Cicely Tyson led a generation that defined themselves with dignity

Her death marks the winding down of an era when Black glamour and elegance wasn’t just a choice, but an insistence on Black humanity

There was a time when Black dignity on screen wasn’t guaranteed. It had to be fought for and insisted upon, repeatedly.

And Cicely Tyson, who died Jan. 28 at age 96, led a generation of pathbreaking Black American artists who did so, as both creators of and activists for Black humanity on screen and stage.

Tyson was born Dec. 19, 1924, in Harlem, New York, just two years before Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, which would later become Black History Month. In her own way, Tyson accomplished something very similar to what Woodson was driving at with his creation.

It is one thing to be intellectually familiar with the grotesque manipulations of early 20th-century blackface or minstrelsy and to see such insults as artifacts of history. But Tyson, like others of her generation, grew up with them. She came of age in a time in which the existence of Black history had to first be asserted and then declared worthy of attention and rigor.

A personal story helps illustrate this point: I have an uncle who turns 60 this year who grew up attending public schools in the midst of North Carolina’s desegregation efforts. He was told, point-blank, by his white teachers that Black people had no history, no traditions, no culture. One anecdote was especially shocking. He told me about a mnemonic device a white high school teacher introduced when he was learning how to design electronic circuit boards, which required knowing resistor color codes. Each letter stood for a particular color – black, blue, red, orange, yellow, green, violet and white – and the phrase he was taught went as follows: Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls but Violet gives Willingly. This sort of breathtakingly casual racism, this assertion of Black inferiority and pathology, was embedded into everyday American life. Children, if they were lucky, had adults to counter such violence with the truth of Black beauty, resilience, creativity, intellect and, yes, history.

Cicely Tyson at the BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 17, 2017.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Tyson not only countered such ugliness through the truth she brought to her roles, she was part of a generation of Black artists who had to create it on screen.

The Hays Code, or Production Code, created by Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), famously concerned itself with restricting depictions of sex and crime in film from 1934 until 1968 and also censored depictions of romantic relationships between Black and white people on screen. However, there was also a less formal “Industry Policy” that studios employed to regulate images of Blackness that existed alongside the Hays Code. Jason Joy, head of the Studio Relations Committee, a subunit of the MPPDA, was instrumental in creating that policy.

“Joy, who is known for having been liberal in his censorship of sexuality and who aided producers in indirectly representing the erotic, sought on the other hand to establish a firm color line and called for the elimination of racial integration, miscegenation, and the racial abuses of the criminal justice system in film,” Ellen C. Scott wrote in Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era. Stereotyped Toms, coons, mammies typified much of mainstream golden-era Hollywood roles for Black people. If there was any romance at all, it was devoid of actual chemistry, as seen in the pairing of Lena Horne with Bill Robinson in Stormy Weather (1943).

Tyson and other Black artists of her generation began their careers in this atmosphere of censorship, particularly when it came to depicting the ways white supremacy truly affected Black people’s lives. Both formal and informal studio strictures shaped the ways Black people showed up on screen, and were also responsible for depicting a white racial innocence devoid of the realities of prejudice.

This is why Tyson’s depictions of Black women like Binta, the mother to Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte, in the 1977 miniseries Roots, were revelatory, as was the existence of Roots, period. For decades preceding Roots, it was nearly impossible to present the truth of the violence of white racism on screen. But Tyson refused to participate in that lie, and so her role in one of the most-watched television events in American history, one that broke the feverish lies of the Hays Code era, is truly remarkable. Roots, when Alex Haley published it, made a broad argument for a historical scholarship that focused on Black people and culture before the horrors of the Middle Passage. In Sounder (1972), Tyson played an impoverished Southern sharecropper whose husband is imprisoned for stealing food, another film that was pathbreaking because it wasn’t restricted from showing how white racism was part and parcel of the American penal system. It’s exactly the sort of film to which Joy would have objected and likely blocked.

Maya Angelou attends the party for the premiere of the movie she directed, Down in the Delta, on Dec. 7, 1998.

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Tyson didn’t just find the source of self-regard; she also helped create it.

