a host of films ranging from The Help, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, to Why Did I Get Married Too?
The latter three were film projects of Atlanta-based writer, director, and producer Tyler Perry.
“She was the grandmother I never had and the wisdom tree that I could always sit under to fill my cup,” Perry said.
Perry named one of his 12 sound stages in her honor at his mega Tyler Perry Studios. His capture of the touching moment enshrining Tyson into history was perhaps second-only to her joy and vibrancy during Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball in 2005, honoring her and 24 other African-American women trailblazers in art, entertainment, and civil rights.
“Her life so fully lived is a testimony to greatness,” said Winfrey upon her passing.
A member of the Television Hall of Fame, Tyson was the winner of three Emmy Awards, one Golden Globe, one Peabody, and one Tony, the latter for her life-fulfilled dream of The Trip to Bountiful.
Twice divorced, Tyson had just one great love, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Her most “fragile and precious” relationship was with her daughter Joan, to whom she dedicated her memoir “Just As I Am.”
“Joan is “the one who has paid the greatest price for this gift to all,” wrote Tyson, whose book was released just two days before her death. In one of her last interviews, Gayle King asked Tyson how she’d like to be remembered.
“I ‘dun my best,” Tyson responded.
Mother Tyson, for that, and for you, our hearts are glad.