Two short days after her memoir was published, Just as I Am: A Memoir, Cicely Tyson died at the age of 96.
“I wasn’t one of those children who went to movies on Saturday and looked at the screen and said I want to be a movie star. It happened quite by accident. I got bored to death one day typing on the typewriter and I pushed myself away from the desk and I announced to whoever was there I was sure God did not put me on face of the earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life, there must be something else for me to do. I didn’t know what it was but I was gonna find it.” Tyson explained on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Tyson began her entertainment career in modeling. She tagged along to a modeling call in support of a friend, but her striking beauty did not go unnoticed. She caught the eye of a fashion photographer and found herself being asked to model. From there she organically began to shift her attention to acting in film, television, and on the stage. It was not a road filled with rainbows and sunshine as her career shift resulted in a strained relationship with her religious mother. Tyson was brought up in the church and her mother had concerns that her going into the entertainment world would result in her living in a “den of iniquity.” “That’s what showbusiness meant to her,” Tyson recalled. “It didn’t have any decency.”
She chose her acting roles with great discernment and used her platform to enlighten, inspire, and advocate for change. Tyson explained,“There were so many issues that I felt that I had to address, and I used my career as my platform.” Tyson’s career really took off after she had already been in the industry for a couple of decades. At the age of 47, she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Sounder. Tyson carefully curated the roles that she took on, staying away from any roles that perpetuated negative stereotypes. “I felt very strongly that had I accepted any of those roles I couldn’t have [lived with] myself,” Tyson shared.
In a full circle type moment Tyson addressed her mother at the Primetime Emmy Awards in 1974 saying, “Mom, it wasn’t a den of iniquity after all.”
Her appreciation of fashion was evident in everything she did. In fact, her commitment to her craft inspired what was known as the “natural hair movement” as she often rocked natural hair styles at a time when natural hair was less socially acceptable. “Every time I changed a hairdo, it had not to do with me,” Tyson recalled. “It had to do with authenticating the character that I was playing.”
“My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward,” she wrote in Just as I Am: A Memoir. “I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people — to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.”
Tyson’s trailblazing career that spanned 7 decades and her commitment to uplifting black women and the black community has left an indelible mark on the world.