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The Legacy of Cicely Tyson

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

By Amanda Gonzalez Garcia

Trailblazer and change-maker are just two words to describe Cicely Tyson, who died on Jan. 28, 2021.

Photo Credit to Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tyson believed that performance worked toward fulfilling her mission.

“Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity,” she said in a 1972 interview with The New York Times. “The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before."

In her lifetime, Tyson won over 25 awards.

Tyson was most recently known for her role as Ophelia Harkness on ABC’s hit series, “How to Get Away with Murder.” Tyson played the mother of Viola Davis’ character, Annalise Keating. Davis was particularly affected by Tyson’s passing, which she expressed on her Instagram page.

“[Tyson] made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls,” said Davis.

This kind of love is not just something Tyson portrayed for her classmates. The community at Vernon L. Davey Junior High School in East Orange, New Jersey felt Tyson’s affection as well. After her continuous support of the magnet school, in 1995, the school decided to rename it to Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts.

Tyson accepted this offer on the condition that she could be involved in school decisions, graduation, and more events. The match coach for the East Orange School District, Robin Lewis, notes that Tyson’s presence could be felt in the school.

“You would be able to find her in classrooms every other week,” said Lewis. “The kids were so used to seeing her being here. It was like she was their teacher.”

The passion Tyson inspired in others is felt in the Barry community as well. Latiana Carter, a sophomore theater acting major at Barry, said that Tyson drove her to choose her major.

“Seeing the way Cicely Tyson impact others is what drove me to become a theater major,” said Carter. “[She] was a person who changed history and has a name that will never be forgotten,” Carter continued.

Cicely’s power and grace will continue to live on and inspire for generations to come.

Graphic Credit to Melissa Manohar

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