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Cicely Tyson chats about acting, upcoming talk at B-CU graduation

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Actress Cicely Tyson is recalling a time she spoke to a group of children in the South — a talk in which she mentioned Martin Luther King Jr.

“After I finished my talk, a young lady — I imagine she must have been about 13, 14 years old — stood up and asked me, ‘Who was Dr. King?’ ” Tyson says. The star of such films as “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” says the encounter “absolutely floored me.”

The movie Web site IMDB.com notes Tyson’s commitment to “only portray strong, positive images of black women.” In an interview with The News-Journal, the 74-year-old actress says she made that commitment at the dawn of her career after becoming aware that “we were a grossly misunderstood and misrepresented people. And that was an issue I felt I had to address.”

Tyson’s film and TV credits also include “Roots,” “The Women of Brewster Place,” “The Rosa Parks Story,” the role of Coretta Scott King in the TV miniseries “King,” “Bustin’ Loose,” “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and many more.

Tyson was the first African-American actor to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie for her performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Her performance in “Sounder” made her one of only seven African-American women ever to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Tyson and business executive Earl Graves will speak Saturday at the commencement ceremony of Bethune-Cookman University, and each will receive honorary degrees.

During a lay-over last week in Washington, D.C., Tyson spoke by phone about a journalist’s confession of prejudice, young people’s disconnection from history, and a personal “Jane Pittman” moment.

Q. Was your commitment to “only portray strong, positive images of Black women” spurred by some film or media image many years ago, or did that goal evolve from the all conditions of growing up in the Civil Rights era?

It came about as a result of having a number of experiences which made me aware that we were a grossly misunderstood and misrepresented people. And that was an issue I felt I had to address — that and other issues. I chose to use my career as my platform.

Q. So there wasn’t just one film or TV skit that you saw and said “Enough is enough.”

Absolutely not. It was personal actually. The first occurred in Philadelphia at a press conference with a journalist. I commended him because I think it took a lot of guts to stand in the midst of his peers and an audience and say he discovered a bit of prejudice in himself while he was viewing the movie “Sounder.”

That was brought about by the fact that the younger boy who played my oldest son referred to his father as “Daddy.” And when I asked him (the journalist) whether he had sons, he said “Yes.” And I asked, “What do they call you?” and he said “Daddy.”

His problem was that he could not equate the fact that a young black boy was addressing a black male as “Daddy” like his son was addressing him.

Q. Wow.

That’s exactly what my reaction was (sardonic but soft laugh). “Oh wow” (more laughter). I made a very conscious effort after that and a number of other experiences very much like that, that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were a number of issues I needed to address and I chose my career as my platform.

Q. I’ve read a number of commentaries over the past several years, from pundits and columnists, that there seems to be a disconnect between the Civil Rights generation and today’s young black people and people in general, that they are disconnected from the history of the struggle.

You’re going to be speaking here at Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU (historically black college-university). In your work with young people of all races, do they seem to have an awareness and appreciation of recent history?

Ah, very little, I’m sorry to say. Very little. I sometimes feel responsible for that. I think our generation, in an effort to try to make things better for our children and our children’s children, gave them a little too much and left them nothing to fight for. And so I think because of that, there is very little value placed on our achievements.

Some found it very difficult to believe that we could not get on a bus and sit anywhere we chose, nor could we go into a restaurant and sit anywhere we would choose to sit.

It’s difficult for them to believe because they have not had that direct experience. And so it is up to us to make sure they learn their history and that they realize that things did not come to us as easy as it is coming to them.

I spoke recently in Memphis commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. I told a story of having spoken to a group of young children somewhere in the South. Exactly where it was escapes me at the moment. After I finished my talk a young lady — I imagine she must have been about 13, 14 years old — stood up and asked me “Who was Dr. King?”

Which absolutely floored me. It took my breath away and it took me a few minutes before I could recover and tried to understand what just happened to me. The realization that this young child had no idea of whom I was speaking when I referred to Dr. Martin Luther King set my mind awhirl.

Q. You said young child — that’s not that young.

Yes, she was about 13 years old. That’s exactly my point. I first asked her if she had parents. And of course her answer was yes. Not necessarily of course. But her answer was yes and she lived in the home with them. I wondered what happened within that household? Why was she not aware of this man?

Q. The schools too.

Well, you know the schools are secondary. It begins in the home. It’s up to you to teach your child their history. That set me on a mission to try to get parents to recognize the importance of education for their children about their history. It’s up to us to do it.

Q. Looking at your filmography, you’ve certainly done your part — appearing in films about MLK, Rosa Parks. It’s out there for them to come across, if not in books.

Yes, but you have to stimulate children’s curiosity. And it starts from not when they become teenagers or adults — it starts from infancy. Once you instill it in them at that very young age, it’s not likely to leave them.

Q. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was striking in the way you portrayed the changes one woman saw in an amazing lifetime. I can’t help but wonder if you have had a similar experience. I’m 49 and I never thought I’d see the possibility that a black man might get elected president, and now it may happen in my lifetime. Has that kind of thinking crossed your mind?

Of course. Of course it’s crossed my mind. I’m living in the midst of it. And what it has made me aware of is the fact that this was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dreams. And to be here at a time when there is a possibility that not only that a black man could become president but that a woman as well could become president — to live during a time when that is a possibility and this 40 years ago was part of his dream — it’s, it’s just . . . well I can’t express it. I never thought in my lifetime such a thing would ever occur.

Q. I have to say I was drawing a comparison between you and your character in the film. Are you having some “Miss Jane Pittman moments”?

Exactly. No question about it. When you mentioned her, I remember when she took a sip of that water and I keep feeling and tasting the water and realize there’s no difference in this water than the water that I’m drinking. So what is all the fuss about? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Q. What’s one of your lesser-known roles that you wished more people knew about?

It was titled “Blessed Assurance.” And I think they changed the title. (It was released) about five years ago, maybe six years. It was one of my favorite, favorite movies and I did it as a tribute to my mother. The subject matter has to do with the kind of investment that poor people, particularly black in down-trodden neighborhoods, the kind of investments they put into insurances so that when they die they would have a great send-off.

More often than not, they are unable to continue the payments and the policy lapses and so their dream lapses. It’s a beautiful story. They changed the title and I never forgave them for doing that because “Blessed Assurance” was one of my mother’s favorite hymns.

Q. I see on the Internet it’s now titled “The Price of Heaven.”

That’s right. If you haven’t seen it you should see it.

If You Go

WHO: Cicely Tyson and Earl Graves

WHAT: Bethune-Cookman University commencement ceremonies

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Ocean Center, 101 N. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach.

ADMISSION: Free and open to the public

INFORMATION: 386-481-2950

CONTACT: News Journal Online

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Written by Symphony

April 19, 2008 at 2:15 pm

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