Stacy recommends: Just As I Am, by Cicely Tyson and Michelle Burford

This month I gave myself the gift of reading Just As I Am, the autobiography of Cicely Tyson.

Cicely Tyson is one of those people I grew up hearing about who seemed more like a goddess than an actual human being to me. By the time I was born, she was already a middle-aged woman, on her way to becoming one of the most revered actors in history. As a child, I heard her name often and looked up to her, even though I really did not fully understand who she was. As I grew older, I learned that she was a bold, brilliant woman who created an extraordinary legacy through her artistry.

Just As I Am is a 400-page journey through Tyson’s life, a life of trauma, serendipity, adventure, hard, hard, work, and constant devotion to God. Cicely Tyson’s way was not easy, and her success did not come quickly. She writes about spending a good deal of time in roles far removed from the screen and the stage, such as that of clerical worker, a post she landed based on her ability to bang out 100 words per minute. All the while, she continued to go on auditions, never losing sight of her purpose and her mission. Her determination to succeed was a blessing to the world, and, most especially, to us Black women. As an actor, she was determined to portray us in all our nuance, complexity, and beauty – and did so, inimitably, for over six decades. She defined her own path and inspired innumerable Black women artists to do the same.

“When someone sees you headed in a direction, and that person throws a brick into the road, that is the precise moment to forge onward, with greater velocity, toward your destination.” – Part 1: Planted, Chapter 10: Center Stage, p. 143

The autobiography reveals how central spirituality and belief in the supernatural were to Tyson’s life and work. Throughout the book, she describes her creative path as being preordained, and one from which she refused to be deterred. Cicely Tyson was a believer in God, destiny, and intuition. Just as important, she believed in herself. It inspires me that she took no crap as an actor during a time when Black women were expected to just be happy to have a role. She refused roles she felt were unworthy of her and her people. And she poured herself into each role she did take with passionate preparation and meticulous attention to her characters’ inner worlds. It is what made her so convincing, her performances so memorable. She blazed not one but many trails for the Black women actors and directors who came after her, several of whom became her friends. (One of those women, Viola Davis, wrote the foreword to the book.)

“Even when Black women are written into a story line, we are often cast as characters with no evident depth or backstory, largely included as scaffolding to hold up narratives centered on whites.” – Part 2: Rooted, Chapter 17: The Ladder, p. 267

When you live to be 96, as Tyson did, you have earned the right to preach. While telling her story, Tyson frequently takes a step back to reflect on a lesson learned and to impart hard-earned wisdom. Two traits she valued and encouraged were independence and self-determination. Although her tumultuous marriage to the astoundingly gifted and hopelessly tortured Miles Davis receives a lot of attention, she spent most of her adult life as a single person. She believed in a woman having a space of her own, whether she was married or not, a belief which she held true to by maintaining a separate residence the whole time she was married to Miles Davis. She was also a strong believer in Black creative entrepreneurship, knowing that Blacks could never rely on a White-owned studio or production company to compensate us fairly or give our stories the attention they deserve.  

” To soar toward what’s possible, you must leave behind what’s comfortable.” – Part 3: Bountiful, Chapter 22, A Strong Harvest, p. 358

Reading about Cicely Tyson’s struggles and triumphs reminded me of two important lessons: don’t be afraid and don’t ever give up. She could have kept on typing, but she knew that was not her purpose. She could have given up after a traumatic event in her teens that changed the course of her life for over a decade. She didn’t. After years of acting in various productions, she got her first major feature film break at 47, playing an iconic role for which she received a mere $6,000. But the role resonated, Tyson persisted, and more money came. Even when she had to settle for low pay, she never settled where her craft was concerned, always picking her roles carefully and refusing to compromise on her values. She got the best she could get for herself, and anybody alive can learn from that example.

Reference

Tyson, C., & Burford, M. (2021). Just as I am (1st edition). HarperCollins Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: