A Star is Born . . . And Self-Made  A noted Black actress tells her story.

Just As I Am

By Cicely Tyson with Michelle Burford (2021, HarperCollins) 416 pages with index, acknowledgements, and photos.

         1. The Unremembered

 

What instantly struck me about actress Cicely Tyson’s autobiography is the absence of any account about the making of the 1966 film, A Man Called Adam, in which she had the female lead as Sammy Davis Jr.’s character’s girlfriend. The film starred Davis as a guilt-ridden and embittered jazz trumpeter named Adam Johnson and featured Tyson, Ossie Davis, Jeanette Du Bois, Johnny Brown, Lola Falana, and jazz great Louis Armstrong among its notable Black cast. Indeed, the film had more Black players than any other Hollywood released in 1966 which certainly made it a big deal among the Black adults around me at the time. It was the major American race film of that year. Also featured were Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra Jr., who along with Davis, gave the film the tinge of the Rat Pack. The director was Leo Penn, father of Sean Penn. While not a huge box office hit, it did respectably well, and certainly attracted Black filmgoers.

Zora Neale Hurston eliminated ten years of her life in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Tyson did something like this when she changed her age from 30 to 20 when she started her acting career.

Despite the clichés of the tragic male genius story, the film is a serious drama about the life of a Black jazz musician, a Black creative artist, which at the time was still rare. (A Black person may, on occasion, be presented as talented in previous jazz movies, but his talent and what drives him are not the subjects of the film.) Moreover, Sammy Davis Jr.’s production company, Trace-Mark, backed the film, and the producer, Ike Jones, was Black, the first time a Hollywood film was produced by a Black. Altogether, A Man Called Adam is a significant film in the history of Black cinema, an important, if flawed, film of its time, and a striking piece of work on Tyson’s acting resume. It was her biggest film role by far to that point. All of that should have made it worthy of discussion in her book, not as much as her career-shaping roles in Sounder (1972), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Roots (1977), and A Woman Called Moses (1978). But certainly, working with Ossie Davis, who is mentioned a few times in her book, Sammy Davis Jr., at the height of his fame when this film was made, Sean Penn’s father, Leo, and Louis Armstrong, whose role in this film may have been the best, the most complex, of his career, was worth talking about. Yet all Tyson has to say about it in her autobiography is a passing reference to it on page 274 when she talks about how Frank Sinatra offered to help get her out of Russia after she finished acting in a bad film there:

 

Somehow or another, while I was en route home, word got around to Frank Sinatra that Russia was giving me a hard time crossing its borders with a pet. Frank and I go way back, to the days when we both played in the 1966 film A Man Called Adam. (274)

 

The film becomes nothing more than an opportunity to name-drop Frank Sinatra. In any case, she misremembers. Sinatra was not in the film. His son was, although Sinatra the elder surely visited the set. Why did she not talk about that film? Autobiographies are sometimes more interesting for what they leave out than for what they include. Zora Neale Hurston eliminated ten years of her life in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Tyson did something like this when she changed her age from 30 to 20 when she started her acting career. “Six decades would go by before I let the public in on what was frankly never any of their business,” she writes. (133) In writing an autobiography, what is the public’s business? In writing one, Tyson has decided that something certainly is the public’s business.

 

 

         2. Time Remembered

 

As a teenager, Cicely Tyson thought for a time that she might become a professional musician. As she recalls, “During a concert one Sunday, I played from memory, ‘Poet and Peasant,’ a fifteen-page overture composed by Franz von Suppé. At the close of the piece when I stood and bowed at the warm applause, I said to myself, I will never ever do this again.

