Culture | January 29th, 2021

Cicely Tyson, Influential Actress and Advocate for Black Women, Dies at 96

By: Dejania Oliver
Cicely Tyson, Influential Actress and Advocate for Black Women, Dies at 96

Cicely Tyson, an iconic figure both on and off-screen and a fierce advocate for Black actresses, died Jan. 28 at age 96.

Tyson was a household name in the Black community, many people affectionately calling her “everyone’s grandma” for her sweet nature and caring disposition. She has continuously broken boundaries for Black women in film and was regarded as a woman of poise and elegance. She demanded respect in the entertainment industry and advocated for her Black counterparts to receive that same respect as well.

In her decades-long career, she has played many characters that have impacted not only the people who watched but the entire industry itself. She was best known for her role in the 1974 TV series “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and has played both Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman. Tyson was a force to be reckoned within the industry and her talent was widely known and appreciated.

Tyson only wanted to play roles that portrayed Black women that were courageous and strong. She refused many roles in her career due to them not aligning with her values and even had times where she was out of work for long periods of time, all to protect the dignity of Black women.

“I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman,” she said to Entertainment News Service in 1997. “And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me. So, aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”

In the later years of her life, Tyson continued to work on-screen. She was a part of popular television series like “How to Get Away with Murder” and “House of Cards.” She worked well into her 90s and did not plan on retiring.

Her work earned her much praise and she rightfully received many accolades for her outstanding performances. She won three Emmy awards and an honorary Oscar in 2018, as well as being a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. The next year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for her groundbreaking work that allowed Black women to portray characters that meant something.

Her manager, Larry Thompson, spoke on the actress’ death while referring to her memoir that was released Tuesday, “Just As I Am,” that chronicled her entire career.

“Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life,” Thompson said. “Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

Many Black actresses mourn her death as the women who paved the way for them. Viola Davis took to Instagram when she heard of the loss and said, “You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. Thank you for loving me.” 

Many others shared the same sentiments, like Zendaya and Octavia Spencer — all Black women who have looked up to Tyson as being a reason why they are able to entertain the world with characters that put Black women in a positive light.

Tyson grew up on the East Side of New York with her parents and two siblings in a working-class household, but she aspired to be something bigger. She was able to build a career that will impact people forever, and that is not something to be said for everyone. She was a light in the Black community that will not ever be forgotten.

“It amuses me when people say, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve done so much.’ But it isn’t that I’ve done so much,” Tyson said. “It’s that what I have done has made a real impact, and I’d rather have it that way.”