Pioneering actress Cicely Tyson inspired a passion for storytelling
As we age, we become more cognizant that heroes and she-roes revered since childhood won’t be here forever. But Cicely Tyson was everything. “Sounder” (’72), “The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman” (’74) and “Roots” (’77) were among the storytelling collection that fueled my passion as a writer. “Ms. Cicely” brought those books to life.
As we age, we become more cognizant that heroes and she-roes revered since childhood will not be on this earth forever. But Cicely Tyson, “Ms. Cicely” to so many, was everything.
This death made me stop, my mouth frozen in “Oh no!” Memories of her screen gifts to the world, and to a young Black girl growing up in a segregated Chicago, came flooding back.
It was in elementary school I fell in love with the Emmy and Tony Award winning actress who made her transition Jan. 28, at age 96.
“Sounder” (’72), “The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman” (’74), and “Roots” (’77), movies based on consciousness-raising literary tomes, were part of the storytelling collection that fueled my passion as a writer. In all of her roles, Tyson brought those books to life.
The memory of my late father and my mother, now just two years younger than Tyson, corralling seven children into the living room to watch all three films, remain vivid.
Afterward, there were tears, anger, questions to our parents about slavery, racism, how and why human beings could treat other humans so horrifically.
As Black parents understanding the need to arm their children, they were prepared for post-film reflection — offering answers or admitting lack thereof, hammering lessons learned about the America we lived in, the need to persevere.
It’s what Tyson hoped to impart in her lifelong battle against race and gender discrimination, her fight for honest depictions of the Black experience and uplifting portrayals of Black women.
“I want to be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller & envision greater for ourselves,” reads her Twitter tagline.
And she did. Her own examination of a pioneering career of seven decades, “Just as I Am: A Memoir,” published two days before her death, is already a best-seller.
It’s not lost that this she-roe, who made one of her last visits to Chicago in October 2018, to accept an award from the DuSable Museum of African American History for contributions to Black history and culture, passed just before sunrise on Black History Month.
When I learned she was coming in for DuSable’s Annual Night of 100 Stars Gala, I worked the phones hard, wanting more than anything to sit across from “Ms. Cicely,” and talk race.
There was the slimmest chance I’d get a few minutes with her at the Oct. 12, 2018, event at the Near South Side Marriott Marquis Hotel, I was told. So I was ready.
Introduced by former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, this tiny legend with Herculean presence, spoke softly yet powerfully to a room of 500 mostly Black Chicagoans.
You could hear a pin drop.
In a 15-minute speech succinct but richly packed, Tyson shared vignettes from her life, her take on racism and the ability of Black folks to overcome it as demonstrated throughout history, drawing the frequent “Yes!” And “Amen!” And “Preach!”
We hung on every word.
“You have made me today who I am and what I am. I am extremely grateful for the love and support that you have given me all these years. It’s important to me that you know that,” Tyson said near the end, eyes tearing.
“If it were not for the support that I’ve gotten all these years, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be here. And so do know that I know that it’s your victory and not mine.”
When she was ready to leave the ballroom for a side room where she would greet generous supporters of a museum she described as critical to the Black struggle, I walked with her.
“When I was in elementary school, my school went to a museum, and I looked at the paintings and artwork and handiwork, but not one person was there on that wall, on that floor, that looked like me,” Tyson said.
“Well, it took a Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs sitting in their kitchen, thinking the same thing, saying our children need to know from whence they came, and what they have contributed to the making of this America,” she said, referring to DuSable co-founders Margaret and Charles Burroughs. “We need these cultural centers that represent Black people, so that our children will know who they are, what they are and why they are on this universe.”
The 15 minute interview I’d requested was not to be. She wasn’t up to it, but feel free to follow up, her handler said. I understood. After all, the icon was just two months shy of her 94th birthday on that Chicago visit.
I followed up with Larry Thompson, the fiercely protective manager who announced her passing. His firm, Larry Thompson Entertainment, responded she was considering it.
But the announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a month before — that Tyson would finally get the Oscar all of us knew she should have had, were it not for Hollywood prejudice — brought a flood of interview requests.
On Nov. 18, 2018, Tyson, who had been nominated for an Oscar for “Sounder” in ’73 but had never won, became the first Black actress to win the Honorary Academy Award.
“Miss Tyson is grateful; however, she has been inundated with press requests lately regarding her honorary Oscar,” her manager wrote to me. “She would prefer that you use whatever you need from her DuSable appearance. I hope that will be sufficient.”
It was not. I had certain questions. I wanted to paint a poignant portrait of my she-roe — not just share words from a podium. So I never wrote a story. I guess it’s why I’m doing so now.