Her highness was embarrassed.
It was nearly 11 years ago when I talked with Hollywood legend and trailblazer Cicely Tyson, who — in her 80s at the time — was about to be presented with the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor.
The Harlem, New York, native would be the 95th recipient of the citation, which is given for outstanding and notable achievement by an African American.
This was a huge moment.
Ms. Tyson — as she preferred to be called — was walking royalty to generations of Black folks who felt seen because of her amplified presence.
But on this day, Ms. Tyson was embarrassed.
Humbled, to be sure. But also embarrassed.
She drew a deep breath, let out a long sigh and giggled at the idea that the civil rights organization, which she’d long supported, would want to honor her in such a way. And then she spoke to me.
“I tell you,” she said slowly, “I haven’t gotten used to the idea yet. I don’t know when I will, but every day I review it and I haven’t gotten used to it yet.”
But she had no choice. She earned those flowers.
Ms. Tyson died on Thursday afternoon. She was 96. While she was here, she opened doors for generations of Black women — especially in the very fickle, very slow to progress world of Hollywood.
She first made waves after being discovered by an Ebony magazine photographer, a move that kicked off her career as a fashion model.
But Ms. Tyson — a standout, dark chocolate beauty of a woman – was never one to rest on pretty.
She had acting acumen, and she showed out in television series, including East Side/West Side and of course in the long-running soap opera Guiding Light.
She also took to the stage, and was a part of the original cast of The Blacks, the longest-running off-Broadway nonmusical of the 1960s. That play featured a soon-to-be who’s-who of Black Hollywood, including James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr.
In 1972, she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Sounder. And in 1974, she nabbed two Emmy Awards for her work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, perhaps her most poignant and recognizable piece of work.
In truth, her accomplishments could fill a book — and they did. She released Just As I Am: A Memoir just two days before her death and finally gifted us with her personal truth from her own perspective.
Her work was powerful. Yet even with all her victories, Tyson remained coy.
I asked her why.
“I suppose it depends in terms of what you hope to achieve in the course of your residence here on earth,” she told me. “I don’t think that I have begun to scratch the surface of what I would like to achieve — possibly that’s the reason? I spoke to some young people the other day, and they said now that you have arrived, what else are you going to do? I simply said to them – after I gathered myself together — the day I ever feel that I have arrived it’ll be over. And so I constantly think of myself as trying to achieve. Reaching, consistently, never having reached.”
The day before Tyson’s passing, another Golden Girl – the Oscar-winning Cloris Leachman – died at age 94. They both shared a quality that made you think they’d live forever, or that death — for them, and perhaps only for them — wasn’t imminent.
But as a Black woman, Tyson’s story was significant to a community of people who didn’t often see themselves in film, on TV or on the stage – a battle that is still being fought in the industry. Her gorgeous, chocolate-hued skin made a statement.
Tyson was here. She was accomplished. And she would – even as she approached her twilight years — never rest.
Always forward, never backward.
For herself. And for the rest of us.
Back then, Tyson jokingly shared with me that she always found herself speaking in metaphors. When I tried to needle her again about her accomplishments, she gave me another one.
“If you sit down to a meal and you eat just enough to satisfy your appetite, you get up from the table fulfilled, but not filled. If you stay too long at the table, you then become filled to the point where sometimes you cannot get up. And the next thing that comes around is sleep. You become inactive. You can’t function anymore for a while. I never, ever want to be in that state. I have — since I was a child — been curious about life, people, places, things. My mother used to say I was a nosy child,” she said before she broke out in laughter. “I wanted to know everything. There was nothing that anyone could say to me that did not evoke the question why.”
And that’s why – even down to the very last days of her life, I imagine — she stayed hungry, curious and vocal.
She was pleased with the progress she was able to see over the course of her nine decades. But she wasn’t satisfied. She carried the torch and opened the door.
But it’s time for someone else to finish the marathon.
“The men in the industry have been able to achieve levels that women haven’t been able to touch. And I’m referring to the types of roles that the men are able to play. The salaries. I don’t think you can name one woman, including Halle Berry, who was the first Black woman to win an Oscar, who can begin to compete for the kind of salary that any of the Black males are able to command in the business,” she told me.
“I don’t know one Black actress who works with the consistency of a Denzel Washington. Not even Angela Bassett is able to do that with the major work that she has projected. So this ladder stands with us and we’re on the last rung of the ladder, just holding on for dear life and having those above us trample our knuckles until it bleeds. But some of us are determined to hang on until we can move up another rung.”
Rest well, Ms. Tyson. Your work here is done.
And it was magnificent.