Book Review: Just As I Am

Click for a larger image of Just As I Am

by Cicely Tyson

Publication Date: Jan 26, 2021
List Price: $28.99
Format: Hardcover
Classification: Nonfiction
ISBN13: 9780062931061
Imprint: Amistad
Publisher: HarperCollins
Parent Company: News Corp

Read a Description of Just As I Am

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

When I was a teen sweeping sawdust at the butchery, where I worked after school hours, my uncle hipped me to jazz and Bird, Monk, Prez, and Lady Day. My prize procession was a Miles Davis album, Sorcerer, the third studio jam featuring the trumpeter fronting a band with pianist Herbie Hancock and horn man Wayne Shorter. It was the first time I saw the actress Cicely Tyson on the 1966 cover in all of her magnificence.

Image of Miles Davis Sorcerer Album coverBefore her untimely death at age 96, Tyson left a heartfelt record of her life, Just As I Am, a project co-written by Harvard-trained journalist and co-founder of the Oprah Magazine, Michelle Burford. As she reflected back on her long life and impressive achievements, the actress wanted to measure the quality of her years, the richness of her talents and the depth of her spiritual nature. Indeed, this exceptional book rendered only a fraction of her celebrated career and accolades, but rather a candid, bold view of her emotional and professional struggles that made up her best life.

Tyson, always straightforward and without shame, faced up to the image that very few people knew. “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 for six decades. Yet 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 a mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams.”

The actress, born of West Indian stock, writes that she was “born scrawny and a heart murmur.” Her parents started their married life in a Bronx tenement before moving to Manhattan’s East Side. Her father called her “String Bean,” his little quiet, curious girl who watched, listened, and recorded mentally what people said and did. Due to the plague of colorism that condemned dark skin and African features, her intelligence and humanity was judged unsightly. She felt ugly and rejected.

The Tyson household respected education and decency. Her mother gave her manners, integrity, and a sense of style. Her father taught her a trait of assurance, confidence, and gave her the maverick gene. They both concluded she was eternally curious, seeking her place in this life. Throughout grade school, she thought of the present and the challenges of poverty, but the promise of her future really intrigued her. Unfortunately, young love comes surprisingly during her senior year and she finds herself pregnant. Her parents had left her clueless about sex, lust, intimacy or poor choices. Following early motherhood and a resentful marriage, Tyson left with no place to go. She returned to her mother’s apartment, and later came to the home of her Aunt Zora in Mount Vernon.

Cicely Tyson possessed deep faith, believing there as divine intervention in all things. “There’s a path in this life with your name on it,” she wrote. “What God means you to have, no one can take away from you. It’s already yours. Our mission, as God’s children, is to surrender to what he has ordained – and to freely let all else just pass us by.”

After countless menial jobs, she took classes in charm and poise, posing for photographers, holding your body in pleasing postures. She worked modeling for catalogs and magazines. Soon the young woman committed herself to acting in 1956, enrolling in Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, where she was seated next to Marilyn Monroe. From there, she joined Paul Mann’s Actors Workshop, where she learned from teachers of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Billy Dee Williams.

With her first film, Carib Gold, Tyson learned how to study a character, re-reading the script over and over, absorbing the backstory and motivations. Viewers became familiar with her on popular TV shows such as East Side-West Side, I Spy, Outer Limits, King, and Law and Order. In fact, she earned 77 credits in TV and film, including A Man Called Adam, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Comedians, Sounder, A Woman Called Moses, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and A Lesson Before Dying.

While the book delves into the career achievements of Tyson, it rates alongside the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou in its emotional power and historical significance. She pulls no punches. She analyzed her character with a critical eye and American society as a Black woman dealing with trauma daily. “Black woman — our essence, our emotional intricacies, the indignities we carry in our bones — are the most deeply misunderstood human beings in history. Those who know nothing about us have had the audacity to try to introduce us to ourselves, in the unsteady strokes of caricature, on stage, in books, and through their distorted reflections of us.”

Soon the Tyson talent earned tributes, including an Oscar nomination for her role of Rebecca in Sounder (1972) and critical praise for the lead character of Jane in The Autobiography of Jane Pittman (1974). The acclaimed actress was chosen as a Kennedy Center honoree along with Rita Moreno, George Lucas, and Carole King. The NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal in 2010. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the first Black to receive an honorary Oscar in 2018.

One interesting thread in the book was her fierce relationship with the pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Diahann Carroll introduced her to Miles but she looked on when the musician divorced his wife Frances and partnered with singer Betty Mabry. That lasted a year. She was married to Miles during the 1980s before a heavy coke addiction and his womanizing sent him to his death in 1991. Tyson confessed that they were in love and had a deep connection.

With film and TV credits adding up, Cicely Tyson worked up until the end of her existence. At age 96, she died with her family and friends around her. This revealing, illuminating book was a fine tribute to her unforgettable character. “I am not a quitter. I will fight until I drop. It is just a matter of having some faith in the fact that as long as you are able to draw breath in the universe, you have a chance.” Her book contains several lessons from a life well lived. She closed the book to say she did “the best with God gave her, just as I am.”

Read Amistad’s description of Just As I Am.

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