Cramming an extraordinary life into a few hundred words is not nearly as big a feat as depicting the vast humanity of Black women on screen, yet trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson achieved just that up until her passing at the age of 96.
The daughter of West Indian parents and New York’s Harlem, Tyson gifted us a storied six-decades-long career, assuming vivid roles as if she lived each life in full. She was all heart and warmth even in characters who demanded hardened resolve. She portrayed the complexity, resilience, and joys of Black womanhood with an intimacy and softness that left us feeling truly seen and allowed audiences to see us fully. Her nuanced narratives as a dark-skinned Black woman — and at times, her mere existence — challenged colorism, racism, and sexism within and beyond Hollywood.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.
Most of us have known Cicely Tyson our entire lives, not because we’re related to the petite star, but because her presence existed in our households like a Sintra Bronte poster or a picture of former President Barack Obama. Tyson’s legacy was repeated and celebrated often: Her breakthrough role as a jailed sharecropper’s wife in 1972’s Sounder sliced through the Blaxploitation era and earned her an Oscar nomination, establishing her as a Hollywood fixture. Just two years later, she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Lead Actress for her unforgettable performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Her beginnings catapulted her to barrier-breaking success and recognition that continued to extinguish stereotypes about Black women: She became the first Black woman to host Saturday Night Live, captivated us in Alex Haley’s 10-hour saga Roots, chilled us in Madea’s Family Reunion with an urging (and urgent!) speech, and reminded us of the South’s generational injustices in The Help. For her long-standing philanthropic work — she frequently gave back to the Black community, especially Harlem — Obama awarded Tyson the Medal of Freedom in 2016.
“I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time. I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it,” Tyson once said to the Associated Press.
In turn, we marveled at her ability to amplify the beauty and power of Blackness in every space, among Rosa Parks, Miles Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and the like. Even in the presence of what she deemed greatness, she was a giant; a towering figure we jokingly believed was immortal exactly because she was human, because she witnessed Black history and was it all at once. Even now, as an ancestor, she’s a vessel of infinite awe, inspiration, and wisdom.
Although it’s hard to whittle down her groundbreaking legacy of film, TV, and theater work to one pivotal character, Tyson’s Ophelia Harkness in How to Get Away with Murder arguably resonated the deepest in her latter years. In the episode titled “Mama’s Here Now,” we’re introduced to Harkness, a perpetually intrusive and outspoken mother who cradled her daughter (Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating) in her darkest hours.
Though sporadic, Harkness was a constant, warm presence throughout the award-winning series. She was wise and protective, albeit nurturing an imperfect relationship with Keating. Her performance reflects ancestral energy that’s unshakingly familiar to Black folks, and it’s that authentic representation that tethered Black women to Tyson for her entire career. The adoration Tyson received extended to us, as Davis echoed in her Instagram tribute to Tyson.
“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,” Davis wrote. “You gave me permission to dream....because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself.”
In an interview with CBS’ This Morning anchor Gayle King, a very present Tyson expressed that she simply wanted to be remembered as someone who did her best despite having achieved so much.
"I'm amazed every single day I live," Tyson said. "I mean, what my life became is not what I expected. I had no idea that I would touch anybody…I done my best. That's all.”
And true to the overachiever that she was, Tyson did much, much better than that.