Legendary actress and Broadway star, Cicely Tyson, passed away on January 28th 2021. Headlines screamed the news from Los Angeles to New York, even overseas. Millions mourned the loss of an iconic woman who brought rollercoasters of emotion and depths of feeling to their homes. From her role in Roots to publishing her memoir Just As I Am, let’s take a look at this life well lived.
Before becoming the big star that we now know her as, Cicely started off as a typist for the Red Cross but quit the job extravagantly declaring that she “was not put on this earth to bang away at a typewriter.” She was discovered in 1962 by a photographer who worked for EBONY magazine. She went on to become a very successful model, going on to appear on the cover more than twice. She continued on in the fashion world throughout her career, which spanned more than several decades, but did not make it her sole calling.
The famed activist has graced both the big and small screens, encouraging generations to see the positive side of black women in movies. She refused to play stereotypical roles and waited for the right scripts to come around. A move that inspired many a groundbreaking performance with a variety of awards and nominations to show for it. Not least of which was the Medal of Freedom, given to her in 2016 by then President Barrack Obama who wrote, “She took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being — flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections.”
Ms. Tyson was big on shaking up the norm and breaking barriers. She was cast in the 1963 television series Eastside/Westside becoming the first African-American woman to become a series regular. The show only lasted a season but it was a season long enough to normalize the afro she chose to adopt. While she wasn’t immediately praised for the move, it paved the way for future African women (and men) to become more comfortable with their own black identities both off and on screen. She then went on to normalize braids when she appeared once again on the cover of EBONY Magazine and adopted them into her role in 1972s’ Sounder.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Cicely become a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and took her position of role-model very seriously. In 1994, she opened a building in East Harlem that was to be renovated for 58 poor black families; other buildings soon followed. In 1995, a magnet school she supported in East Orange (New Jersey), was renamed the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts. The NAACP, and other African-American founded organizations, has honored the long-standing activist with many awards over the course of her lifetime.
With juggernauts like Madeas’ Family Reunion, Hoodlum, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the actress has touched many lives over 8 decades. Her roles will live on and inspire future generations of talented women and men of color. Her many films and accomplishments are cemented in the fabric of every day society and will serve as a testament to her life of hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity. Nothing will ever overshadow the memory of this life well lived.
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