The historic importance of the former Mrs. Miles Davis
By: CARL L LANE
A giant has fallen. Even at the age of ninety six, the death of legendary actress Cicely Tyson feels premature. It feels like she was taken from us way too soon. Being an actress of her generation, much of her work was done before my birth, but in the hearts and homes of black America she was always there. Cicely Tyson was always ours, in a way that perhaps no other black actress in the history of American film making ever was.
Through the long and historically racist history of America film, Hollywood has usually not given black people and most other minority groups many chances to play meaningful roles. When a black actress was given the rare opportunity to play a leading lady or even a significant supporting role, studios and movie executives usually chose a certain type of black actress whose looks were more eurocentric in terms of beauty standards. Cicely Tyson looked like black America.
She was the kind of black that Hollywood executives wouldn’t even let walk in the door for anything more than a role playing a maid or a prostitute. The role of the rare black leading lady was traditionally saved for a fair skinned, Dorothy Dandridge type. Yet Cicely Tyson climbed unconquerable mountains. The price for refusing to play roles that demeaned her or the larger Black community, was that she often went years without working at all. But she refused to be a stereotype.
In a day when there were essentially no meaningful roles for black actors, especially black women, Cicely Tyson began an historic career that would see her go from fashion model to an Academy Award nominee for her role in the film Sounder. She went on to win three Emmy Awards, a Screen Actor’s Guild Award and a Tony Award. As a kid, my first experience of her greatness was watching her in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
She played the title role of Miss Jane Pittman, who in the film tells the true story of her life as a young slave in the last years of American slavery, telling her story to a reporter who comes to interview her at her home when she is an old woman. I was a small boy then, but it probably was first time I can remember being conscious of an actor’s ability to be great at her craft. And throughout a career that spanned seven decades, she was never coopted. Cicely Tyson was never stolen from the Harlem community in which she was born in 1924.
She was the first cousin of controversial Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. But her most famous relationship was with her former husband, the legendary jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis were married in 1981, by Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. The ceremony took place at the home of the now imprisoned actor, Bill Cosby.
Yet she was no spare rib of any man. She was a lioness of uncommon talent and strength. In Cicely Tyson, generations of young black girls and women saw themselves. They saw her grow wings, and knew that they too could learn to fly.
An Asian friend of mine who had never heard of her, ask me yesterday who was this woman that even at almost one hundred years old, had filled his social media with the news of her passing. I didn’t think unkindly of him not knowing Cicely Tyson. If I had not been black myself, I likely would not have been aware of the career of this woman who was older than my own grandmother.
But in answering my friends question about who Cicely Tyson was, I said she is everybody. She is everything. I said she is the reason there is a Viola Davis, an Octavia Spencer, Regina King, Lupita Nyong’o. Four Oscar winners, none of whom fits into the traditional beauty standard of America. I told him that she was perhaps the first dark skinned black woman who was ever so near the mountaintop of acting without being type cast as someone’s housekeeper or drug addict.
As African American actresses go, she was a god and we were all devout.
The news of Cicely Tyson’s death took me by surprise. It’s kind of like everybody’s grandmother died all at once. And when the grandmother of a family dies, you wonder for a time if it is possible to still be a family without her. We will go on, as all families do, but it will take some time to stop thinking of her death as a hole in the heart of black America.
Some years ago, I waited on legendary actor Sidney Poitier at a steakhouse I was working at in Houston, Texas. He was the first black actor to win the Academy Award for best actor for his performance in the film Lilies of The Field, and was later awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2002.
Throughout their dinner, Sidney Poitier told stories to his two hosts about his days as one of the first black leading men in Hollywood. He talked about how difficult it had been to even get a chance to audition for roles. Mr. Poitier spoke of black men with lighter skin who had had more opportunities because Hollywood executives and directors could “understand” how someone would think of them as handsome.
And then he gave the great Cicely Tyson as an example of a great actor who had not gotten nearly the amount of work she would have gotten had she looked more like the kind of woman whose beauty could be understood by European eyes. He named a list of black women who had fair skin and more European features. After he called out each of their names, he told his hosts, “None of them could even hold a candle next to Cicely Tyson, but they all got more work than her.”
I had by then watched Cicely Tyson in any number of roles throughout my life. But to hear the great Sidney Poitier speak of her with such admiration made me think how lucky I had been to know her work even though most people would never have bothered with such old fashioned movies as hers.
I guess part of me had come to assume that she would live forever. So, like with Nelson Mandela, I’d never imagined the world without her in it. Today is the first day I have drawn breath in a world that did not have the great Cicely Tyson as one of its inhabitants. I hope that she will not be forgotten. I know that she will be missed by the generations before and after mine. I know this world will never know another like her.