Cicely Tyson – A Fashionista, an Academy Award Winner, a Beautiful Black Woman

The tributes are flowing like a river in mourning from Hollywood heavy weights, and particularly those beautiful black women who have risen to their heights in the film industry; in part because of the trail the incomparable Cicely Tyson blazed.

Cicely Tyson at Lena Horne 80th Birthday party June 23, 1997 N.Y.C. © copyright John Mathew Smith 2001 - https://flickr.com/photos/36277035@N06/5113077498 (archive).  cc 2.0

Tyson’s career spanned more than seventy years. She insisted on playing strong black female characters, often refusing to continue to be typecast as a servant, maid, or slave. Tyson’s awards include a Tony, three Primetime Emmys, one Screen Actors Guild Award, four Black Reel Awards, a Peabody, and an honorary Academy Award.

American film star Cicely Tyson during press conference in Utrecht, 1973. (PD)

She lived a long life, passing on to that other place, likely dressed elegantly even at 96.

Cicely Tyson at The Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection Fashion Show during New York Fashion Week, February 13, 2009 at Bryant Park. ( PD)

In tribute to Ms. Tyson, I am re-posting an article I wrote in 2005 called Black is Beautiful.

Yes…Black is Beautiful

By Ingrid Walter

 

“Black is Beautiful” was one of the most popular expressions of the 1960’s, a time when Afro-Americans and people of Afro-Caribbean descent were waking up to the psychological chains that burdened them, because of their legacy of slavery and colonization.

 

Those days, huge Afro hairstyles were the rage, men and women sported colourful African grab and called themselves Black as opposed to Negro or Coloured. It was an attempt by people of African decent to turn a negative phrase into a positive, and to dismiss the terror of colour distinction that plagued millions of people not only in North America but also throughout the world.

 

When I think about colour and how its associations, can depress and even paralyse, I think often of great writers like Toni Morrison, our own Austin Clarke, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Jamaica Kincaid, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, because so much of their work deals with the experience of being coloured.

 

To quote Morrison from her extraordinary first novel, The Bluest Eye, “Each night Pecola prayed for blue eyes. In her eleven years, no one had ever noticed Pecola. But with blue eyes, she thought, everything would be different. She would be so pretty that her parents would stop fighting. Her father would stop, drinking. Her brother would stop running away. If only she could be beautiful. If only people would look at her."

 

Those words have always haunted me because they represent pain and misguided thought, something that we still see today, some forty years after that wonderful piece of literature by Morrison was written.

 

We have come a long way in terms of how we view ourselves as people of colour since then, however adults and young people alike, today in our community, still have not fully embraced the notion that Black is truly beautiful.

 

Dark skinned children continue to come to their parents; I have been told, telling them that they wish they were white. I have often thought that the associations that society has made with the word black are at least in part responsible.

 

Historically the word black has been associated with evil. Black magic and the black cat that spells danger and who, if crosses your path, is a sign of bad luck, provides a couple examples. Darkest Africa was a phrase often used by white intellectuals when describing the continent. Black magic deals with evil and sorcery. “ Darkness in reality is ignorance. Light is merely knowledge and knowing,” is another popular phrase that illustrates the distinction. Hell has been referred to as black as the pit and black has been used  to define depression, grief, despair and death.  Judges when passing the death sentence once wore a black cap. In addition, if you surf the web for associations with words like ebony and black you are likely to come across some disturbing stuff.

 

We can also add; that the majority of images our children and we see on television, in magazines and in advertising are still largely predominantly white, but that is changing. Has it gone as far as to embrace that silky, dark chocolate skin tone that is so beautiful? Based on my observations I have to say no.

 

We do have phrases in our community like “ the darker the berry the sweeter the juice” which is an attempt at celebrating blackness and or darkness. There is Ebony magazine which gets its name from that, the now rare, extremely sturdy, satin like wood that comes from Africa. However, it appears we still have some distance to travel to convince ourselves that Black is truly beautiful.

 

When I was growing up in Jamaica, I often thought of the unfairness of dividing people along colour lines.  When I came to Canada, I told my friends that I wished I was tall and very, very dark, so as to try to jerk their minds into looking beyond what we had become accustomed to, a world where the fair skinned women and men were revered and pursued, while dark skinned men and women, despite how gorgeous they may have been, were not embraced in the same way.

 

I also realized that the roots of this bias came from slavery and a colonial past. I was lucky enough at high school to learn about the categories the English divided us into, depending on how much white blood we had. Even the miniscule fraction of 1/16th white had a category and historically those distinctions often placed the slave either in the position of house slave, if light skinned or field slave if dark or black.

 

Two centuries have past since the end of slavery and over 40 years have gone by since the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 60’s. Many have forgotten the phrase. Some of us have never even heard of it. But based on what I still see and hear about how we view black skin, no matter what colour we are, we probably should wake up every morning and say to ourselves, yes, black is beautiful.


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