Cicely Tyson - Civil Rights - 3 Part Assignmenttwinkletoes
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Barnes, Joyce A.
Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2020. 2p.
Tyson, Cicely, 1933-
African American models
African American actresses
Actress. Cicely L. Tyson was born in Harlem, New York, to a family struggling for economic survival.
Her parents, William and Theodosia Tyson, had immigrated to the United States from Nevis, a small
Caribbean island. William was a carpenter and sold fruit from a pushcart. Theodosia worked as a
domestic servant. Tyson, the youngest of three siblings, sold shopping bags on the streets. Even so,
the family needed government assistance to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
They moved frequently from one Harlem tenement to another, and Tyson’s parents’ divorce
introduced more instability into her childhood. Tyson found solace in the church, although she
resented the restrictions placed on her by her deeply religious mother. She was not allowed to
socialize outside church or date until she was seventeen. Tyson, Cicely [c]Fashion Tyson, Cicely
[c]Film: Acting Tyson, Cicely
Born: December 19, 1933
Birthplace: Harlem, New York
Actor and activist
Tyson is an award-winning actor and advocate for educational, civic, and humanitarian causes. Her commitment to portraying positive
African American characters resulted in many memorable performances.
Areas of achievement: Fashion; Film: acting; Social issues
Cicely L. Tyson was born in Harlem, New York, to a family struggling for economic survival. Her parents, William and Theodosia Tyson, had
immigrated to the United States from Nevis, a small Caribbean island. William was a carpenter and sold fruit from a pushcart. Theodosia
worked as a domestic servant. Tyson, the youngest of three siblings, sold shopping bags on the streets. Even so, the family needed
government assistance to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. They moved frequently from one Harlem tenement to
another, and Tyson’s parents’ divorce introduced more instability into her childhood. Tyson found solace in the church, although she
resented the restrictions placed on her by her deeply religious mother. She was not allowed to socialize outside church or date until she
Backstage at The Heart Truth's
Red Dress Collection Fashion
Show during New York Fashion
Week. February 13, 2009 at
Bryant Park. By The Heart Truth
[Public domain], via Wikimedia
Cicely Tyson at the 2012 Time
100 gala. By David Shankbone
(Own work) [CC BY 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Tyson grew up restless and curious, and she found ways to break through her physical and emotional boundaries. While in high school,
she would ride the bus across the city and contemplate a better future. Working as a typist for the Red Cross after graduation, she declared
that she would not spend her life “banging on a typewriter.” Although she was unsure of what she wanted to do, Tyson felt destined for a life
more significant than the one she was living.
The opportunity for that different life came when Tyson modeled in a hair show. Her striking features, high cheekbones, small frame, and
ebony skin drew notice, and she was encouraged to pursue fashion modeling. She became one of the top ten African American models in
the country. However, she grew tired of being seen simply as a pretty face in designer clothes. Encouraged by Freda DeKnight, an editor at
Ebony, Tyson auditioned for a role in an independent film, Caribe Gold. The film was never completed, but the experience introduced her to
the thrill of acting. Despite her mother’s strong objections, Tyson enrolled in classes at the Actors Studio. She had to leave home, but she
began making money and drawing praise as an actor.
Tyson garnered favorable reviews for her first stage role in Dark of the Moon (1958–59), but it was in Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1961) that
Tyson became a nationally recognized artist. Her comedic performance as a prostitute named Virtue earned Tyson her first Drama Desk
In her first major film role, in Carson McCullers’sThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), and on television, Tyson wore her hair in a short Afro.
She drew criticism from some, black and white, for her “natural” hair and dark skin and for not conforming to the image of a middle-class
African American woman. Others, however, considered her looks revolutionary; she was the embodiment of the Black Is Beautiful
movement. In 1963, she became the first female African American actor to appear regularly in a dramatic series, in the acclaimed East
Side, West Side. More television appearances in programs as diverse as the Western Gunsmoke and the soap opera The Guiding Light
followed. Her film roles, however, were few during the 1960s and 1970s because she refused to play the hypersexual characters of the
blaxploitation era. Tyson insisted on roles that cast black women in a positive light, and her career is distinguished by her portrayals of
multidimensional characters who do not fit into any popular stereotype.
One of Tyson’s most notable film roles was in Sounder (1972) as a defiant, smart, and deeply loving woman. Reviewers hailed the
character, Rebecca Morgan, as the first black heroine of film. Tyson received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. In 1974, she won more
plaudits for her starring role in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as a fictional 110-year-old woman whose life
encompasses slavery and the Civil Rights era. Other female heroine roles followed: Tyson played Kunta Kinte’s mother Binta in the historic
television miniseries Roots (1977); Coretta Scott King in King (1978); Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses (1978), for which she was
also a producer; and educator Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story (1981). Having established herself as a dramatic actor, Tyson also
triumphed in comedic roles, such as Bustin’ Loose with Richard Pryor (1981), and in three films by writer-producer-actor Tyler Perry: Diary
of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010). The following year she appeared
as the character Constantine Bates in the film adaptation of Katheryn Stockett's The Help for which she was nominated for several
ensemble awards. She appeared as Nana Mama in Alex Cross and as Mamma Kay in the 2013 film The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts
With hundreds of performances to her credit, Tyson also is recognized as an energetic advocate for education, women’s rights, and human
rights. Well into her sixties and seventies, she traveled to schools and colleges across the country to educate students about history and
race. She served as a world ambassador for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and an advocate for Save the Children, and in
2005, she traveled to Phuket, Thailand, to help rebuild schools after the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. A vegetarian who
observes a strict regimen of diet and exercise, she also has lectured about health issues.
Tyson has received one Tony Award, two Emmy Awards, numerous Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), and many honorary degrees. In 2015 she received a Kennedy Center Honor for her contributions to American
culture. She is the namesake of the Cicely L. Tyson Community School for the Performing and Fine Arts, in East Orange, New Jersey. The
school provides prekindergarten through high school education for future writers, musicians, dancers, and actors.
Over her six-decade career, Tyson has made hundreds of appearances on film, on television, and on stage. She also has contributed to
humanitarian efforts worldwide. While she suffered setbacks in her personal life, including a brief marriage to jazz great Miles Davis, Tyson
won acclaim for her insistence on portraying positive images of African American women.
Bogle, Donald. Brown Sugar: Over One Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.
"Cicely Tyson Looks Back at Acting Career, Life." CBS News. CBS Interactive, 16 Dec. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Hornaday, Ann. "Cicely Tyson: A Pioneer Stretches Her Acting Muscles in a New Career Chapter." Washington Post. Washington Post, 5
Dec. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
Mapp, Edward. “1972 Cicely Tyson.” In African Americans and the Oscar: Seven Decades of Struggle and Achievement. Lanham:
Scarecrow, 2003. Print.
Mateo, Lisa. "Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts Turns Students into Stars." PIX11. WPIX, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 31 Mar.
Sanders, Charles L. “Cicely Tyson: She Can Smile Again After a Three-Year Ordeal.” Ebony 34.3 (Jan. 1979): 27–36. Print.
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Source: Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2020, 2p