“Sure enough, on that afternoon I walked away from the piano, and it was the last day I set fingers on ivory. Not only had the Franz piece worn me out, the piano demanded far too much of my time. I’d wake up early to rehearse for two hours before school, only to return to that hard bench before bed. ‘All that money wasted!’ my mother fussed.” (85-86, italics Tyson)

The passage reveals a great deal. Although Tyson does not pursue a music career, it is clear that she has an artistic or expressive bent. She next becomes a hairdresser (which may explain, in part, the variety of hairstyles she adopted throughout her life). In order to earn more money to support her daughter, she becomes a typist/stenographer for the Red Cross, but she intensely dislikes the job. When a co-worker receives a gold watch at her retirement ceremony, Tyson loudly remarks, “I’m not gonna be any place for no thirty years until somebody hands me a wristwatch and says, ‘Thank you very much,’ I’ll buy myself a watch.” (120)  Unsure at first, she jumps at the chance to become a model, which she finds far more enjoyable work. From modeling, she falls into acting, which turns into her life’s work, her true calling.  She emphasizes how God, the Christian deity, keeps steering her—the modeling and acting seem like accidents, things dropped into her lap—but she throws herself into the work with considerable passion once the door is open. So, while it may be true that it is through God’s engineering that she becomes an actress, there is a great deal of self-steering as well, that is, seizing the opportunity once it is presented to her. One has to know oneself to decipher rightly the script of God’s wonder-working guidance. There is always the chance for misreading.

The passage also shows the tension between Tyson and her mother, one of the major themes of the book. It is her mother’s idea that Tyson take piano lessons, never a desire of Tyson herself. Tyson lives with her mother until she is thirty, except for the brief interlude when she marries at the age of 18 because she is pregnant, a marriage her mother insists on despite Tyson’s resistance to a forced marriage. Tyson leaves her young husband after two years, taking their daughter with her, never seeing him again, because she hates the confinement of the marriage and is not in love with her husband. Her mother disapproves of her daughter’s career choices, particularly acting, until Tyson becomes a success, and Tyson is driven to become a success to signal her own disapproval of her mother’s assessment of her.

While it may be true that it is through God’s engineering that she becomes an actress, there is a great deal of self-steering as well, that is, seizing the opportunity once it is presented to her. One has to know oneself to decipher rightly the script of God’s wonder-working guidance. There is always the chance for misreading.

There are three particular milestones in Tyson’s life: first, she became the first Black to be featured regularly on a television drama series when she became a supporting player in 1963-64 television drama about a New York social work agency, East Side, West Side, starring George C. Scott. (It was a cutting-edge, socially conscious show that my family watched religiously, along with another such show at the time called The Defenders that starred E. G. Marshall.) Tyson also became known as a trendsetter during this time as she wore the “natural” hairstyle, what later became known as an Afro. It was unusual to see a Black woman wear her hair in this way—Tyson said she adopted the hairstyle for a play she was doing at the time—and it caused quite a stir, although she was not alone in adopting it as both South African singer Miriam Makeba, actress/singer Abbey Lincoln, and folksinger Odetta wore their hair the same way and they hit the American public airwaves at the same time as Tyson or even predated her, although neither had the reach of a national television audience, even if East Side, West Side suffered low ratings. (Here is the cover photo of Miriam Makeba’s 1960 album and an Odetta album cover from 1959.) “I loved wearing my hair natural,” Tyson writes, “I felt beautiful with it, like the real me, which is why I continued with the style long after East Side.” (189) She wore her hair this way in A Man Called Adam (1966) and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Tyson’s mother, incidentally, did not like it. (One of my aunts adopted this hairstyle at this time and felt validated by Tyson but she also told me that many Black women gave her a hard time about wearing her hair that way, a style that would not achieve prominence until the latter part of the 1960s when the “Black is Beautiful” movement came into being.)

