Photo illustration; image source: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Cicely Tyson Wants You to Keep Going

An interview with the 96-year-old legendary actress about her new book

In her forward to Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am, Viola Davis writes, “She is not just the performer who has so deftly captured the breadth of the human experience, with all of its unslicked edges. She is Cicely the woman, someone who has grappled with the fears and fragilities many of us carry.” How else can one encapsulate all that Tyson holds in her tiny yet formidable frame?

For eight decades, Cicely Tyson has captured our hearts and our dreams whether on the small screen in Roots or How to Get Away With Murder, the silver screen in The Help or Sounder, or the theatre in The Trip to Bountiful and The Gin Game. Now she can add author to her multi-hyphenate identity.

In Just As I Am, Tyson writes about her humble beginnings in Harlem with her West Indian parents, the adolescent pitfalls, the false starts, the acting and theatre intrigue, as well as her love life, particularly with the late great Miles Davis. There is wisdom, reflection, and, most of all, a softness to her prose that is a gift of a record from one of your most storied Black actresses.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ZORA: When you wrote of your pregnancy in one of the early chapters of your memoir, you reference Maya Angelou’s memoir and how she narrativized her own pregnancy. It was a completely different experience than your own. You also begin the third part of your book with a Gwendolyn Brooks quote. Are there any other authors who serve or have served as a balm for you?

Cicely Tyson: Oh my goodness gracious. I read all the time so it’s difficult for me to single out any one. I learned a lot from meeting Black history writers and poets especially. I was shocked at some of the information I gained from reading about them because I wasn’t really taught about Blacks in school. It came from my parents and my own curiosity.

Your often complicated relationship with your mother is one of the strongest threads of the book. Were you worried about which parts to divulge about your experiences together?

No, I wasn’t worried at all. Why would I be worried about it? I think I realize now that she is the reason for my success because I was determined to pull her on. She thought that I was going to live in the den of iniquity. She thought show business was sinful, and that was not what she wanted from me. I used her energy to push me towards achieving what I wanted as opposed to what she thought that I was going to do.

“The moment you begin to question if you’re going to make it, you’re putting limits on yourself.”

You are in your nineties now, and you didn’t get your acting career started until you were in your thirties. Nowadays, there is a lot of pressure that creatives feel to be successful as quickly and early as they can. What is your advice to these people?

You can’t put limits on yourself. You really can’t. The moment you begin to question if you’re going to make it, you’re putting limits on yourself. Just focus on your journey and stay on that track. Don’t let anyone or anything deter you from that. It’s not what people do to you, it’s what you let them do to you.

You wrote about the necessity of the roles you played in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, yet both contain difficult subject matter. How did you keep from being mentally drained while inhabiting these characters?

Well, when you are confronted with these things, you deal with them. You have to deal with them, and that’s where your strengths lie. If you avoid them, you do not accomplish anything. You are in fear. If you confront them and use those difficulties, you go to the next level. This is how you gain strength.

“I was thinking of leaving the business after I had done my first movie and I was told by another actress to not do that.”

There is a harrowing scene in your book where a theater leader by the name of Paul Mann, who ran a workshop, tried to sexually assault you. It seems like those in power have been taking advantage of actresses for decades. I thought about the #MeToo movement now. Can you talk more about it?

The interesting thing about the #MeToo movement is that when it happened to me, I went home and thought about the experience. I went there to accomplish something. I was told by Lloyd Richards, who was one of the greatest teachers of acting in the universe, was a co-partner for Mann. I was thinking of leaving the business after I had done my first movie and I was told by another actress to not do that. She told me to go to this school. Harry (Belafonte) went there, Sidney (Poitier) went there. A lot of the major Black actors went there because of Lloyd. I decided that that was where I was going. Well, I did not expect the experience that I encountered. I was so stunned at what occurred, I didn’t know how to deal with it. Lloyd was not there at the time. All I knew was that nothing was going to stop me from getting to Lloyd Richards. I went home and dealt with it. I asked God to help me.

When I was leaving, I was leaving, he (Mann) said to me, he gave me a date and said, if you’re still interested, come back. When I walked in the day classes started, he was in the middle of speaking. He stopped and said to me, “I thought I’d never see you again.” Well obviously he knew he did something right. I did not even respond to him. I sat down and listened to the lecture.

You also write about your sixth sense in the book. It reminded me a similar gift that I’ve found in my older female relatives. There were instances, as noted in your memoir, where your sixth sense had saved you from taking a role you really didn’t want or recognizing your ex Miles Davis’ philandering ways. Does it still happen to you from time to time?

All the time. If I ignore it, I get in trouble. My mother said ever since I was born, she knew I had the instinct. But I think my mother had it. I went to an elementary school that had no exercise gym. I had to graduate from that to go to a junior high school. They had a gym and I was so excited, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was running around and playing tag. My mother said to me that morning, “You’re very excited about this gym stuff. Be careful.” I was not in the gym 10 minutes and a girl tapped me and ran. She ran outside of the door, I ran after her, I slipped and fell and broke my arm.

Wow. Going back to Miles Davis, people are going to want to know about your relationship with him. You write that all your time together encompassed the music, the addiction, the cheating, and the love. You were his saving grace. When you were writing this book, was it hard to return to those memories?

No. One of the things I discovered about myself while writing this book was how amazing everything was right there. I have been told that I have a photographic memory. When someone asks me a question, a picture would just flash in my mind. I can see the two of us together and what occurred — his behavior and how I responded to his behavior. It all came back.

Wow. Thank you so much for writing this book and for giving us so much throughout the decades.

Thank you. God bless you for being with me all this time because if you weren’t with me, I wouldn’t be here.

Photo illustration; image sources: Michael Ochs Archives, Dennis Oulds/Central Press, Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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