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Cicely Tyson (/people/literature-and-arts/film-and-television-biographies/cicely-tyson) 1933–

Actress

At a Glance…

Broke into Acting

Revolutionary Look for Television

A New Definition of Black Womanhood

An Acting Tour de Force

Sources

In the minds of many, Cicely Tyson (/people/literature-and-arts/film-and-television- biographies/cicely-tyson) is the embodiment of black womanhood. A naturally gifted actress, she nonetheless worked diligently to learn all the nuances of her craft. Although strikingly beautiful, she has refused to get by on her looks, demanding instead to be judged on her professional abilities. Tyson is often given credit for inspiring black American women to embrace African standards of beauty, rather than trying to make themselves over in the image of white America.

In selecting scripts, she has consistently searched for those that will offer a positive image of people of color to the public, and in the process, she has “developed an artistic identity that does not ignore, but actively challenges the two major stereotypes of the black woman in film and drama: the roly-poly, desexed black mammy and the ’high yaller’ femme fatale,” according to Ms. writer Yvonne. Because of her choosiness, Tyson has not been a prolific actress; especially in the latter part of her career; few scripts meet her discriminating standards. But the quality of her work—particularly in the landmark films Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman —has assured her of a reputation as one of America’s finest dramatic performers.

Tyson, Cicely 1933–

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Tyson was bom in East Harlem to parents who had immigrated from Nevis, the smallest island in the Caribbean’s Windward Island chain. The move to America brought no prosperity to the Ty-son family. Cicely’sfatherworked at carpentry, house painting, and whatever other odd jobs he could find; her mother worked as a housekeeper; and Cicely herself stood on the street- corners selling shopping bags to supplement the household income.

Nevertheless, they were forced to rely on welfare to survive, and the actress remembers that more often than not, they ate corn-meal mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her mother sought to protect Cicely and her two siblings from the harshness of their environment by keeping them in church as much as possible and forbidding them to associate with the neighborhood children. But young Tyson loved to wander the city and explore its many possibilities, and she frequently hopped onto a bus or subway train and rode to the end of the line, just to see what was there.

After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes (/people/social-sciences-and-law/supreme-court- biographies/charles-evans-hughes) High School in Manhattan (/places/united-states-and- canada/us-political-geography/manhattan-new-york), Tyson landed a job as a secretary for the

At A Glance…

Born December 19, 1933, in New York (/places/united-states-and-canada/us-political- geography/new-york), NY; daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson; married Miles Davis (/people/literature-and-arts/music-popular-and-jazz-biographies/miles-davis) (a jazz musician), November 1981 (divorced). Education: Studied drama at New York (/places/united-states-and- canada/us-political-geography/new-york) University, Actors Studio, and with Vinnette Carroll and Lloyd Richards.

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Photographic model during the late 1950s; actress, 1959—. Stage credits include Talent ’59; The Dark of the Moon; The Blacks; Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright; The Blue Boy in Black; and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. Film credits include Twelve Angry Men, 1957; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959; A Man Called Adam, 1966; The Comedians, 1967; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968; Sounder, 1972; The Blue Bird, 1976; The River

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(/literature-and-arts/performing-arts/film-and-television/river) Niger, 1976; Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991. Television credits include East Side/West Side, 1963; The Autobiography of Miss tene Pitman, 1974; Just an Old Sweet Song, 1976; Roots, 1977; Wilma, 1977; A Woman Called Moses (/people/philosophy-and-religion/judaism-biographies/moses), 1978; King, 1978; The Marva Coilins Story, 1981; Acceptable Risks, 1986; Intimate Encounters, 1986; The Women of Brewster Place, 1989; Duplicates, 1992; House of Secrets, 1993; Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1994; and Sweet Justice, 1994. Co-founder, Dance Theater of Harlem; trustee, Human Family Institute, American Film Institute (/literature-and- arts/performing-arts/film-and-television/american-film-institute).

Awards: Vernon Rice Award, 1962, for The Blacks, and 1963, for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Academy Award nomination for best actress, Atlanta Film Festival Award for best actress, and National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress, all 1972, all for Sounder; Emmy Award for best actress in a television special, 1974, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; also recipient of awards from NAACP and National Council of Negro Women (/history/biographies/korean-history-biographies/national-council-negro-women).

Addresses: Home —Malibu Beach, CA. Office —c/o Larry Thompson, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 183, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

American Red Cross (/social-sciences-and-law/political-science-and-government/international- organizations/red-cross). The monotony of the work soon frustrated her, however. As she told Louie Robinson of Ebony, the day came when she stood up and shouted to her fellow office workers: “I know that God (/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-and-general- terms/religion-general/god) did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!” Fate intervened a few days later. Tyson, who had always been meticulous about the care of her hair, was asked by her hairdresser to model one of his styles at a fashion show. Her striking presence prompted several onlookers to encourage her to look into a modeling career. Before long she was enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was engaged in photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross (/social-sciences- and-law/political-science-and-government/international-organizations/red-cross).

It wasn’t long before she was able to leave office work behind, for she quickly became one of the top black models in the United States (/places/united-states-and-canada/us-political- geography/united-states). She earned as much as $65 an hour—a considerable sum during the late 1950s—and graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, as well as those of magazines specifically geared toward a black audience. But for all her success, modeling brought her little satisfaction. “I felt like a machine,” she once told a reporter for Time magazine.

Once again fate stepped in to move her along. Tyson was waiting in the offices of Ebony magazine to go to an appointment with fashion editor Freda DeKnight when she caught the eye of Evelyn Davis, a black character actress. Tyson related the encounter to Yvonne: “When

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I walked by, [Davis] took one look at me and said, ’Lord, what a face!’ She said I’d be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light- skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran out—but here I am.”

Broke Into Acting

Tyson’s decision to take up acting led to a two-year rift between her and her mother, who considered movies sinful and had always forbidden her children to see them. But with characteristic determination, Tyson ignored all opposition to pursue her chosen goal. She studied at various acting schools, and briefly at New York (/places/united-states-and- canada/us-political-geography/new-york) University, but she had difficulty finding teachers who measured up to her demanding standards. Two who did were Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. Carroll recalled to Yvonne: “There was never any doubt in my mind that Miss Cicely— that’s my pet name for her—was going to make it. She had all the qualities needed: an enormous capacity for work (she seemed utterly driven) and for criticism (she was never thrown by it or immobilized). The most noticeable thing about her was her sense of herself. Contemporary Black Biography Goldsworthy, Joan

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Cicely Tyson

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