By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
“I am not a quitter. I will fight until I drop. It is just a matter of having some faith in the fact that as long as you are able to draw breath in the universe, you have a chance,” said Cicely Tyson, the unbowed force of nature during her acceptance speech for an Honorary Academy Award in 2018.
The news of her death last week at age 96, ran over many of us like a tidal wave, as we struggled to catch our breath during the seemingly unrelenting peril of 2021 (also known as 2020, The Sequel).
Although we mourn her loss in the land of the living, ultimately Mother Tyson hasn’t really left us, she’s just advocating, interceding for us in the Ancestral realm. Her legacy of Black Excellence is eternal.
Tyson’s towering legacy cut two distinct paths.
Hollywood, which ultimately celebrated her brilliance had worked for decades to dismiss, or reduce Black women to shadowy stereotypes. Most often Black women were cast as buxom mammies, sassy sapphires, tragic mulattos, or wanton harlots. Then here comes Cicely Tyson, who wasn’t having any of it. She was brilliant, slender, regal, dark-skinned, whose “excruciating beauty,” as described by the New York Times, exploded Hollywood’s mendacious narrative of the Black woman.
“Whatever good I have accomplished as an actress I believe came in direct proportion to my efforts to portray Black women who have made positive contributions to my heritage,” Tyson once said.
Tyson also completely shattered the notion that you can’t find extraordinary success later in life. Although she had small parts on television and in theater in the 1950’s, she didn’t find international superstardom until decades later.
It was 1972, at age 48, when Tyson landed the role of Rebecca in the movie Sounder starring opposite Paul Winfield. She seemed to instantly become an icon of beauty and dignity in the collective consciousness of the Black diaspora. As Rebecca, tilling a field in a tattered dress beneath the summer sun, her beauty and power were still undeniable.
Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award, as well as a Golden Globe for her performance. And she never stopped, literally. From Rebecca, to Ms. Jane Pittman (1974), to Ophelia Harkness, the mother of Annalise Keating (portrayed by Viola Davis) in, How to Get Away With Murder, to her final role as Alice, in Tyler’s Perry’s Netflix movie, A Fall From Grace in 2020, Mother Tyson never stopped.
She published her autobiography, Just As I Am, on Jan. 26. On that day when asked by Gayle King how she wanted to be remembered she said, “I’ve done my best. That’s all.”
And two days later she quietly made her final exit from the stage.
At 96, Queen Mother Cicely Tyson most definitely earned her rest. She blazed the trail, she did it all.
The rest is up to us.