“Just As I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by His hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.”
Those are the words of legendary Cicely Tyson, who discussed her life experiences in her memoir. Cicely was one of the three children of immigrant parents from Nevis in the West Indies. Her father was a carpenter and fruit seller, and her mother, who mostly held the fort in parenting Cicely and her siblings, was a housekeeper. She was born with a heart murmur that made doctors conclude that she would not live up to three months, but her parents went to work, proving the doctors wrong by feeding her fat and holding on to their faith in God. Cicely said that for them, both were the same.
Cicely grew up alongside her older brother, Melrose, and younger sister, Emily, on the rough streets of East Harlem. Cicely wore the dark hue of her skin with pride but was undoubtedly not protected from the colorism that existed in the society outside the comfort of her family. While everyone thought she was shy, Cicely revealed that she was more observant than shy. As a curious girl, her favorite word was “why”; her mother often responded to her queries by threatening to “knock the devil out of her”. Her family was poor, but her mother made sure that they made good use of the little they had.
The church was an intricate part of Cicely’s upbringing, and just like her mother, Cicely possessed a sixth sense that made her know of things before they happened. This gift helped her to keep away from danger.
As a young black girl in 1930s America, Cicely saw her mother take the walk of shame to get a job to provide for them. She was thus embarrassed and left horrified that Tyson admits she may never get past how that made her feel. During the difficult years following her parents’ separation, her siblings found solace in leaving home and blaming their mother for their situation, but Cicely found hers in old hymns and the tune of the church organ.
For reasons best known to her mother, there was no mention of sex or sexuality in their home. When nine-year-old Cicely got her first period, her mother only gave her a string of cloth to “put down there” and the firm instruction to “stay away from the boys”. Ms. Tyson reckoned it was either her mother was embarrassed or did not want to admit the inevitable — her little girl was fast becoming a woman. She learned all she knew about her growing body from her younger sister and friends. Cicely’s mother even banned her from dating.
When Cicely fell pregnant for Kenneth at only 17, her mother insisted that she marry the father of her child. Hence, Cicely got married in the summer of 1942, in a ceremony that seemed more like a funeral than a wedding. It’s no surprise that the marriage was short-lived as after two years, Cicely, along with her toddler, left her husband. They lived with family members and picked up multiple jobs to support herself and her daughter.
Cicely believed that God orchestrated her life. After years of slugging it off as a typewriter, by divine chance, she got a modeling job that set her off on a lustrous career on the big screens. By 1972, at the age of 47, she got her first lead role in the movie, Sounder. Tyson wrote about how she was initially offered a different role to play as a school teacher, but knowing she was meant for the role of the mother, she waited till she got it. Tyson tells us how she knew whether or not to take on a script by the “tingling of her skin” or the “churning of her stomach”. All through her career of over six decades, these never failed her.
In a society consumed with pushing out content that exploited black Americans, Tyson recalled that it took a lot of nerve for Director Marty Ritt to tell the story of a black family in a positive light. She, thus, emptied her soul into playing Rebecca, a role that earned her her first Oscar nomination.
On tour promoting Sounder, Cicely met a young Caucasian reporter who openly admitted his prejudice towards black people. As the tour continued through her country, Cicely became increasingly aware of the prejudice that rid the people of America. She returned to her home with a new drive, saying to herself, “sister, you’ve got some educating to do”.
Cicely decided to use her profession as her platform, choosing her movie roles carefully. She said that she “could not afford the luxury of simply being an actress”, and over a successful career spanning decades, Cicely never wavered on her commitment to using the characters she inhabited to change the narrative of how people saw black culture. According to her, “in the tenacity of Harriet Tubman, and the quiet strength of Coretta Scott King, I can be glimpsed in the determination of Mrs. Carrie Watts”.
Cicely went on to take some bold steps in her career, including being the first black woman to star in a TV drama and the first black actress on TV to wear her hair in its natural state. However, her life was not perfect. For instance, she married Miles Davis, who, apart from being a renowned trumpeter and composer, was also a chronic womanizer and substance abuser. But, she saw beyond the glitz and glamor of his career, a sensitive man who only wanted to be loved. Davis and Tyson went on to have a tumultuous relationship that spanned decades.
Also, Cicely recalled how one after the other, her loved ones left this side of life. From her parents to her brother, Melrose, her sister, Emily, and dear friends — Maya Angelou, Diahann Caroll, Ruby Dee, and Aretha Franklin. Each time she lost one, she felt as if her heart had no more room to take in grief, but with each person that died, Ms. Tyson continued to pursue living.
Cicely ascribed her longevity to cayenne pepper and healthy eating. She took her medical appointments and health checks religiously. Tyson had always believed that God had a purpose for her life, so, as her days prolonged, she woke up each morning with gratitude, knowing that she was here because God wasn’t finished with her.
Cicely Tyson died on January 28, 2021, at the age of 96, in New York City.