A Grand Story Line in Harlem

Cicely Tyson, 1997. Photo: © John Mathew Smith.

By Steve Beard —

“We don’t have long here, children. Our hopes and aspirations may feel limitless, but our days are finite, our experiences fading in the twinkling of an eye,” observed actress Cicely Tyson in her recent memoir, Just As I Am.

“Death is a love note to the living, to regard every day, every breath, as sacred. ‘What is your life?’ the scriptures ask us. ‘You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes’ (James 4:14). The Spirit is ever beckoning us to heed that wisdom,” Tyson continued, “to get on with what we’ve been put here to do.”

Her autobiography was published one week before she died on January 28. She was 96.

Having stepped into more than 100 different acting roles over her illustrious career, Tyson was as mystically discerning about the characters she would portray as she was confident that God was authoring her “Grand Story Line,” as she called it. “I am a firm believer in divine guidance. Above all, I am God’s child, cradled in his unfailing arms, guided by his infinite wisdom,” she wrote. “Everything that is happening in my life is unfolding exactly as God has intended. There are no coincidences. Rather, there is a loving Savior who holds my future as securely as he does my life, and at every juncture, he is whispering his will, showing me the way.” 

Don’t be mistaken into believing that a life with navigation from above is necessarily an easy one. Her story testifies to that. Although she was a celebrated model, actress, and activist, she suffered crass indignities and discrimination as a Black woman. Although her pioneering roles presented her with a public platform, she was simultaneously on the receiving end of the brutality of bigotry.

“To ever heal these deep racial traumas – and seldom has it felt more urgent that we do – we must acknowledge that they indeed still exist, throbbing and tender beneath the surface, spilling over, like molten rage, into the streets,” she wrote. “Turning a blind eye to our history has not saved us from its consequences.”

Through it all, Tyson’s persistent excellence at her craft helped her capture three Emmy Awards, a Tony, and an honorary Oscar. She appeared in more than 25 films, 60 television shows, and 15 Broadway productions. She was honored by the Kennedy Center and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Tyson believed that the arts could truly be a force for good and expand the civil rights vision. “My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward,” she wrote. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tyson was the co-founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem. In 1995, a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, was renamed the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts.  

“I couldn’t have dreamed up a script more compelling than the one that played out for me,” Tyson wrote. “Who just happens to be approached on the street by a total stranger, only to have that man propose modeling, only to have that modeling work become a footbridge to the stage? To some, this might look like happenstance, a sequence of coincidences, a string of disconnected flukes. As I see it, my tide shift, my sharp turnaround, had the Savior’s handprints all over it. His sovereignty was apparent to me. It still is. The same Master who holds the firmaments in the crease of his palms, who commands oceans to recede, who maintains humanity’s entire existence with the mist of his breath – that God, the Source of time itself, the Creator of all life, has forever been directing mine.”

Just As I Am is not a conventional Christian bookstore devotional. That is not its intent. The confident testimony that appears is from one who grimaced through the broken marriage of her parents, her own unwed pregnancy, and her tumultuous romantic relationship with jazz legend Miles Davis. Through shipwrecks and sunrises, she consistently testified to the faithfulness of God.

At twelve, she began playing songs from the church hymnal on the piano. “During long afternoons as the sun’s mango rays painted shadows on our walls, I’d sit hunched over those chipped keys, soothing myself with the message of the hymn that has become my daily meditation: ‘Just as I am, without one plea/ But that Thy blood was shed for me/ And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee/ O Lamb of God, I come! I come.’”

Strong roles. As an actress, Tyson was outspoken about refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people – even if it meant going without work. The roles she did chose, however, accentuated her brilliance. In 1972, she portrayed Rebecca, the wife of a Louisiana sharecropper in Sounder. Tyson won an Emmy for her portrayal in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” culminating in an unforgettable scene when she sips from a whites-only drinking fountain. Over the years, she played Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, and Castalia in the mini-series “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” 

In 1977, she became part of television history by playing Kunta Kinte’s mother in the TV series based on Alex Haley’s “Roots.” Airing over eight consecutive nights at the end of January 1977, the series blew apart the Nielsen ratings. At that time, the final episode became the most-watched TV production with 51.1 percent of all American homes tuning in for the epic story.  

Fast forward through her seven-decade career and, at the age of 88, Tyson became the oldest person to win a Tony award in 2013 for her role as Mrs. Carrie Watts in the Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” One notable part of Tyson’s performance triggered a newsworthy Broadway reaction when the audience joined Tyson in singing the classic hymn “Blessed Assurance” during the second act.

“From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its mostly black cast, draws in large numbers,” reported The New York Times. “When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.”

The gospel song was a special touchpoint for Tyson. She dedicated a third-row pew at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, her home congregation, to her mother’s memory. The plaque reads, “To mother – Blessed Assurance,” a reference to the beloved hymn. 

“On Sundays when I take my seat near her name, I think of all she endured, the many times she surely wanted to give up but pressed onward,” Tyson writes in her book. “I recall her swaying, eyes tightly shut, as the words of that hymn washed through her. ‘This is my story, this is my song,’ she’d belt out during the refrain. ‘Praising my Savior, all the day long.’ Her powerful testimony, grounded in grace and nourished in glory, has since become my own.”

At the age of 93, she gave a message to her home congregation about her religious upbringing. “We were in church from Sunday morning to Saturday night,” she said to laughter in the sanctuary. She played the organ, taught Sunday school, led the choir, and cleaned the church. “I decided at one point that if I ever lived to become a woman, I would never enter the portals of a church again,” she said jokingly – once again, to sustained laughter. 

However, the magnetism and solace of faith proved to be almost irresistible. “I look daily toward heaven for restoration, for spiritual healing,” she wrote in her book. “My true identity isn’t rooted in our history, grievous and glorious as it is. It is grounded in my designation as a child of God, the daughter of the Great Physician. In his care, I find my cure.”

Rest in peace, Sister Cicely. Rest in peace.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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