The wisdom of Cicely Tyson: ‘I couldn’t be Black and not have it impact my career’

Cicely Tyson in 1973
Cicely Tyson in 1973, as seen in the PBS series “American Masters: How It Feels to Be Free.”
(Dennis Oulds / PBS)

Late film, TV and stage legend Cicely Tyson was as revered for her wisdom offscreen as she was for her signature resilience onscreen.

“Extraordinary, “regal,” “trailblazing,” “electrifying” and “immortal” are just a few of the words admirers have used this week to describe Tyson, whose pioneering work touched the lives of so many — especially Black women who saw themselves in her during a time when authentic representation was scarce.

Tyson died Thursday at age 96.

Throughout her illustrious career, Tyson was vocal about her trying and rewarding experiences defying the odds stacked against her as an actor who went on to win three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award and an honorary Oscar celebrating her contributions to the entertainment industry and American culture.

Tyson’s career spanned seven decades with works such as “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Jan. 28, 2021


“Sometimes when you plan to do something, you hope that it’s going to turn out the way you want it to,” Tyson said during her honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 2018.

“It doesn’t always do that. And so it just lets me know that you have to have a certain amount of faith and trust and belief in what you do. ... Next month, on Dec. 19, I’m going to be 94 years old. And I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this. This is the culmination of all those years of have and have not.”

Here are some other wise words from the screen icon, as told to the Los Angeles Times throughout the years.

Cicely Tyson gets a touching video montage from one of her longtime collaborators, Tyler Perry, one of many honoring the actress’ profound legacy.

Jan. 29, 2021

On honoring her parents

“I try to incorporate something of one or another of my parents in whatever I am doing,” Tyson said in 1998.

Cicely Tyson wrapping her arms around her onscreen son in "Sounder"
Actress Cicely Tyson in a scene from the movie “Sounder.”
(Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images)

On breaking ground in “Sounder” and “East Side/West Side”

“I waited for [those roles],” Tyson said in 1998. “It was worth it. I would do it all over again. Yes, absolutely. I am so blessed.”


On being selective when considering projects

“I said I have never — and never will — just work for money because I would end up on the psychiatrist’s couch and all the money would go to him,” Tyson said in 2012. “I would rather have my peace of mind.”

On criticism she received for wearing her natural hair in “East Side/West Side”

“I wish I had kept the bags of negative mail because of the way I was wearing my hair on the show,” Tyson said in 2012. “I tore them up and threw them away.”

On not watching her own performances

“I don’t usually watch myself,” Tyson said in 2012. “The gratification comes in doing it — constructing another being.”

Cicely Tyson holding two Emmy Awards
Actress Cicely Tyson won three Emmy Awards throughout her illustrious career.
(Associated Press)

On shooting her Emmy-nominated turn in “The Trip to Bountiful” in just 15 days

“I didn’t really feel it at the time,” Tyson said in 2014. “When you’re that focused on something, you don’t feel the length of time. You feel sometimes how grueling it is. But you don’t think in terms of hours.” (Tyson won a Tony for her performance in the 2013 Broadway revival of the play.)

On collecting accolades for “Bountiful” late in her career

“It’s nothing that I really dreamed would happen at this stage in my life or my career,” Tyson said in 2014. “You know you’re on the wane. But I’m revitalized and I have a whole new career.”

On the relationship between young and old

“I think, if nothing else, for me it’s important that young people recognize the value of the elders in their lives and to take advantage of their presence while they are still there,” Tyson said in 2014.

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson holding hands onstage
James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in “The Gin Game” in New York City in 2015.
(Walter McBride / WireImage)

On finding new ways to portray old women

“I’ve played so many old women, where am I gonna get another walk from?” Tyson said in 2015. “After I got Fonsia’s shoes [in ‘The Gin Game’], I found myself walking in a funny way, kind of rocking side to side, and I thought, ‘Oh, that must be her. She just took over my body.’”

On experiencing racism in the entertainment industry

“I couldn’t be Black and not have it impact my career,” Tyson said in 2015. “I went for years not working. I guess every two years maybe I’d get a role. Intermittently I’d find something to do. I just would not allow myself not to work.”

On finding strength in acting

“I was extremely shy as a child,” Tyson said in 2015. “When I found I could speak through somebody else, that I could express my emotions, that’s what hooked me. Once I was allowed the expression, the release of my emotions, then I felt like I was a person.”