I’m 36, which means that when I was growing up, there were a host of famous Black elders who commanded a formal honorific that often seems old-fashioned these days. It’s why fully-grown adults, even directors, often referred to Tyson as “Ms. Tyson” or “Your Majesty” or insisted upon referring to Maya Angelou as “Dr. Angelou.”

Black people of Tyson’s generation are a bit like time travelers. They project a stand-up-straight erudition and in doing so, command it from others in their presence. We learned to regard them with the same respect Black children are taught to reserve for grandparents and their friends from church, which came with a set of behavioral habits: no slouching, no “yeah” instead of “yes,” or, better yet, “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” You can see such lessons in formality being passed down in Angelou’s 1998 film Down in the Delta.

The further we travel in time away from 1924, the more distant these traditions become, to the degree that they almost feel foreign. But they served an important, pivotal purpose: inculcating a deep level of esteem toward Black people whose lives had largely been characterized by the absence of such esteem. Having respect for your elders also meant having respect for yourself. The ability to simply be was hard-won. Such social formalities were a way of guarding something that couldn’t be taken for granted.

I remember walking out of the Walter Kerr Theatre in 2019 after interviewing Hadestown star André De Shields, who is 75, and thinking that everything about him — his graceful, dancerly carriage, his diction, his posture – was evocative of a generation of Black artists who dared to invent themselves.

From left to right: Eva Noblezada as Eurydice, André De Shields as Hermes and Reeve Carney as Orpheus in Hadestown.

Matthew Murphy

In the same way that the “Mid-Atlantic accent” was a creation of Golden Era Hollywood, so too was the regal Black dignity I clocked in De Shields, in Tyson and in dancer Carmen de Lavallade, 89. Theirs is a specific comportment that shows up in artists such as Harry Belafonte, 93, James Earl Jones, 90, and Sidney Poitier, 93, that made its presence known in the likes of Ruby Dee, born in 1922; Ossie Davis, born in 1917; Angelou, born in 1928; Paul Robeson, born in 1898; and Diahann Carroll, born in 1935 — a Black way of being that insists upon elegance.

Except for De Shields, all these performers were born during the era of vaudeville and grew up in artistic environments shaped by its demands. In her book The Art of Grace, Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman writes about the lessons to be gleaned from vaudeville, as recorded in Frederic La Delle’s 1913 manual, How to Enter Vaudeville: A Complete Illustrated Course of Instruction:

What this master illusionist reveals is that there is no magic to his business. Being alert to the moment, paying attention to others, performing with ease and naturalness: these tricks of the trade are also fundamental principles of grace. Vaudevillians learned them — lived them — through rehearsal, revisions, and then reacting on the fly. Figuring out how to make an act work when it was dying (hello, grace under pressure) took a kind of creative energy that came from being fully present. No wandering thoughts. A moment-to-moment slalom skiers’ Zen of responsiveness.

… Live theater works different muscles in actors, and survival in that world is one reason that performers such as [Cary] Grant, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and other greats from Hollywood’s Golden Age still seem so alive today, so warmly three-dimensional.

But unlike Grant, Rogers and Astaire, the grace of Tyson and her Black contemporaries wasn’t just reflective of the influences of vaudeville. As is so often the case with Black American life, the stakes were higher. “Classical Hollywood, in its role as America’s dream factory, largely maintained the myth of Black inferiority while minimizing America’s long history of injustice. Countless films reinforced Black stereotypes, normalized economic and social segregation, and systematically avoided admitting the unjustness of racial inequality, often through the dissemination of the mammy, mulatto, buck, and Uncle Tom characters,” Scott wrote.

Black people didn’t have to just be talented performers. Their mastery of the tricks of vaudeville was an argument, in itself, of their own personhood. Tyson was part of a cohort defining Black people onstage and on screen, constructing revelations about Black people that we now take for granted. She fully understood those stakes as she revealed in an interview with Gayle King of CBS News.

Tyson told King that a white journalist once confessed he felt some bigotry upon watching Sounder simply because the character of Tyson’s son in the film calls his father “Daddy,” the way this white journalist’s children called him “Daddy.”