Second, Tyson emerged as a film actress during the Blaxploitation film era of the 1970s that featured a category of movies for Black urban audiences like the original Shaft trilogy (Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, and Shaft in Africa), Superfly, Black Caesar, That Man Bolt, Hell Up in Harlem, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Mack, Across 110th Street, and other such fare usually about sex machine Black men who are irresistible to White and Black women, beating White gangsters at their own game, killing racist White cops with impunity, and all other such cathartic fantasies. There were also send-ups like Blacula, Blackenstein, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, and Black Shampoo (a take on Warren Beatty’s Shampoo). Whites are almost always racist in these films; Black are victimized but ultimately succeed at getting revenge. (In many ways, nearly all these films are versions of westerns or Hollywood gangster movies.) The Black community was split about these movies: young people tended to like them; old people not so much. Tyson was among those who did not like them and particularly targeted Superfly, the most controversial of all Blaxploitation films in part because it was among the most financially successful. Black critics like Tyson accused Superfly of being a bad influence on young Blacks as it romanticized drug dealing and drug taking. (As I remember the film, it certainly romanticized and popularized wearing coke spoons.) “Ghetto life and vulgarity were glorified,” she writes. (5) Because Sounder, the film that earned Tyson an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a rural Black southern mother during the Depression, and that made her a movie star of sorts, was seen by many in the Black community, and was presented as the anti-Blaxploitation movie, Tyson herself became the voice of anti-Blaxploitation. Ron O’Neal, the star of Superfly would forever resent Tyson for this, thinking her attack on the film was largely self-serving, a way to get attention for Sounder which initially was floundering at the box office against Superfly. (O’Neal’s comments are here. Also see Zachary Manditch-Prottas’s review of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. For an appreciation of Tyson’s career, see Jason Vest’s piece here.)

I do not think that Tyson is necessarily wrong in her view of Blaxploitation films, but I do not think she is entirely right either.

In this way, as an image or representation, Tyson might be seen as the opposite of the major woman star of Blaxploitation, Pam Grier. If Tyson was the salt of the earth, noble Black woman, the enduring strong figure holding the family together as her character does in Sounder or as the noble face of Black history itself as she is in Jane Pittman, Grier is the tough, sexy, foul-mouthed, revenge-seeking, pistol-packing mama, an anti-Cicely Tyson, if you will. I do not think that Tyson is necessarily wrong in her view of Blaxploitation films, but I do not think she is entirely right either. Grier represented something about Black women and Black sexuality in the 1970s that was as important as what Tyson represented and who is to say which will be the most enduring. Moreover, this era of Black film is complicated by such fare as Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975) with Diana Ross and the Maya Angelou-scripted Georgia, Georgia (1972) with Diana Sands, and Ossie Davis’s Black Girl (1972), which, together, present Black women in a varied and complex light. Finally, it might very well be that the Blaxploitation craze made a film like Sounder possible: Hollywood discovered that there was a considerable audience for some sort of Black cinema, an audience starved for cinematic representation. Some enterprising Black and White liberal filmmakers would likely think, if this audience likes one type of movie about its experience, perhaps it might like another. The existence of a significant audience would breed experimentation, a testing of the extent and limits of the audience. In other words, had there been no Blaxploitation, Sounder may never have been made.

Third, Tyson married jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in 1981, a marriage that in Black circles, had something of the same status of that of Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael in 1968, symbolic. Davis and Tyson had been an item, as the gossip columnists used to say, back in the late 1960s. Tyson’s face graced the cover of Davis’s 1967 album, Sorcerer. (Davis put each of his three wives—Frances Taylor Davis, Betty Mabry Davis, and Cicely Tyson—on the cover of at least one of his albums.) The relationship fell apart because of Davis’s womanizing and drug addiction.

