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Cicely Tyson, actress who captured the power and grace of Black women in America, dies

When Cicely Tyson accepted an Emmy in 1974 for her starring role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she smiled into the camera and spoke straight to her mother: “You see, Mom,” she said, “it wasn’t really a den of iniquity after all.”

Some two decades earlier, the sternly religious Theodosia Tyson had thrown her daughter out of her New York City home for getting into the “sinful” entertainment business. For two years, they didn’t see each other.

Only much later did Theodosia acknowledge that her daughter, who by then was famous for the disciplined and elegant quality of her acting, had chosen superbly. Tyson worked less often than she could have because of her insistence that roles for Black women reflect a sense of power and grace.

Always coy about her age and secretive about her private life, Tyson died Thursday afternoon, her manager Larry Thompson said. He did not say where she died or whether a cause is known. According to her recently released memoir “Just As I Am,” she was 87. Public records indicate she was 96.

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One thing she was not shy about was her long string of acting achievements.

In 1972, she was nominated for an Oscar for “Sounder,” playing a sharecropper whose husband is convicted for stealing a piece of meat. With her performance two years later in “Jane Pittman,” a story that culminates with Pittman, a 110-year-old ex-slave, defiantly drinking from an all-white water fountain, she cemented her reputation as one of America’s preeminent Black actresses.

She performed in dozens of TV programs, films and stage plays, and in 2013 received a Tony Award for her lead performance in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. The next year, then-President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation.

Though her resume was extensive and her preparation for roles exhaustive, Tyson also cared about the example she set for other Black women. The day before her appearance as an African woman in a 1959 drama on CBS’ “Camera Three,” she had her stylishly straightened hair cut off and cropped as close as possible.

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With that deceptively simple choice, Tyson became by many accounts the first Black woman to appear on TV with natural hair, a choice that triggered “a not-so-minor earthquake in the minds of young Black women,” Ms. magazine recounted.

“All Black women needed was some public person to take the first step toward a more positive identification with African beauty,” Ms. said. “And that person was Cicely Tyson.”

A few years later, she unveiled an Afro, and then corn rows on “East Side/West Side,” an early 1960s TV series about social workers in New York City.

For Tyson, it was a question of principle.

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“We were ashamed of everything that we were,” she told Florida college students in 1976. “Now our young people won’t have to worry about their kinky hair. They can direct their energies to more worthwhile things.”

Tyson was born in New York City to Theodosia and William A. Tyson, immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. For most of her career, Tyson said she was born Dec. 19, 1933, but public records indicate her birth date was Dec. 18, 1924.

When she was growing up in East Harlem, her father was a house painter and her mother a maid. They divorced when Tyson was a child. When she was 9, she sold grocery bags on the street to help make ends meet.

Her mother kept Tyson, her sister Emily and her brother Melrose on a tight rein. Until she was in her late teens, Tyson was not allowed to go to the movies.

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When she wasn’t in school, she was in church “from Sunday morning till Saturday night,” she once said. “I recited. I played the piano. I sang in the choir. I taught Sunday school…. We went to prayer meeting Monday nights, children’s meeting, grown-ups’ meeting Wednesday, old folks’ meeting Thursday, and Saturday we cleaned the church.”

After graduating high school, she became a secretary for the American Red Cross and soon was profoundly bored, she told People magazine.

Pushing away from her desk one afternoon, she got up and “announced to a vast roomful of my co-workers: ‘I’m just sure God didn’t put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter the rest of my life.’ I sat down to finish whatever I was doing and realized mine was the only typewriter going — total silence.”

Like a character in the sappy romantic comedies she later avoided, Tyson was saved from a life in the typing pool by her stunning looks. Urged by her hairdresser to model, she appeared in a show and signed up for modeling classes. She wound up commanding top fees — $65 a day — and catapulting to the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

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Waiting to meet with the fashion editor of Ebony magazine, she chatted with an actress who told her about open parts in a film called “The Spectrum,” a story about conflicts between Black people with light and dark skin. The movie never was made, but Tyson became infatuated by acting, studied under several teachers and nailed down a succession of off-Broadway and Broadway roles.

“She was willing to try almost any kind of role but she steadfastly refused to sing or dance,” according to “Contemporary Black Biography.” “Although perfectly capable of both, she felt that Blacks were never expected to do anything else and wished to break away from that stereotype.”

Impressed by her work in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” actor George C. Scott and producer David Susskind signed her up for “East Side/West Side.” The 1963 TV drama, while critically acclaimed, lasted only one season. Even before it aired, some 60 CBS affiliates chose not to run it because of Tyson’s race, Scott wrote in a 1988 piece for The Times.

Tyson’s first unequivocally big success was as Rebecca Morgan, the sharecropper in “Sounder” who holds her family together while her husband does time on a Louisiana prison chain gang. Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic, called her character “the first great Black heroine on the screen.”

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Tyson followed “Sounder” with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a civil rights anthem that traced the fortunes of the main character as she aged from 19 to 110. The two-hour TV special earned her an Emmy for outstanding actress in a drama as well as one for actress of the year in a special.

Still, great roles were scarce.

As she once told the Bergen Record: “I’m a woman and I’m Black. I wait for roles—first, to be written for a woman and then, to be written for a Black woman. And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kind of roles I play. … Aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”

But she kept working. She played Coretta Scott King in the TV biography “King” and Chicago educator Marva Collins in “The Marva Collins Story.” She also had roles in “Roots,” “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”

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Her TV parts weren’t always substantial.

“It became distressing to see her cast in meaningless supporting roles in disappointing projects,” historian Donald C. Bogle, a scholar of Black American film and TV, wrote in 1988 in “Blacks in American Film and Television.” However, he added, she made the most of skimpy roles, “struggling to invest such material with some intelligence and dramatic flair.”

Her films included “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “Madea’s Family Reunion,” “The Help” and “Alex Cross.”

“As soon as anyone saw Cicely Tyson,” Bogle wrote, they “understood that here was an actress bigger and better than any role she might be playing.”

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In “The Trip to Bountiful,” Tyson appeared on Broadway for the first time in 30 years. Her portrayal of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who longed to return to her hometown, earned her a 2013 Tony Award. Times theater critic Charles McNulty called her “an eternally young spirit reveling in the compassionate wisdom of a small yet timeless play.”

Tyson’s performance was moving in many ways. At one point in the second act, her character rises off a bus station bench and sings the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” Audience members — many of whom were Black and said they sang as children in church — would invariably join in. It was a phenomenon that, according to the New York Times, may have been unprecedented on Broadway.

Tyson had been taken with the hymn for years. In Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, a pew bore a plaque she donated: “To Mother,” it said. “Blessed Assurance.”

In her 2013 Tony acceptance speech, she said she’d been comfortable with the thought she’d never star on Broadway again — except for a “burning desire” for one more great role.”

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“I didn’t want to be greedy,” she said, “but just one more.”

Offstage, Tyson helped young performers hone their craft. In East Orange, N.J., she frequently visited students at a magnet school that was named in her honor — the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts.

“They are my passion,” she told The Times in 2012. “Proud? There is no word to describe how I feel.”

Tyson and jazz legend Miles Davis married in 1981. In his autobiography, the trumpeter credited Tyson with helping him kick cocaine, but he acknowledged abusing her. They divorced after seven years. Davis died in 1991.

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Chawkins is a former Times staff writer.


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