Cicely Tyson is such a household name in Hollywood that any memoir from the venerable nonagenarian actress would be sure to find an audience keen to know the secret behind her art and her endurance in the industry. She released her memoir Just As I Am, on Tuesday, January 26, 2021; two days before she passed away on Thursday, January 28.
In her memoir released Tuesday by HarperCollins, Tyson relayed that she originally never had any intentions of ever sharing her story. Rather, she wrote, she now “has something to say” and was ready to share “how my tree, my story, first sprung into existence. How its roots, stretching far beneath the soil, have nourished and anchored me.”
At 96-years-old, the beloved actress has had a stellar career that has spanned more than six decades, starring in a myriad of critically acclaimed projects such as Sounder, Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to name a few. She had also been recognized for her work in theater, feted as a style icon, and received both an honorary Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among a host of other accomplishments.
Throughout her memoir, Tyson reflected on her journey from her early life, in which she shared the story of her early pregnancy; her career jumpstart as a model, which eventually led to acting; and her up-and-down relationship with jazz legend Miles Davis who passed away in 1991.
In memory of her passing, below are some of the highlights found in Just As I Am.
With an impressive resume of work on the stage and on both the small and big screen, Tyson reflected on some of her most popular roles including Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots. Tyson received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Rebecca in Sounder. Though she recalled the happy emotions she felt after learning of the film’s praise and nominations, Tyson also revealed the relief she felt for finally being able to prove her mother wrong, as her mother always expressed her doubts and opinions throughout her childhood. Though she lost to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret, Tyson wrote that she already won personally for having what she always wanted: “The affirmation of the dear woman who gave me birth.” In 2018, Tyson was awarded an honorary Oscar.
Of Pittman, Tyson writes “I would have done Jane Pittman in the basement of a basement” and said the character and story “was critical to the cultural moment” given “Blaxploitation had shifted into sixth gear with disgraceful movies.” To prepare for the role in which she would have to play a young adult up to a 110-year-old, she shared that she visited a home for the elderly, channeled the scratchy voice she would use to get time off from work for auditions and requested a local dentist to make her a gold tooth after envisioning the image of her character. The film, which Tyson said “marked the end of my anonymity,” went on to receive 13 Emmy nods and two Emmy wins for Tyson.
Of Roots, Tyson wrote that despite having “played more than a hundred roles in my time… millions will forever know me as Binta.” As for its memorable opening scene, Tyson admitted that they filmed it so many times she lost her voice by the end of filming.
When looking back at her myriad of roles, Tyson said, “there are traces of who I am in every woman I have portrayed” and each character has left her “with an emotional, spiritual, and psychological inheritance I will forever carry with me.”
On her relationship with Miles Davis
A continuous thread throughout Tyson’s memoir were details of her relationship with jazz legend Miles Davis. She reflected on meeting Davis for the first time while he lived in the same building as her friend Diahann Carroll. The two would eventually develop a relationship over time. Looking back on their journey, Tyson acknowledged the misperceptions the public had of Davis. “When the world speaks of Miles, the legend, they have no idea who the man really was,” she writes. Tyson later described feeling devastated after learning of Davis’ infidelity which led to her leaving him. But their paths crossed again for what she described as “Act Two” of their story in which she learned he was “back in cocaine’s grip” and enduring health issues such as his kidneys shutting down and wheezing as he spoke.
Though she was aware many wondered how “a church girl and a drug addict could ever possibly fit together” — Tyson reiterated that she never witnessed Davis use and recalled the moment he hit her once during an argument and she ripped off his weave — she wrote that she knew he needed someone “to save him from himself” and she “needed someone to save.” She helped him on a journey back to health and the couple eventually married but divorced years later after Davis’ infidelity began again. Davis eventually passed away in 1991, with Tyson expressing how she knows they both loved each other and formed a “deep connection, however flawed our union was.”
Tyson briefly discussed her first introduction with Cosby while starring as Princess Amara in I Spy then later co-starring with the comedian in The Bill Cosby Show. After filming a kissing scene, Tyson recalled the soundman hearing “some kind of ambient noise” which continued after each take. “The commotion, it turned out, was Bill’s heart thumping away in his chest,” she wrote. Though she didn’t comment on Cosby’s recent troubles, she said, “In all our years working together, he never laid a finger on me off set, but for that scene, I did get his ticker going.” She also mentioned that she and Davis would go on to have dinner occasionally with Cosby and his wife, Camille, and even married at the couple’s home in Massachusetts in 1981.
On prioritizing Physical and Mental Health
At 96-years-old, Tyson detailed how much she made her physical and mental health a priority. Routines she followed include eating a healthy serving of greens, going on walks and even doing pull-ups daily. “My bar is right in the doorway of my master bedroom. Soon as I get up in the morning, I do three sets of 20 pull-ups,” she writes. She also stressed that “continuing to take roles, well into my nineties, has been my sustaining force,” brushing off any retirement talks. “You can’t just stop or that’ll be the end of you. I aim to live… It’s what gets me out of bed, eager to do my pull-ups, and curious to discover the world anew.”
She Thought a call from the White House was a Prank
When Tyson was called by an aid for President Barack Obama informing her that he wanted to award Tyson with the Medal of Freedom, Tyson says she laughed and hung up thinking it was a prank. She then called her friend who’d once worked on Obama’s campaign, and her friend told her the woman who rang her did in fact work at the White House. “My manager, of course immediately got the White House on the phone and confirmed my attendance at the celebration.” When remembering the experience, Tyson expressed her joy and emotions for being the final recipient of the honor of Obama’s presidency.
Her hopes of her Legacy
Now that she was in her “twilight years,” Tyson wrote that it’s common for her to be asked what legacy she would hope to leave. “I want to go home knowing that I loved generously, even if imperfectly,” she wrote, adding that she also wanted to “be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves” and “did the very best that I could with what God gave me — just as I am.”
May her gentle soul rest in perfect peace.
Source: The Hollywood Reporter