As we remember the late Cecily Tyson, we look back to see all of her accomplishments and how she grew to be the big star that she was. Tyson was an American actress and model who represented people of color for several years on the big screen. She played major roles in depicting the hardships and lifestyles that people of color endured behind the scenes. Winning many awards and being nominated for others, Tyson was, in fact, a true icon.
Tyson was one of three children. She grew up as a daughter of Caribbean immigrants living in the rough streets of Harlem, New York. The house that she lived in was devoutly religious. After finishing high school, Tyson soon accepted a job to be a secretary. She eventually caught the eye of an Ebony magazine photographer who then started her modeling career. Rising to the top of the modeling industry, Tyson’s mother was awfully disappointed and infuriated with her line of work. She felt as if Tyson was going down a very sinful path, eventually leading to Tyson being kicked out of her mother’s home, according to USA Today.
Tyson began acting in off-Broadway productions. Before portraying Portia in Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” Tyson won many minor roles in actual Broadway shows. Tyson’s acting career took off at a slow pace because unlike many other actresses, she stayed away from films that depicted Blaxploitation, a term for movies that stereotyped individuals of African American descent. Tyson stayed true to women of color, often by keeping her natural hair depending on the role she portrayed. In 1963, Tyson became the first African American star of a TV drama in the series “East Side/West Side,” playing secretary Jane Foster’s role. After being seen wearing her natural hair in the series, Tyson received several phone calls and letters from hairdressers stating that she was the cause of sale decline, as stated on biography.com.
Tyson’s performance as Rebecca in Sounder landed her first Oscar nomination for best actress. Even though she did not win, two years later, she was nominated once again for best lead actress. This nomination came from her portrayal of Jane Pitman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Ann Pitman, which gave viewers a look into the reality of African American lives transitioning out of slavery. Tyson made history for being the first black woman to win the best lead actress Emmy award. Soon after she was nominated for 16 Emmys, winning another Emmy for her supporting role in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Tyson received her first Tony, at age 88, for her role in the play Bountiful.
Tyson is said to be one of the most prolific actresses of the last century. She could play roles of characters so well one might think they know her, but in reality, Tyson kept her more personal life off the screens and out of the media. Tyson had written a memoir that was published just days before her death. Within it, she talked about how she wanted to be remembered after she was gone.
Tyson wrote, “I want to be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves. I want to know that I did the very best that I could with what God gave me – just as I am,” and that she did.
by Ashanti Brown