Book Reviews

Book review – Just as I am by Cicely Tyson

Hey friends! How are you doing? I remember reading Just as I am by Cicely Tyson over two weeks ago and gushing about it. It’s funny how this is one of my best reads so far and it’s nonfiction. The irony! Anyway, I knew I was going to review this book about 10% in. In Just as I am, Cicely Tyson tells the story of her life and her journey to fame .

Growing up

Born in 1924 in Harlem to two immigrants from Nevis in the West Indies. (I visited St Kitts & Nevis 12 years ago and I don’t think I have a photo to show for it. Terrible). She was born scrawny with a heart murmur and her parents thought she wouldn’t make it. She found it ironic that she was the last of her immediate family to live so long. She had two siblings – a brother and a sister. Her parents separated as a result of her father’s repeated infidelity and domestic violence when she was a young girl and she talked about how that affected her and her siblings. She ended up getting pregnant at 17 and was brave enough time go through with it. I didn’t know she had a daughter until I read this book.

LOS ANGELES – MAY 24: Actress Cicely Tyson is shown here in a scene from the CBS television program “East Side/West Side on May 24, 1963. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

She was married twice and what struck me was how she knew as a teenager she did not want to stay married to someone she did not like and was brave enough to leave. However, in her second marriage, as she said, so many people told her she deserved better and she stayed and loved him until she had enough. She left not because of what people will think of her but when she reached her threshold.

I found it interesting that she basically ended up with Miles Davis who just like her dad- the infidelity and domestic violence. She said “Rage attracts rage”. I initially couldn’t understand how she stayed that long and even she said in retrospect it makes no sense. “He had a strong need to be cared for”. She obviously felt the need to care and be there for him however undeserving. Well, until she literally snatched his weave off his head!

I love how she spoke about her parents flaws. She was so kind to extend grace to them even as an adult. “I find it difficult to lay bare my parents blemishes. My instinct is to protect their legacies in a world where we are too often demonized”

Her career

She started working as a secretary after she left school and soon after on a Random day during her lunch break, a man randomly asked if she was a model. That kickstarted her career as a model and then she got a role as the lead in a movie when she wasn’t even an actor at the age of 30. Matter of fact, she had only seen one film in her entire life. She did not understand how it all fell into place and that’s why she started that chapter with this statement – “There are no coincidences rather there is a loving savior who holds my future as securely as he does my life and at every juncture, he is whispering his will showing me the way.”

She talked about how hard it is for black actors and especially women because they’re just not valued. There is already racism, now add sexism into the mix.

“It’s easy to say “Black lives matter” but the question is do they matter enough for this nation to treat and compensate them fairly? Historically, the answer has been a resounding NO. “

She particularly was so determined to alter the narrative of black people especially Black women. She vowed to play characters of women whose legacy uplift us. She was the first black woman to star in a television drama and the first black actor to reveal her hair in its bare naked state.

While I read this memoir, I found myself googling and doing a little research on the people and the things she spoke about. I was so curious. I realized she had a role in ‘The autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” written by Ernest Gaines so imagine how cute it was when I heard “chapter 21, lesson before dying” – (For those that don’t understand the reference, I read Ernest Gaines’ book A lesson before dying last year and reviewed it on the blog. So, it was cute to understand the reference. As she continued to narrate her story, she also mentioned that she played Tante Lou in the series based on the book.

When Cicely was asked what she does to keep her body and mind fit. She said, “It’s all about the greens my dear. Thrice daily blended if you prefer. That along with pull-ups and walks all over Manhattan.” As for Preserving her mind, she continued to take roles well into her 90s.

Some things I found out

  • How she met Tyler Perry and how he doubled and sometimes tripled or even quadrupled her asking price for whatever role she plays when she told him how much she was paid for some of her previous roles.
  • Tyler Perry’s studio is located where a confederate army base where armies plotted how to keep 3.9 million negroes enslaved used to be.
  • She was Lenny Kravitz’s godmother
  • That she has a daughter who she called Joan in the book.
  • She got married in Bill Cosby’s house.
  • She’s the godmother to Tyler Perry’s daughter, Aman & Denzel Washington’s first daughter.
  • Viola Davis personally requested for her to play her on-screen mother on How to get away with murder.
  • She omitted her age rather than changing it and finally told the world her age at 90.
  • We all see the resemblance with one of her onscreen daughters Kimberly Elise and even she recognizes this resemblance.

In all of it, I just kept thinking of all the people in her life who have died. The raw pain. Imagine living for almost a century and losing so many people around you. She said “my season of harvest runs parallel to one of tremendous loss. On many days, I feel as if I have no space left in my heart for another grief…. So many of my loved ones have left here.”

My thoughts

All Cicely Tyson achieved in her 96 years of life is something that should be studied. I’m in awe of her strength and passion. She was a pioneer and I learnt a lot from just reading this book and I can only imagine how much she impacted the lives of those around her.

She said something her mother said to her which my mother tells me often when I complain about failed opportunities or delays “What is for you in this life , you will get and what is not for you, you will never get”

She was so kind, warm and soft spoken. It was an absolute pleasure listening to her narrate this book. There are so many gems in this book, I had to stop myself from highlighting/noting down the entire thing. I felt like she was personally talking to me “I pray that you can carve out a purpose for yourself. A calling beyond your own survival, a sweet offering to the world. You gain a life by giving yours away.”

She ended her memoir with this and I felt it “I want to go home knowing that I loved generously, even if imperfectly….. I want to know that I did the very best that I could with what God gave me just as I am”

If you are into memoirs, you should read this. It featured on Friday Quotes , so go read the amazing quotes from Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just as I am. Oh before I go, I got a book recommendation from this memoir incase anyone else is interested – Brown girl, brownstones by Paule Marshall.

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