Cicely Tyson made TV herstory with an incredible career portraying women of strength. She died today at 96.
Tyson, saluted with an honorary Academy Award at the Governors Awards in November 2018, became the first African-American to win a lead actress Emmy when she was recognized for her incredible performance as a woman who ages from 23 to 110 — from the 1850s to the civil-rights era — in the 1974 TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Tyson also won a supporting actress Emmy for portraying the family confidante Castralia in the miniseries The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All in 1994.
Tyson told The New York Times in 2013,
“I saw that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. So I made the choice to use my career as a platform to address the issues of the race I was born into.
When I read a script: either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When it tingles, I take it, and when my stomach churns, there’s no way I could possibly do it. No way.”
She also played Kunta Kinte’s mother in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots.
Tyson received her best actress Oscar nom for playing the slave Rebecca Morgan in Sounder in 1972. It was not her year. Liza Minnelli won for Cabaret.
When she finally won her honorary Oscar she said accepting,
“I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this. This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-not.”
In the 2000s, she appeared in a series of Tyler Perry films; Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Why Did I Get Married Too?
She played a beloved maid in The Help in 2011) and Viola Davis’ mother on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, for which she received four more Emmy noms.
President Obama said when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2016,
“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars. … But once she got her education and broke into the business, Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out. ‘I would not accept roles,’ she said, ‘unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.’ …
Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family.”
Tyson was active in numerous community and charitable activities. She was a co-founder and vp of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and from 1973-78 a board member of the American Film Institute. The Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, N.J., is named in her honor.
She told GMA that her life’s motto was,
“Jump off the mountain and make your wings as you’re falling.”
I had no foresight of what the end would be; I just follow my instincts. I refer to it as divine guidance. I came to realize if and when I didn’t, I always got myself in trouble, always.
Life is about taking chances. Life is about finding your own path.”
Here is the seminal scene from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that I remember seeing on TV as a child. It affected me deeply and makes me tear up to this day.