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Just As I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson and Michelle Burford

“I am not one to feel as if I have arrived, for even at age ninety-six, I am still arriving.” (Page 175)

Last year I made a decision to read more about the people that I admire and pioneers in various industries that spark my interest. I’ve read some interesting memoirs that have helped me humanize some popular people, contextualize the public information that I already know and to appreciate their complexities. (You can read my reviews of Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba ,Wangari Maathai and Ellen Kuzwayo). Just As I Am is a memoir by Cicely Tyson and Michelle Burford. The title is inspired by Cicely Tyson’s favourite hymn Just As I Am which was written by Charlotte Elliot. Ninety-six years is a long time to live and surely, it’s enough time to have a lot to say. Just As I am was announced in October 2020 for release on 26 January 2021 and Cicely Tyson passed away on 28 January 2021. I cannot help but think that somehow, time already knew she could not leave without writing her own narrative. This is a book about so many things but what was striking to me are the accounts on purpose, friendship and love. Cicely Tyson’s growth in her purpose, friendships and love is inspiring. Viola Davis (you can read my review of her memoir here) gives the foreword to this memoir, titled “A Mighty Seed.” I view this as a full circle moment for Viola who in her own memoir expresses the importance of seeing a black actress (Cicely Tyson) on television for the first time, how that sowed a dream in her heart and helped her realize her purpose. As Cicely Tyson says in her acknowledgments, the foreword is “beautiful” and Viola Davis’ warm spirit shines through the pages.


Cicely Tyson gives the reader an insight to what she believes is her purpose. “Purpose courses through my veins just as surely as artistry does. It’s what gets me out of bed, eager to do my pull-ups, and curious to discover the world anew.” (page 345). One of the key things highlighted in this book is doing the best that you can with what you have. Cicely talks about wanting to contribute to the civil rights movement at one point and help bring change yet at first she thought being an actress limited her desire. However, some of the roles that she took on as an actress catapulted her influence and she found herself on different stages and podiums. In the end she realizes that she could protest through the mastery of her craft (this is something that I believe creators in the arts can learn from). Cicely Tyson never took on roles that she did not believe were not valuable to her purpose, even when she could not afford to not have a job. She highlights the importance of respect; self-respect, respecting her purpose and respecting the time you have in this world. Audacity. That’s what she had in abundance. I enjoyed her conversation on hair, as someone who takes hair seriously. Cicely Tyson was a woman of many “firsts.” She was the first  Black woman to star in a television drama. She was also the first Black TV actress to reveal her hair in its bare-naked state. She was castigated for it due to the negative portrayal of natural hair in the industry and in general, “Child, I set down the award they’d given me, marched right out the door, and never glanced back. How is it degrading to walk through the world displaying the hair I was born with? It wasn’t. It’s still not.” (Page 189) There is a level of self awareness that Cicely Tyson had (it comes with time and experience) yet her humility is also the foundation of it.



They do say love makes the world go round and most people have a lot to say about it (whether you agree with them or not is another story!). Cicely Tyson strived to love hard and unconditionally. Even with the one thousand complications of her childhood, she still found the heart to forgive her father for his misgivings (she credits this to love). She makes the space to forgive her mother for not creating a good relationship with her, which she desperately needed when she was younger. “I want to go home knowing that I loved generously, even if imperfectly. I want to feel as if I embodied our humanity so fully that it made us laugh and weep, that it reminded us of our shared frailties.” (Page 399) Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis…chaotic and dysfunctional. There are times when I was reading this memoir and I just wanted to pull out Cicely Tyson from that relationship with Miles Davis (they were also married for seven years). That’s one thing I found frustrating in this book! Cicely Tyson acknowledges that she did not have to stay but she came from a family where when things fell apart she’d wanted to save her mother and father in someway. So here was Miles Davis with his own problems, who needed saving. Cicely Tyson had found her project, she the saviour and Miles the lost soul that needed saving. In various heartbreaking accounts, she takes us through the complicated nature of her relationship with Miles. Not much is said about her daughter and as always a mothers love and affection refuses to be ignored. Cicely Tyson states that she had a complicated relationship with her daughter and leaves room for her to write her narrative in the future.


From her great reservoir of love flows

Cicely Tyson’s numerous friendships . From other legends, young and old to the least expected she could make a friend out of anybody. At most this read felt like a history lesson on iconic American stars. I found myself googling names and going down rabbit holes just to learn more. Her friendship with Arthur Mitchell was one that she held dearly till the time of his death and clearly until her own death. In their story I found that being surrounded by people who believe in you is key in friendships. Arthur Mitchell created The Dance Theatre of Harlem with the assistance of his friends including Cicely Tyson who was there from when it was just a dream too big to fathom. Just because there is no precedent to what your dream and vision is, it does not mean that it will not happen. Believing in the dream and cultivating the seeds is enough even if the world around you cannot imagine it as long as you surround yourself with people who can see the vision  and believe in the dream just like you. There is great power in purposeful friendships.


This was a good read. I learned more about Cicely Tyson, the person (a child, a sister, friend and lover). Her accounts on the film industry across the seventy years that she was an actress are eye opening. Her nature of friendships is encouraging. But that toxic love relationship with Miles? A good lesson on how not to save people who don’t want to be saved! There are parts of this book that feel like a good old chat with your grandmother who knows that her time is near and she has a lot to unpack with you. There is so much to say about this memoir and what better way to experience it than grabbing your own copy!  Just As I Am is Cicely Tyson’s truth.



 


Book Details

Title: Just As I Am Genre: MemoirAuthors: Cicely Tyson and Michelle Burford Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers (2021)Pages: 416 (Kindle version)

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