Just as I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson

I love reading Hollywood biographies and autobiographies. Usually I walk away thinking that said actor/actress/singer is a horrible writer, even though their life story was interesting. There have been a few surprises, though, like Alex Trebek’s The Answer IS… (review here), Sally Field’s In Pieces (review here) and Elton John’s Me (review here). Add Cicely Tyson’s to the list.

“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.” –President Barack Obama, 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony

Just As I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and mother, a sister, and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by His hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” –Cicely Tyson 

Just As I am by Cicely Tyson (Amazon)(AbeBooks) is an astounding book. I’ve known Tyson ever since I was a just-turned four year old watching Roots (Amazon) with my family when it premiered the week after my birthday in 1977 and she play Binta, Kunta Kinte’s mother. And then I got to know her when my oldest sister, who used to read to me, read me The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Amazon) (AbeBooks) after watching her on TV (available to rent on Amazon Prime Video or DVD for only $5 in the role. And who could forget Cicely’s portrayal of Sipsy in Fried Green Tomatoes? So you could say I knew a lot about her work, but not a lot about her life when I picked up the book. It’s a compelling story that was finally published just two days before the 96-year old actress and activist’s death in January.

I’m so glad I read this book. I’m going to try and convey how important this book is to read because of the multiple messages it sends. Tyson’s way of describing her life as a black woman and a black actress are very important to read in this day and age. She was born not long after women finally won the right to vote, She lived through the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Era, and right up into 2021, when we have had a black President of the United States and now a black female Vice President of the United States. She fought the fight for African American rights through the roles she portrayed and how she lived her life.

I had no idea until reading the book, because I knew so little of Tyson’s off-screen life, that she had a daughter. She doesn’t talk much about her daughter because her daughter values privacy. I can respect that. I rarely talk about my children at work or on social media anymore. I used to, then realized that some day, when they’re older (like the ages they are right now), they may not like all those pictures and stories of themselves out there for the world to see.

I also had no idea that she was involved with, and indeed married the great jazz musician Miles Davis until I read this book. I knew, from watching Ken Burns documentary Jazz that Davis was troubled with drugs and alcohol for much of his life. It surprised me the Tyson, who was usually so careful and deliberate about her choices (after a life-learning lesson of acting recklessly), would choose Davis. But as she says, the heart doesn’t pick who you love. She was wise enough to never give up her own apartment while they were together, and any time he went on a bender or messed around with other women, she left him and stayed at her own place. Finally, she’d had enough and divorced him, but still had fond feelings for him the rest of her life.

Tyson was always very careful about her appearance, yet for her acting roles, she often took unflattering roles because it was the truth of the character and the African American experience. She caught a lot of flack from her friends and family for it, but she didn’t want to be made up simply to look better on screen. She wanted the reality of the character’s situation to come through.

Cicely Tyson was part of some important parts of American History, from her Broadway performance in The Blacks, which was revolutionary for it’s time, to her above-mentioned roles in Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. After years on Broadway, Tyson made her film debut in the movie Sounder, based on the Newbery-winning novel about a family of sharecroppers. She won an Academy Award nomination. It would not be her last, but she never won the coveted Oscar. However, she was the first African American to receive the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She also was a Kennedy Center honoree, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in the United States, for her body of work, and her role in the cultural landscape.

Tyson also had strong faith in God, and she talks about His power and how her life was changed many times because of that faith. But she doesn’t hit you over the head with her faith, just shows you how it guided her on her journey through life.

Even if you’re not into “Hollywood” biographies, Just As I Am is an important memoir to read. It brings the realities of living while black in America into your home in such a way that it makes me, the very definition of white privilege, think harder about race relations beyond my youthful viewings of Roots and Jane Pittman and other readings on the subject. Don’t pass this one up!

This is the 4th library book I’ve read this year as part of my Library Love Reading Challenge.

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