Actress Cicely Tyson waited until very late in life to tell her story. She died at age 96, just days after publication of her autobiography. Just As I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
Her story, is also the story of America. She came from modest means and endured growing up Black in America. The book provides her reflections on what being Black in America felt like, and why. Being white, I cannot really imagine what that is like to experience segregation, Jim Crow laws or systematic racism. Tyson is not preachy, she just provides some personal perspective.
Even into her 90s, Tyson kept working as long as there was meaningful work. She had a supporting role in television’s How To Get Away With Murder, and occasionally popped up in a feature film role like Last Flag Flying. Despite her success, she said there lean times. If you look at her long list of acting credits, you wouldn’t think so, but there were times she had to take lesser roles simply to keep the money coming in. Over her career, she earned every kind of award imaginable, except a competitive Academy Award. That’s a shame. Film rarely used her talent in significant projects. She found those on television and on stage.
Tyson married at a young age, and had a daughter, before divorcing her husband. In her book, she explained how uneducated she was about sex, and got pregnant before really understanding sexuality and birth control. Her story could have ended there, but her drive, strong faith and sense of responsibility propelled her forward.
By chance she was hired to model, and that led to a few acting jobs. She received good notices for her role in Moon On a Rainbow Shawl in 1962. Through the 1960s, she acted in plays and on television, taking supporting roles until she was cast in the film Sounder (1972). Her supporting role turned into a lead role, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.
That role put her on the map. Next up was the 1974 television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. After this film aired, suddenly everyone in America knew her. She was present two Emmy Awards of the nine Emmys the film received.
Tyson found and fought to play these strong women character roles and elevated them to award-winning status. In the 1960s and 1970s, roles for Black women were generally confined to prostitutes, maids and background characters.
The early 1970s brought the Blaxsploitation era to film, a genre Tyson wanted nothing to do with. Many of the roles and films she found demeaning and only reinforcing stereotypes.
Next, she starred as Kunte Kinte’s mother in the 1977 production of Roots and was nominated for an Emmy. Roots had been a best selling book, but the network was nervous about the reception this eight part series would get. The program was viewed by an estimated 130 million people when it aired.
Mixed in with other roles, Tyson would go on to portray Coretta Scott King and Marva Collins, a Chicago public school teacher, who achieved success with students who were failing.
Still, finding good roles was tough, and she found that Black actresses were at the bottom of the ladder in Hollywood.
“As a Black actress, even when you’re at the so-called pinnacle of your career, your choices are severely limited.”
Later, Tyson would have roles in Fried Green Tomatoes, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Help, A Lesson Before Dying, The Women of Brewster Place, The Rosa Parks Story and The Trip to Bountiful.
In 2015, she was selected for the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 2016, she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2018, she finally got her Academy Award, she was presented with an Honorary Academy Award, recognizing her lifetime body of work.
The part of the book many are interested in was her relationship with jazz great, Miles Davis.
Tyson and Miles Davis had a very lengthy relationship in the 1970s, but he married someone else, which surprised her. According to Tyson, Davis had numerous relationships with women and he married a woman he was also seeing at the time. A few years later, they reconnected and began their relationship. Davis frequently proposed to Tyson, but she resisted accepting, until she believed he had changed. According to Tyson, Davis always credited her for saving his life, literally helping him to survive.
“My need to nurse Miles back to health fit perfectly with his need to be nurtured, and for the first few years of our reunion, that dynamic bound us tightly,” she related in her autobiography. “God had put me here to save this man’s life, a task I intended to carry out.”
As his health improved, she discovered he had returned to old way, literally bringing his women into their apartment. She finally drew the strength to leave him and move on with her life. She freely acknowledges knowing his history of womanizing and his addictions; but still felt positive about their prospects as a couple. Even after his death, she said, “Our love story will never be finished.”
You would have to walk in her shoes to understand her choices, but also her incredible faith and inner strength. Nowhere in her book does she play the victim. She simply takes you on the fascinating journey of her life.