How Cicely Tyson paved the way for complex and layered Black storytelling in Hollywood
The stage and screen legend spoke with q's Tom Power about her new memoir, Just As I Am
As a Black woman living in segregated America, Cicely Tyson "didn't even know what a theatre was" until the 1950s, when she entered one for the very first time to raise funds for the American Red Cross.
She stood at the back of the theatre mesmerized by the sight of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible on stage. That was the moment she said she knew she wanted to be an actress.
"I felt like I had walked into heaven," Tyson told host Tom Power in a new interview with CBC Radio's q. "I never saw anything quite like it in my whole life. It was so ethereal to me."
Tyson, 96, has been a force in Hollywood for six decades and today, on Jan. 26, she released a new memoir, titled Just As I Am, in which she reflects on her long and distinguished life and career.
With acclaimed roles in the groundbreaking 1972 film Sounder and the 1977 miniseries Roots, Tyson helped pave the way for more complex and layered Black storytelling. But it wasn't an easy path.
In the early 1960s, the trailblazing actress started wearing her hair naturally on the TV series East Side/West Side, which was revolutionary at the time.
"There were people who thought it was wonderful for me to do that and there were people who thought it wasn't," she explained.
"I was overwhelmed by the number of Black people who resented the fact that I was wearing [my hair] in its natural state. I went to Washington to get an award for East Side/West Side; I was told that I was a Black woman in a position to glorify Black women and [instead] I was degrading them."
The stage and screen legend said that she finds it very gratifying now to see many more Black women embrace their natural hair and "recognize the beauty in themselves."
LISTEN | Lena Waithe on the influence of Cicely Tyson's hair:
Tyson's life changed in 1974, when she landed the lead role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which she views as marking the end of her anonymity.
The movie, based on Ernest J. Gaines's novel of the same name, depicts the struggles of African Americans as seen through the eyes of a fictional 110-year-old Black woman who has witnessed everything from slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"What [The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman] changed for me was that people were able to understand who we are, what we are, and why we were placed on this universe; that we were human beings just like any other person and should be treated the same. That's all we wanted."
Tyson then went on to play Binta in the TV adaptation of Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, which Vulture called "the single most important piece of scripted television in broadcast history."
Roots drew an estimated 135 million viewers and earned Tyson an Emmy nomination, but ABC was worried that the miniseries wouldn't do well.
Know that you are important to humanity and only then can you feel comfortable about being here, in this universe.- Cicely Tyson
"They thought there would be an uprising among Blacks," the actress noted. "The way people were stolen from their country, separated from their families and friends and brought in slave ships to this country."
"It's very difficult to find peace in this life when you are separated from your loved ones," she told Power.
Looking back at her numerous roles and remarkable career, Tyson said that she can see a common thread and shared some advice: "Know yourself, know your background, know where you came from. Know that you are important to humanity and only then can you feel comfortable about being here, in this universe."
Hear the full interview with Cicely Tyson near the top of this page, where she also talks about her childhood, her relationship with Miles Davis, and what it was like to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.