When Cicely Tyson announced she was pursuing a career in modeling and acting, her mother kicked her out the house for two years.
“Oh, she was very upset and she told me I couldn’t live there,” Tyson recalled. “She said you can’t live here and do that.”
Become a Harlem insider - Sign-Up for our Weekly Newsletter!
But decades later, she is now being celebrated with a Kennedy Center Honor for her contributions to American culture, paving the way for African Americans in the industry.
“You know, I say no to everything first,” Tyson said, speaking to “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King in her old Harlem neighborhood. “I say no to everything because I always want to make sure that when I say yes, I know what I’m getting myself into.”
For nearly 60 years, Cicely Tyson has been particular about the roles she plays.
“Either my skin tingles or my stomach churns,” Tyson said, laughing. “It’s very simple. If it’s something that I feel nauseated about, I know that I can’t possibly do that. If I can’t keep still and I get up and I’m walking around and I get to thinking, ‘I know that that’s something I can handle.'”
Tyson made her movie debut in 1956 in a black-and-white film called, “Carib Gold.” The small film launched a huge award-winning career, gaining fame for her roles in “Sounder,” “Roots,” and as a fictional African-American woman who lives through slavery in “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman.”
In a defining moment of the film, Pittman walks up and drinks from the whites-only water fountain.
“Well, when I’m working, I just tell everybody. I said, ‘I don’t care what you see. Please don’t tell me about it… because I work so organically,'” Tyson said. “So the next day, when I came on the set, I knew something had happened. And I simply said, ‘Please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know…’ and people were talking about the walk. I said, ‘What walk?'”
That walk led to two Emmy Awards in 1974, including lead actress in a drama, making Tyson the first black woman to ever win in that category.
Almost 40 years later, Tyson won a Tony Award for best actress in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She starred alongside Vanessa Williams, who was inspired by Tyson’s work ethic.
“She did not miss one performance ever. She’s 90 years old. There’s no excuse to not show up when Cicely Tyson can show up every day,” Williams said about Tyson.
“I have never missed a performance. Never,” Tyson said. “I mean, it just never occurs to me to miss a performance. I mean, it’s a job I have, right?”
Tyson said age does not hold her back.
“Age is a number, okay? We have the greatest gift that we could possibly ever have… And it’s this temple, okay?” Tyson said, laughing. “And if you take care of it, it will serve you well. I’ve never been a person who drank, who smoke, who did drugs. Never. Because I love life.”
It’s a life she’s always kept private, including her relationship with jazz great Miles Davis who put her on the cover of his 1967 album, “Sorcerer.” The two married in 1981 but divorced less than seven years later.
“I don’t really talk about it, but I will say this – I cherish every single moment that I had with him,” Tyson said.
The couple’s relationship was rocked by stories of infidelity, violence and Davis’ reputation for alcoholism, drug use and domestic abuse.
“What do they know? They’re assuming that it was because the kind of reputation that they perceived was this man,” Tyson said. “You know, I know a side… But that’s not the man I knew.”
Tyson’s reputation as a pioneer for black actresses has given her a unique perspective on inequality in gender and race.
“I’m going to my ladder,” Tyson said. “White man, white woman, black man, black woman on the rungs. And we’re holding on to the last rung. And those – fists,” she said, clenching her hands,”are being trampled on by all those three above, and still we hold on. That’s our strength. That’s the reason we survive — because we will not let go of that rung.”
It’s this perseverance that led a school in New Jersey to rename itself in Tyson’s honor.
Students at The Cicely L. Tyson Commuity School of Performing and Fine Arts got the chance to see her on Broadway last month — the first Broadway show for some of the students — where she is starring in “The Gin Game” with James Earl Jones.
“I cannot tell you what it meant to me to look out into that audience and see those little black faces there,” Tyson said, tearing. “So happy, so joyous, so full of love and wonder.”
One student said “Cicely Tyson means happiness to me.”
“I don’t think it gets any better than that, Cicely Tyson,” King said.
“No, I know that, I know that,” Tyson said. “That’s my mission for life.”
Photo credit: Cicely Tyson.