Cicily Tyson

Historian Ruth Feldstein on the Death of Cicily Tyson

On January 18, Martin Luther King Day, PBS’ American Masters series premiered How It Feels to Be Free, a documentary film based on History Professor Ruth Feldstein’s book, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press). The award-winning book focuses on the impact of six legendary Black female performers on the Civil Rights and second-wave feminist movements. One of the six, actor Cicily Tyson, passed away last Thursday at age 96. 

We wrote about Feldstein's book-turned-documentary in the lead-up to the premiere and recently sat down with Feldstein to discuss Tyson’s death and her legacy.

What was your first reaction upon hearing the news of Tyson’s death, especially just after the premiere of the film?
I was shocked, and so sad. Although she was 96, Tyson had remained so vital for so long and had kept on finding new roles and new ways to contribute, most recently with her just-released memoir. The world is truly a better place for her having been in it. 

For those unfamiliar with Tyson’s work, what made her such a pivotal cultural figure?
Over the course of many decades, Tyson refused parts that she felt were degrading to black women and that reinforced historically entrenched stereotypes, even when that meant she did not have work for long stretches. She infused all of the dark-skinned Black women she portrayed—poor women, “ordinary” women, historical figures and more—with a dignity, grace and beauty that they had long deserved and had so rarely received in popular culture. In all of these ways, Cicely Tyson helped to redefine Black womanhood on stage, screen and television. Hers was a particular vision of black power—especially Black women’s power—one that circulated on movie and television screens around the world. 

Your book chapter on Tyson also acknowledges some of the limitations of the productions she was in, and how these choices were circumscribed. Can you explain?
Some people, at the time and since, lauded The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Tyson’s role as the title character but also felt that the made-for-television special emphasized Black endurance over organizing and social movements, a critique made more potent given that all of the more politically oriented (male) characters who organize to resist white supremacy are killed by racist whites. Critics were wary of a model of Black female heroism that seemed to rest so heavily on surviving and did not seem to acknowledge other strategies of resistance.

You also talk about how the film Claudine (1974), starring Diahann Carroll, pushed back against the portrayal of Black "welfare moms” in the Moynihan Report (1965), but also how Tyson’s role selection did the same. Would you elaborate?
Cicely Tyson soared to international superstardom in the 1970s in a series of distinctly unglamorous roles: productions that were set in the past but that were about black families and communities, and that asked what made Black families and communities “healthy” or not. These were the very issues and conversations that concerned Americans across a political spectrum in these years as they argued about welfare policy, poverty in urban areas, and education.

Cicely Tyson helped to redefine Black womanhood on stage, screen and television.

And the Moynihan Report?
Compiled by then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, as the report was officially titled, was a government-sanctioned study of “the Negro problem.” It attributed poverty, unemployment, crime, juvenile delinquency, illegitimacy and everything else said about black communities to an alleged preponderance of female-headed households, an ostensibly damaging matriarchy dangerously out of line with the white male-headed nuclear family.

And Tyson’s roles countered those notions?
Yes. In Sounder (1972), about a loving black family of sharecroppers during the Depression, Tyson played the part of Rebecca, the hardworking mother and wife who struggles to keep her family together when her husband is imprisoned. Although the film was set during the 1930s, its emphasis on a loving black family directly countered images of black families as “dysfunctional,” as caught in a “tangle of pathology,” and as damaged by black mothers who were overly dominant “matriarchs.” The romantic love and desire between Rebecca and her husband were particularly powerful.

Tyson talked about the importance of challenging prevailing ideas about Black women when she promoted Sounder: If it were not for unified, loving black families, she said “we would not be where we are today as a race of people.” She was countering images of black women—and black mothers specifically—that were popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s: as promiscuous “bad mothers” who were concerned only about getting the next welfare check. And her efforts, at least in some instances, had an impact. One white woman wrote to Tyson about the relationship in Sounder between the fictional Rebecca and her husband Nathan. This woman wrote that before she saw the film, “I never knew that kind of love went on between a Black man and woman. I thought you were sexual animals.”

Final thoughts?
We all owe Cicely Tyson so much. I am grateful that both my book and the film were able to capture Tyson’s artistry as well as her significant contributions to civil rights and feminism. And I hope that another generation learns about this trailblazing figure as a result.  

Thank you for sitting down with us.
My pleasure.