Cicely Tyson’s Public Viewing takes place at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church
Cicely Tyson’s roles changed Hollywood for black women
Putting an extraordinary life into a few hundred words is nowhere near as great as portraying the vast humanity of black women on screen, but groundbreaking actress Cicely Tyson achieved just that until she died at the age of 96. The daughter of West Indian Tyson, parents and Harlem from New York, gave us a six-decade long career and took on lively roles, as if she lived every life to the fullest. She was wholeheartedly and warmly even in characters that demanded tough determination. She portrayed the complexities, resilience and joys of black femininity with an intimacy and softness that made us feel really seen and allowed the audience to see us fully. Her nuanced narratives as a dark-skinned black woman – and sometimes her very existence – challenged colorism, racism and sexism inside and outside Hollywood. “I’m very picky because I’ve spent my entire career doing what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of guy who works for money. It has to have real substance for me to do it, ”she told The Associated Press in 2013. Most of us have known Cicely Tyson all our lives, not because we are related to the dainty star, but because her presence existed in our households like a Sintra Bronte poster or a picture of former President Barack Obama. Tyson’s legacy has been repeated and celebrated many times: her breakthrough role as the jailed sharecropper woman in Sounder from 1972 broke the blaxploitation era and earned her an Oscar nomination that made her a fixture in Hollywood. Just two years later, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Leading Actress for her memorable appearance in the autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Her beginnings catapulted her to groundbreaking success and recognition that continued to erase stereotypes about black women: She was the first black woman to host Saturday Night Live, fascinated us in Alex Haley’s 10-hour saga Roots, and terrified us with an urgent one at Madea’s family reunions (and urgent!) speech that reminded us of the injustices of the generations in the south in The Help. For her longstanding philanthropic work – she often gave something back to the black community, especially Harlem – Obama awarded Tyson the Medal of Freedom in 2016. “I come from a low status. I grew up in what was then called the slums. I still can’t imagine having met presidents, kings and queens. How did i get here? I’m amazed, ”Tyson once told the Associated Press. In turn, we marveled at her ability to enhance the beauty and power of blackness in any room, among Rosa Parks, Miles Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and the like. Even in the presence of what she thought was greatness, she was a giant; A towering figure who we jokingly believed was immortal precisely because it was human, because it was a witness to black history and was everything at once. Even now, as an ancestor, she is a vessel of infinite awe, inspiration, and wisdom. While it’s difficult to reduce her groundbreaking film, television, and theater legacy to a key figure, Tyson’s Ophelia Harkness in How To Get Away With Murder has arguably had the deepest resonance in her recent years. In the episode titled “Mom’s Here Now,” we meet Harkness, a consistently pushy and outspoken mother who cradled her daughter (Viola Davis’ Annalize Keating) in her darkest hours. Though sporadic, Harkness has been a constant, warm presence throughout the award-winning series. She was wise and protective, despite having an imperfect relationship with Keating. Her performance reflects the ancestral energy that blacks are steadfastly familiar with, and it is this authentic portrayal that has tied black women to Tyson throughout their careers. The worship Tyson received extended to us as Davis repeated in her Instagram tribute to Tyson. “They 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 Davis. “You gave me permission to dream … because only in my dreams could I see the possibilities within myself.” As if it had been written, Tyson published her memoir, Just as I Am, in her final week on Earth. In an interview with Gayle King, the host of CBS ‘This Morning, a very in attendance Tyson said that she simply wanted to be remembered as someone who did her best despite achieving so much. “I’m amazed every day I live,” said Tyson. “I mean what my life became is not what I expected. Little did I know that I was going to touch anyone … I did my best. That’s all. “And true to the high-flyer she was, Tyson did much, much better. Do you like what you see? How about a little more R29 grade, right here?