By Amanda Gonzalez Garcia
Trailblazer and change-maker are just two words to describe Cicely Tyson, who died on Jan. 28, 2021.
Tyson was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. According to The New York Times, before Tyson got into acting, she was a fashion model in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines.
However, acting was not always Tyson’s career choice. Tyson was very shy as a child, and could not imagine becoming a well-renowned actress like she did. Instead, she put her energy into music by playing piano, organ, and singing in the choir.
Tyson stepped into acting when she realized it could be a way to break the common on-screen stereotypes of Black women, who were portrayed as demeaning, criminal, or immoral.
When she finally got into acting, Tyson always questioned any role she was offered.
In her last TV interview with CBS This Morning, Tyson said, “Whenever I’m offered a script, what I’m interested in when I get it is: Why me? Who was that character, and why did they want me to play it?”
Former President Barack Obama spoke highly of Tyson’s standards when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This award is America’s highest civilian honor. Only individuals who have made a significant impact for the greater good of the United States through peaceful, cultural, or other endeavors receive this award.
“Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family,” Obama said.
In over 70 years in Hollywood, Tyson broke many barriers for African American women. A well-renowned artist and civil rights activist, Tyson’s passing brought sadness to many individuals who admired her work.
Part of Tyson’s work was using her platform to defy stereotypes. Her passion for this effort sometimes led her to lose out on job opportunities. She did this willingly because of her disappointment with how Black people were portrayed on-screen.
"We have prostitutes and pimps and con men and pushers, the way they show in those movies, but we also have mothers and fathers and doctors and lawyers and teachers and politicians," Tyson said.
"A Black doctor was responsible for the first open heart surgery, and a black guy developed traffic lights, and little is known about that."
Tyson brought many complex characters to life in her on-screen performances. Her role as a 110-year-old slave in the 1974 television drama, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” earned her two Emmy awards.