Cicely Tyson at Time event in 2012. By David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Cicely Tyson: An actress who portrayed Black characters with dignity

2 mins read

Tyson’s career to select roles that portray Black life with depth and integrity spans for decades.

Cicely Tyson, who died January 28 at the age of 96, could have been financially richer if she had acted in any production offered to her. But she refused parts if she felt they lacked depth, or rejected scripts in which Black people were reduced to negative stereotypes.

“I’ve been very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do,” she told Associated press in an interview eight years ago.

Tyson was one of three children, born in East Harlem to Fredericka Tyson, a domestic worker, and William Augustine Tyson, a painter and carpenter. Her parents were originally from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Because her parents were religious, Tyson and her siblings attended church daily. It was their religious upbringing that was reason Tyson’s mother initially disagreed with her path in entertainment. Yet, she warmed up later.

Before obtaining small film roles, Tyson modeled. In 1963, she co-starred in the CBS television drama, “East Side/West Side,” playing a social worker’s secretary. The role made her the first Black actress to play a continuing role in a television series. Also, she was the first regularly featured dark-skinned actress to wear her hair in a close-cropped Afro.

Cicely Tyson during press conference in Utrecht, 1973. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989

“You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls,” wrote actress Viola Davis on her Twitter feed. Davis worked with Tyson in the film “The Help” and the television series “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Tyson earned numerous acting awards and nominations, including an Emmy playing the title role in the 1974 television film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which chronicles the life of a fictional Black woman from enslavement to the civil rights movement. At age 88, Tyson won a Tony Award for her role in a Broadway revival of “The Trip to Bountiful.” Tyson’s memoir “Just As I Am” was released three days before her death.

The words Tyson wrote on her Twitter feed regarding actor Chadwick Boseman’s death last year from colon cancer apply to Tyson herself: “.  .  . you leave this earth w/a beautiful body of work.  .  . you brought the dignity & grace we could all be proud of.”

Tyson’s legacy and body of work are being celebrated all over the world.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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