“I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people,” said Cicely Tyson in her autobiography, Just As I Am. This mammoth of a tale not only showcases Tyson’s character, but her discovered life doctrine. Her ideas and principles weren’t born with her, they arose from decades of work and experiences. Tyson’s life is a reminder that purposes are uncovered over time.
And Tyson had quite a few ambitions by the end of her life. A mixture of health beliefs, shifting the Black narrative in popular media, and offering opportunities to those creatives less fortunate than herself, just to name a few of Tyson’s ideologies. As I said before, Tyson didn’t set it out with these ideas. One day, as Tyson was walking through New York City to one of her receptionist jobs, a strange man on the street told her to consider an occupation in modeling. From there she fell into stage work and then cinema.
Her only requirement when accepting roles was that she had to ‘feel it.’ In her sixth sense sort of way, she needed her soul to accept the piece, the character. This pattern grew into her goal of showcasing the complex narrative of Black families in America. As Tyson was on a press tour for one of her earlier films, The Sounder, she was assaulted by questions from behind the white veil. White interviewers, who had never considered a Black person or a Black family aside from the stereotypes fed them during colonial times, were most confused by how similar Black families were to white ones. The prevailing question in Tyson’s mind, and my own, was something along the lines of, “Do Black families really have as loving a relationship as mine does, do Black children really say, ‘daddy’ like my son does?” I believe it was this press tour that directed Tyson towards ending the fetishization of the misunderstood Black narrative in America.
Although Tyson made strides in media for Black women and men, such as Tyler Perry, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, and Angela Bassett, she by no means eliminated all of the racial barriers and prejudices in America. If the last fews years showcased anything, it has been the strength of hatred in America. Thankfully, there are many people working and fighting to not only shift racially motivated circumstances, but to educate individuals in a manner that would bring about the end of racism. By offering Critical Race Theory in public education and private institution classes, society would be extinguishing the thought process that is racism, the mind is the ignition point. The Sounder and The Autobiography of Jane Pitman and Roots are all media that have more than one thing in common. They not only star Cicely Tyson, but they also convey racial history and the emotional implications of such in America. Perhaps they should be required viewing for children.
I am ashamed to admit that my understanding of Tyson was limited before this biography. I had recognized her face and voice in modern entertainment, here or there, but I never truly knew who she was and what she did. I don’t know whether or not that’s a personal failure or a social one. Her character was never brought to me as something I should know and admire for all of her work. I was never introduced to her as an artist or an activist. Or even as a teacher, she has an entire institution for young creatives that I never knew about. Perhaps it’s racism that social media or news outlets don’t talk about her enough, or interviewed her when they had the chance, but I fear its society’s obsession with nothingness that really hid her story. I am so thankful that she wrote this autobiography. Not only is it a necessary narrative to preserve, but Cicely Tyson’s legacy is a baton. Now pick it up and carry on with the work she left us.