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Cicely Tyson Biography

Career Began In Modeling, Brought Her Talent To The Stage, Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black WomenSelected works



In the minds of many, Cicely Tyson is the embodiment of black womanhood. A naturally gifted actress, she nonetheless worked diligently to learn all the nuances of her craft. Although strikingly beautiful, she has refused to get by on her looks, demanding instead to be judged on her professional abilities. Tyson is often given credit for inspiring black American women to embrace African standards of beauty, rather than trying to make themselves over in the image of white America.

In selecting scripts, she has consistently searched for those that will offer a positive image of people of color to the public, and in the process, she has "developed an artistic identity that does not ignore, but actively challenges the two major stereotypes of the black woman in film and drama: the roly-poly, desexed black mammy and the 'high yaller' femme fatale," according to Ms. Because of her choosiness, Tyson has not been a prolific actress, especially in the latter part of her career; few scripts meet her discriminating standards. But the quality of her work—particularly in the landmark films Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—has assured her of a reputation as one of America's finest dramatic performers.

Tyson was born in the borough of East Harlem, New York, to parents who had emigrated from Nevis, the smallest island in the Caribbean's Windward Island chain. The move to America brought no prosperity to the Tyson family. Cicely's father worked at carpentry, house painting, and whatever other odd jobs he could find; her mother worked as a housekeeper; and Cicely herself stood on the street-corners selling shopping bags to supplement the household income.

Nevertheless, they were forced to rely on welfare to survive, and the actress remembers that more often than not, they ate corn-meal mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her mother sought to protect Cicely and her two siblings from the harshness of their environment by keeping them in church as much as possible and forbidding them to associate with the neighborhood children. But young Tyson loved to wander the city and explore its many possibilities, and she frequently hopped onto a bus or subway train and rode to the end of the line, just to see what was there.


Twelve Angry Men, 1957.

Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959.

A Man Called Adam, 1966.

The Comedians, 1967.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968.

Sounder, 1972.

The Blue Bird, 1976.

The River Niger, 1976.

Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991.

Hoodlum, 1997.

Because of Winn-Dixie, 2005.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2005.


The Dark of the Moon, 1959.

Talent '59, 1959.

The Blacks, 1961.

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, 1962.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, 1962.

The Blue Boy in Black, 1963.

Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, 1968.


East Side/West Side, 1963.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1974.

Just an Old Sweet Song, 1976.

Roots, 1977.

Wilma, 1977.

A Woman Called Moses, 1978.

King, 1978.

The Marva Collins Story, 1981.

Acceptable Risks, 1986.

Intimate Encounters, 1986.

The Women of Brewster Place, 1989.

Duplicates, 1992.

House of Secrets, 1993.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1994.

Sweet Justice, 1994.

Road to Galveston, 1996.

Bridge of Time, 1997.

Riot, 1997.

The Price of Heaven, 1997.

Ms. Scrooge, 1997.

Always Outnumbered, 1998.

Mama Flora's Family, 1998.

A Lesson Before Dying, 1999.

Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, 1999.

Jewel, 2001.

The Rosa Parks Story, 2002.



Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988, pp. 472-473.

Notable Women in the American Theater, Greenwood, 1989.


Ebony, May 1974; February 1981, pp. 124-132.

Houston Chronicle, January 24, 1996.

Interview, September 1997, p. 102.

Jet, October 28, 1985, pp. 60-62; December 19, 1994, p. 8.

Ms., August 1974.

New York, March 23, 1992, p. 62.

New Yorker, January 28, 1974.

New York Times, October 1, 1972; October 15, 1972.

People, May 31, 1999.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 27, 1997; March 11, 1998.

Time, October 9, 1972, p. 58.

Variety, March 23, 1992, p. 35.

—Joan Goldsworthy and Sara Pendergast

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