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  • Skyla Jewell-Hammie

Cicely Tyson: The Legacy She Left for Black Women

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Renowned actress Cicely Tyson died this past Thursday at 96 years old. Her beautiful presence on and off the screen created an inspiration for Black actresses; present and future. Tyson worked hard to create a space that dismantled the stereotypes that revolved around Black women.

Tyson always worked hard, since living in New York City’s East Harlem community during the 1930s. She first started selling shopping bags on street corners to help out her family, according to The Root.

After working through unamusing jobs, Tyson wanted to move onto bigger and better things.

After landing modeling jobs while working a simple 9–5, Tyson went on to become a star in print and runway. She worked to perfect her style while attending beauty school.

Inevitably, Tyson was noticed for her grace and presence. She starred in her first motion picture: The Spectrum, an emotional film about the fight for equality. Although the film failed and was never released to the public, this is where Tyson found her voice in acting.

She first started in Broadway shows and worked her way up to star-studded screenplays that showcased amazing presentations of her talents. Not long after, she dipped her toes into film and appeared in major TV productions.

Since 1972, she has been nominated for and won countless awards leading up to her very last day on this earth. She was the first of many, and she paved a path for Black actresses and Black communities across the country. Her name shines bright on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, according to the Root.

Tyson wanted to create a space catered to the dismantlement of stereotypes and microaggressions that affected Black women daily.

For example, a lot of Black women are told that our natural hair is unprofessional. With this, many Black women feel insecure about their true selves. Tyson displayed her true self and wanted to make sure other women could too.

Black Girl Magic exists and Tyson may have coined it. She wore her afro and other styles for herself and nobody else. She shined in her Black Girl Magic aura that inspired a nation of Black women and even sparked a backlash from people who couldn’t handle the thought of being ones’ true self.

In an interview with Boston Globe in 1972, Tyson said, “Black women would come up to me and say I was in a position to project a beautiful Black image. Instead, I was distorting the image. [They said] that my hairstyle was embarrassing and humiliating to Black women,”

She was unapologetically herself and very gracious with it even through backlash throughout the start of her career. She respected herself and respected others. She wanted to live her life to the fullest; helping and uplifting the Black community through her work, even if some wouldn’t notice her impact yet.

She chose her roles specifically to create an impact on and for the Black community. She knew she had a voice and a platform and she was going to knock down barriers to achieve it.

Growing up, I remember watching her in Madea’s Family Reunion. Her role and speech in that movie moved my Black, hard-working father, while I sat there, ignorant to her beautiful and wise words. I cherish those words today.

“Do you know who you are? What happened to the pride and the dignity and the love and respect that we had for one another? Where did it go? And how…how do we get it back? I’ma tell you. Young Black men, take your place. We need you. Your sons and daughters need you. Did you understand what I just said? You were sold off and had no choice, yes, but now it’s time to stay. Take your place. Now! Starting now! Starting now. Young Black women, you are more than your thighs and your hips. You are beautiful, strong, powerful. I want more from you. Take your place. I want every single one of you; young man, young woman, turn to the next person standing alongside of you. Grab them and hug them and tell them that you love ’em. Tell them, ‘If you need anything, come to me.’ ‘If you need somebody to talk to, come to me.’ ‘I’ll give you the shoulder, I’ll give you the hug,” said by Aunt Myrtle, Cicely Tyson’s beloved character in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006).

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