Just As I Am
“I have sometimes been called difficult. The truth is that I insist upon respect.”
When comparing her long life to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, Cicely Tyson’s gift of prose reigns: “Only when that tree is stripped of its embellishments does it bare its scars and show its true nature.”
Encountering cutting prejudice from white reporters during publicity interviews for early roles, she made it a mission to change Black stereotypes—not via protests—but by her choices for acting roles.
Cicely Tyson was born in the South Bronx in 1924, the daughter of Fredericka Theodosia Huggins and William Augustine Tyson, who were both from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Tyson had an older brother and a younger sister.
During her childhood, the family of five lived as religious Episcopalians in East Harlem. William was a peddler and Fredericka was a domestic worker.
Though deeply religious, her parents often fought. “Two imperfect souls loved by a perfect God.”
However, when Tyson turned nine, her world split in half, when her father’s adultery surfaced in an after-church fight between her mother and the adulteress. The three siblings tossed stones at the woman. “Everyone froze and peered at him, our gazes delivering a judgment that needn’t be uttered.”
That same day, her mom arranged a move, without their father, to a new apartment on East 98th Street, using $500 she had stashed inside the mattress.
But worse, shortly thereafter, Cicely was emotionally violated when a white man asked her to touch her early-developing breasts.
King Kong, in 1935, was her first trip to the movies, at age 11. It wasn’t until 37 years later that Tyson dared enter a theater, in 1972, for her movie, Sounder, so great were her nightmares from that old film.
Pre-teen Tyson became a piano prodigy and played in church—though at 15, she stopped playing. Then, at 17, she had been seeing Kenneth, a minister’s son whom her mom had approved, and became pregnant. In 1943, she reluctantly married, her daughter was born, and Tyson was forced to finish her diploma in night school.
She no longer wanted to be married and took a secretarial job to raise Joan. Dissatisfied with secretarial work, she followed a lead which got her into modeling, and then into acting. She played her first role, at 30, acting ten years younger, “Nature has bestowed Black people with one of its most prized gifts, melanin.”
Cicely befriended musician Miles Davis, and they began a relationship in 1966. She had many actor friends, including Maya Angelou and Diahann Carroll.
She was the first Black actress to appear in a TV drama and, “. . . the first Black TV actress to reveal my hair in its bare-naked state.”
Davis turned out to be a serial cheater and drug addict. “And yet more than anger, I felt compassion, and pity for his sad state.”
In 1972, Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress, for her first big movie, Sounder.
However, for her next role, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, she not only embodied the 110-year-old protagonist in all possible ways, but this time she won Emmys in 1974. Her mother soon passed away that year—her dad had died in 1961. After much success in Roots in 1977, she fell back in with Miles Davis.
She helped heal Davis, who was near-death, with a doctor of Asian medicine and her love for him. They finally married in 1981, though he continued with infidelity and addiction, and they divorced in 1989.
In 1995, a school in New Jersey was dedicated to Tyson: “The Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts,” and she took an active part in it. Tyson had several key roles into her nineties and won the Kennedy Center Honors, the Medal of Freedom, and an honorary Oscar.
When a reporter asked Tyson why she continued to work in her nineties, she said, “Why wouldn’t I be working? The alternative is to sit around making butt prints.”
Critical highlights of Black history are interspersed logistically throughout this work.
Tyson summed up her life well: “I have sometimes been called difficult. The truth is that I insist upon respect.”
Tyson passed away at the age of 96 in early 2021. Though Just as I Am is a bit wordy at 400+ pages, understandably angry, and often soapboxy, Tyson’s gift of long life was one of the legacies she left for readers.