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remembering the legendary cicely tyson

January 29, 2021
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Cicely Tyson, a shining Black example of strength, pride, and dignity, who touched millions of viewers’ hearts in multiple films and TV programs, such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, has left us at the age of 96.

Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details. “With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.

Her life and legacy marked an example of Black life in America that would not be undertaken by the “powers that be,” and showed how resiliency and grace are not mutually exclusive. Born in East Harlem to West Indian immigrant parents, Tyson was a “rose that grew from the concrete”. She worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross before becoming a model; at the top of her game she appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She moved with ease alongside talents such as Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll to powerhouse performers like James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Eartha Kitt. In The Blacks, which set her theatre career ablaze, she won the Vernon Rice Award, a feat she repeated in the 1962 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. One of the major highlights from her 1969 stint was her performance of reading Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

Tyson was also one of the founders of the Dance Theater of Harlem in that same year.

Her rugged determination and uncompromising selectivity found her at odds with studio execs, but never out of favor with her peers and the Black community. In 1972, her breakthrough, Oscar-nominated performance as a sharecropper’s wife in Sounder, considered a classic by many cinephiles, was layered with Tyson’s range and emotional intensity. She’d go on to play such figures as Jane Pittman, a role for which she won two Emmy Awards; Mrs. Brown (The Women of Brewster Place); Mrs. Maureen Parker (The Proud Family), and the mother of Kunta Kinte in the ABC blockbuster miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s historical saga.

There was always a regalness within Cicely Tyson. Whether alongside Tyler Perry in Why Did I Get Married Too? to becoming the oldest recipient of the Best Actress Tony Award, Tyson owned any stage that she stepped upon. In 2015, she was a Kennedy Center Honoree, receiving the award for a lifetime of powerful performances in roles that followed her tenets of “strength, pride, and dignity,” and the following year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama.

Her memoir Just As I Am was published on Tuesday.

Tyson, who always remained active in the charity and arts community, was a part of Urban Gateways, the Human Family Institute and the American Film Institute. As an actress, she was one of 25 Black women honored by Oprah Winfrey as part of her 2005 Legends Ball. And as a pervasive member of the Black community, she received awards from the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP.

Remaining active and engaged even as she reached 90, Tyson continued to keep it real with us. She criticized the remake of Roots as “unnecessary” and, in a touching moment during the 2017 Emmy Awards, Cicely Tyson’s confession of “still being nervous” during her presentation reminded of how much life she continued to share with us.

With tributes coming in from close friends, famous faces, and those all over the world who respected her craft and her stance, there is no other confirmation needed to see just how many lives this Black woman has touched.

The Afropunk Family shares our deepest sympathies and condolences to the Tyson family and those impacted by the loss.