The Gold Standard

By Lottie L. Joiner

When legendary actress Cicely Tyson learned that she would be receiving an honorary Academy Award, the 90-something pioneer said she “just went to water.”

“I just started to ball and I couldn't stop myself. I'd given up getting an Oscar,” said Tyson during a private reception in her honor in Washington, D.C. “It was explained to me that an honorary Oscar is not only for my body of work in the industry, but for everything else that I have done with my career.”

And what a career.

For more than six decades, Tyson has been on Broadway, television and film. She’s won numerous awards for her work including eight NAACP Image Awards. In 1997 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2017 was named a Woman of the Year by Elle magazine.

A native of Harlem, Tyson’s religious mother didn’t initially approve of her daughter’s career choice. But after seeing Tyson in a play at the local Y, her mother came around.

“After I did [The Autobiography of Miss] Jane Pittman, I called her the following morning and said to her, "Well what?" She said, ‘I am so proud of you,’” remembered Tyson. “I have to tell you that if I had not heard those words from her, none of this would mean anything.”

Tyson is known for playing strong Black women. She says she made a decision to use her career to address issues that affect African-American women. It was her way of contributing to the fight for social justice.

“It was something that I needed to do because I was not the type of person to walk around the streets grieving, fighting,” said Tyson. “There are many ways to fight and there are many ways to win the battle.”

Former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman remembers longtime National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height telling her that Tyson was a unique Black woman who never forgot to lift as she climbed.

“Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women and if you ever want to hear the words of Mrs. Bethune come alive today, you just ask Cicely Tyson to say the last phrase, ‘I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you, finally, a responsibility for our young people.’ And that has been the life for me that Cicely has lived,” said Herman.

Minyon Moore, co-author of the bestseller, For Colored Girls Who Considered Politics, has known Tyson for more than two decades.

“She means love. She means humanity. She means grace,” said Moore. “And she is the person that we hope [to be]. We will hold [her] up for the rest of our lives, because she is the gold standard.”

And today Tyson is winning. Forty-five years after being nominated for an Oscar for her role in Sounder, she is finally getting her due.

“You know there is something that I have come to realize,” said Tyson. “When you make a decision to do something, you hope that it will achieve what you wanted it to achieve, but there's no guarantee. And the world only comes once you follow your own intuition. I have for the longest time referred to it as divine guidance. I realized that despite all the ups and downs and all arounds, that I had made the right decision and that I stuck with it no matter what happened. I stuck with it.”

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