Many know the legendary actor Cicely Tyson from her role in the 1974 TV film adaptation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which she won two Emmy Awards. Tyson, now 96, will soon release her own autobiography, Just As I Am (HarperCollins, January 26).
She spoke at the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits Virtual on January 24 with film historian and author Donald Bogle, an authority on African Americans in film and entertainment history.
During the 30-minute conversation, Bogle asked about one memorable scene from Jane Pittman in which Tyson’s 110-year-old character makes a lengthy walk to desegregate a whites-only water fountain. “That was the most amazing thing,” said Tyson. “What I try to do is to embody the skin of the character.” She said she doesn’t go back to watch her films afterward: “The gratification is in the doing of it.”
Among Tyson’s many honors over her more than 60-year career include the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bogle quoted from President Obama’s dedication of that award, in which he noted how the actor has “shaped the course of history.”
She has also witnessed much history of her own during that time. Of working with African Americans in directing roles, Tyson said she is blessed to have lived long enough to see it happen. “It took so long for us to get to that point,” she said. “It’s a little painful to know that so many of us out there have talent that [has not been] recognized for so long, and suddenly here comes [Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry] who have made it their business to keep pushing forward until they broke that mold.”
Over her career, Tyson has seen the role of women in the entertainment industry change too. “I have never made money the reason I was working,” she said, adding that while, of course, she needed to put food on the table and raise her daughter, “it was the substance of the piece” at hand that kept her acting. She would have done Jane Pittman in “the basement of a basement” if she needed to, she said. “[Roles have] had to speak to something that had to do with us as a race or as a people, especially as women.”
In 2018, Tyson became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar, 45 years after her Academy Award–nominated performance in Sounder.
She offered this advice to those seeking change: “You have to hold on to what you believe in. You cannot let matters contrary to what you believe in discourage you from moving forward or achieving the goals that you are working toward.”