The latter brought Tyson back into Davis’s life in the 1970s as Davis was near-death because of his uncontrollable drug binges. He was unable to play any music for five years, unable to even touch his trumpet. Tyson restored him to health and the stage. But one has to suspect that this relationship was destined to fail. Tyson writes, “My marriage with Miles was a study in opposites. When our energies were in sync, the partnership was powerfully fulfilling. We played our roles to perfection: he, the ailing and yearning for a salve, and me, the willing healer, ever ready at this side with a vial of medicine.” (312)

She sounds more like a nurse with a patient than a wife with a husband, a set of obligations and compliances that is likely to strike both parties as a bad bargain in the long run. To be a nurse, she had to exercise a kind of control that was likely to chafe after a while. Davis began his womanizing and drug taking again and Tyson, no longer useful or wanted as a healer, humiliated by his affairs, angered by his self-destructive behavior, had no choice but to leave. Davis even hit her once when he mistakenly thought she had thrown a knife at him. Davis was alleged to have beaten his other wives.

Tyson restored Miles Davis to health and the stage. But one has to suspect that this relationship was destined to fail.

In his autobiography, Davis characterizes his relationship with Tyson in this way: “Cicely and I should never have gotten married in the first place because I never felt that way about her you know, sexually attracted; I think we would have done much better if we had just stayed friends. But she was insistent on us getting married and Cicely’s a very persistent and stubborn woman, who, most of the time, gets whatever she wants. What really bothered me about Cicely was how she wanted to control everything in my life, like who I saw, who my friends were, who would come over and all that.”1 This might be dismissed as Davis getting even with Tyson after she would not reconsider divorcing him, as he had asked. (339-340) “When Miles’s book was published in 1989, I never read it, though I heard that, unsurprisingly, he had some not-so-pleasant words to say about me. Miles was clearly concerned about how I’d react to what we both knew were lies. . .” (340) Yet the passage quoted above from Davis’s book matches Tyson’s characterization of herself, determined to get what she wants, stubborn even. She walked away from her first marriage, knowing exactly what she did not want, entirely on her own terms. Tyson’s attitude about her life is that she deserves something better. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is clearly displayed—in a way that shows both determination and insensitivity—in her reaction to her co-worker’s retirement from the Red Cross. The nature of Davis’s personality—profane, self-destructive, deceitful, insecure about his masculinity, temperamentally obsessed with being creative and being cutting edge—was such that the only way she could stay married to him and keep him alive was to control him. He could not control himself. But, as has been observed by many, his psychological makeup made him capable of producing the art he produced. Perhaps the problem was that they were opposite types of artists, that their art feed their needs, their egos, differently. She might have been more disciplined and achieved greater fame of a sort, (a Black actress, as she observed was only going so far in Hollywood before she hit the wall of racism) which made him jealous2, but he was clearly more charismatic, more iridescently brilliant because he had the advantage of being a man, of playing the sort of music that he played, and appealing to the type of audience that saw itself as hip. She was defiant too but being a woman may have blunted the nature of her defiance. When she started her acting career, she was sexually assaulted by famed acting teacher Paul Mann (141-142). She returned in a week to begin her acting lessons with him. That sure is defiance!

In the end, what is clear is that all autobiographers are, alas and inevitably, the heroes or heroines of their own text. Both Tyson and Davis accused one another of being racial fakes: According to Tyson, Davis railed constantly about Whites being racist but “kept a rotating cast of them in his bed.” (334) Davis complained: “Cicely has done movie and TV roles where she played an activist or something like that, a person who cared a lot about black people. Well, she ain’t nothing like that. She loves to sit up with white people, loves to listen to their advice about everything and believes almost everything they tell her.”3 As every reader should know, every autobiography, in its own way, subtle or blatant, settles the scores it needs to settle while disguising its subject’s insecurities.

1 Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, (New York: Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, 1990), 365.

2 “All you’ve got to do in this country today is just be on television and you’re more known and respected than anyone who paints a great painting or creates great music or writes a great book or is a great dancer. People were already calling me ‘Mr. Tyson,’ or saying, ‘I know who you are. You’re the guy who’s married to Cicely Tyson!’ And they would be sincere when they said that. It taught me that a bad, untalented person who is on television or in the movies can be more recognized and respected than a genius who doesn’t appear on the screen.” Ibid, 376.

3 Ibid, 367.

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