Thursday, January 28, 2021: 6:00 p.m. Cicely Tyson was in a virtual conversation with talk show host Whoopi Goldberg. The topic was Tyson’s autobiography, “Just as I Am,” that had been released two days before. It was a greatly anticipated book and already predicted to be one of the best books that would be released in 2021.
The session before a remote audience of 500 people turned out to be the great performer’s last public appearance.
Whoopi Goldberg’s last question to one of America’s finest actresses was, “What are the possibilities for us in the future?”
Tyson thought back to childhood conversations over dinner. Her mother talked about how hard it was for Blacks. Tyson was then very thoughtful about current race relations, the suffering caused by the pandemic, and the prospect of sending children back to school. Tyson’s perspective on hope was straightforward.
“Where is the hope? If we do not build it within ourselves, I don’t know how we will find it,” she said. And those were her final public words from that conversation with Goldberg.
Childhood Predicted What Would Be
Tyson knows her career had been impactful. She did not fully see it coming. When it did, her mother was not supportive. Her parents were immigrants from the Caribbean island Nevis. They were hard workers. One of three children, Tyson was petite, skinny, dark brown, with full lips. People thought she was shy, but Tyson had a different perspective.
“Mostly, I was observant,” said Tyson. “I paid attention to details, allowing the passing world and its peculiarities to seep into my pores.”
Taking time to soak everything in prepared Tyson to seize opportunities that crossed her path. Home life was tumultuous. Tyson’s father flaunted his infidelity in front of everyone. The relationship between her parents was one of verbal and physical abuse. The couple split up when Tyson was nine years old.
The Church Opened the Door to Acting
Tyson came from a family of deep faith. They were members of both Episcopal and Baptist churches. Her mother’s favorite hymn was “Blessed Assurance” which connects to Tyson’s 2013 Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway production of “The Trip to Bountiful.” The opening of the second act of the play had Tyson belting out the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” I remember seeing her in that production and the joy I felt when she sang that song.
“Church was the one place where my timidity fell away,” said Tyson. In the book, she told how the deacon’s wives would put on plays. “More than once I was cast in the leading role of Mary, mother of Jesus.”
It could be said the Tyson met her first husband through matchmaking. Kenneth, her minister’s son was somewhat pre-approved by her mother. Tyson was 17 and still in high school. Kenneth was 18, a high school graduate working as a security guard. He had his own apartment. They dated, she became pregnant, they got married. After two years, Tyson left Kenneth. She never wanted to be married but stayed to do right by her daughter.
“I did not tell Kenneth I was leaving the marriage,” said Tyson, “Yet it was a choice I felt I needed to make.”
Fast-forward to the 1980s, when Tyson married Miles Davis. She was introduced to him by Diahann Carroll. The union has been covered widely as an abusive relationship with infidelities by Miles. In my reading, it felt a lot like the marriage between Tyson’s parents. Nuff said.
Becoming a Pioneer
Tyson grew up fast. Those early experiences shaped her to become a clear-eyed risk-taker. She was a dark complexion woman who became a model and a leading actress. Tyson shaved her head then wore her hair natural for a role, kept it that way, then wore braided styles. She took on important acting roles of women with dignity. Those roles match up with her activism in civil rights. Then in 1995, Tyson made a commitment to educating youth by opening the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, NJ.
To Be Remembered
Tyson reflected on how fortunate she was to be chosen for those iconic award-winning acting roles. She has deep affection for the many famous people who became her friends. People like Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier. She was amazed every day she lived. What she wants people to remember is what Tyson said in another final interview for her book. It is quite simple.
“I’ve done my best,” she said.
How stunned was I that 45 minutes after I got off the virtual event, the bulletin came across my television screen that Cicely Tyson had passed. It was one of those surreal moments when I did not understand what I just heard. Did I not just see her on my computer?
And we are the beneficiaries of her very best.
“Just As I Am” by Cicely Tyson with Michelle Burford is published by Harper Collins. It is available in hardcover, e-books, and audio versions.