“I thought, my God,” Tyson said. “This man is thinking that we’re not human beings. And I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress and that I would use my career as my platform.”

“You want Black people to be seen as human beings,” King said.

“That’s right,” Tyson responded.

These days, you might recognize Tyson’s trademark comportment in Phylicia Rashad, or in Adjoa Andoh, who plays Lady Danbury in Bridgerton. To inhabit such elegance was to make a choice. It’s not an affectation, and it’s not inauthentic, but when Tyson and her contemporaries began to live it, it was audacious.

As much as she was a paragon of quiet dignity and grace, which is how she shows up in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Women of Brewster Place and in so many Tyler Perry movies to which she lent her gravitas, Tyson was still wonderfully, exuberantly fun.

As much as she was a paragon of quiet dignity and grace, which is how she shows up in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Women of Brewster Place and in so many Tyler Perry movies to which she lent her gravitas, Tyson was still wonderfully, exuberantly fun.

The woman who captured the volatile heart of Miles Davis was also clever and daring — just look at the way she chose to adorn herself in public. Even in her 10th decade, Tyson served up bold, confident fashion choices, full of personality, texture and sparkle. Take, for instance, the B Michael America gown she wore to the 2017 Emmys, a bright fuchsia-and-red printed confection that featured a cape with a swooping, high-necked collar. Or look at the sequined silver ripped jeans she paired with sneakers and a white, feather-fringe jacket that she wore to the 2018 opening night gala of the TCM Classic Film Festival, where she had a ball posing for red carpet photographers.

Most of the real estate Tyson occupies in our minds is as an old woman, not just because of how long she lived or the fact that her career took off when she was middle-aged, but because of the classical-era Hollywood stateliness that was so intrinsic to her being.

“She looked sainted, venerated — at 29, 36, 49 and 60,” New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wrote recently.

Tyson didn’t really break out until age 48, when she made Sounder (for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar), but in her youth she built a career in New York theater. She kept up her stage work and in 2013 won the Tony for best actress in a play for The Trip to Bountiful.

And yet, there were always glimmers of more than the stateliness, some of which can be detected in the recording of a 1971 play by Arkady Leokum called Neighbors, currently available via Broadway HD.

In Neighbors, Tyson plays a housewife and mother to two unseen children. She and her husband, played by Raymond St. Jacques, are looking to buy a house in a white suburb from a white liberal couple who have congratulated themselves on not contributing to white flight because they’re moving to another, smaller house in the neighborhood rather than fleeing the encroachment of Negroes.

The white wife, played by Jane Wyatt, is styled in a way that suggests she’s been taking her cues from then-first lady Pat Nixon. Beside her, Tyson is the opposite in every way. She shows off her stems in a trendy yellow short suit, and rocks a giant Afro, lots of jewelry and a sweater with a lace-up V-neck — a costume that suggests youth, vitality and sex. She was 47 when she did it. When Tyson, in character, regales her WASPy host with the sensual pleasures of self-care and an empty schedule, she’s just as natural and captivating as she would be playing Jane Pittman. She expresses surprise and a hint of pity that her white host cannot share the delight she feels in being free and grown and in love and not wedded to the obligations of the Girl Scouts, or the PTA, or the League of Women Voters. It’s palpable in her facial expressions and her body language: she cannot fathom what it’s like to live a life of obligation and devoid of the passionate, hormonal kindling of romantic desire. I grinned when I saw Tyson in Neighbors. It’s one thing to maintain the essence of a grand dame when you’re playing women who are postmenopausal. It’s another to be able to seamlessly incorporate it into a vivacious lady of leisure who likes her bourbon neat and who’s only deigning to move to the white suburbs “for the schools.”

Tyson’s death, following the deaths of Carroll, Dee, Davis, Angelou and other artists of her generation, marks the winding down of an era, when Black glamour and elegance wasn’t just a choice, but an insistence on Black humanity, Black personhood, Black dignity, that had to be fought for just to be seen.

Liner Notes

Recommended reading:

Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African-American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity by Allyson Nadia Field

The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life by Sarah L. Kaufmann

African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 by Charlene Regester

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era by Ellen C. Scott

Just As I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson

Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.