Cicley Tyson-The Trail Blazer
Last week, the world lost a beloved African American movie star and icon. Cicely Tyson’s meteoric career spanned over sixty decades. She was a woman who chose her roles wisely, and she always played strong, inspiring African American female characters—never compromising on the African American experience.
In an unlikely place, I met Cicely Tyson in a restroom at the Atlanta Civic Center one balmy, hot Saturday on June 28, 2003. Mayor Jackson’s family held his funeral there that morning. He died at the young age of sixty-five from a cardiac arrest a few days earlier—a shock to many worldwide.
He was Atlanta’s first African American mayor, and well-known dignitaries and the general public crammed into the civic center to celebrate his legacy that day. Everybody was there, then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Congressman John Lewis, Former Mayor Andrew Young, Civil Rights Leader, Coretta Scott King, Reverend Joseph Lowery, and Former President Bill Clinton, to name a few.
Dressed in a sleeveless flowing black dress with the hem an inch above the knee with no stockings, too hot to wear them, I was glad I had on my comfortable black open-toed shoes. The walk from my car to the civic center entrance was hot and long. The rhythmic humming of crickets and cicadas in the green foliage along the sidewalk electrified the humid air. Cars whizzed by me, honking their horns as I strutted down Ralph McGill Avenue. Sweat beaded on my forehead and the black cat-framed sunglasses I sported slid down the bridge of my nose. I reached up and pushed them in place, still maintaining my mysterious persona. The best part about living in a sunny state, one can always wear a fabulous pair of shades.
I sighed with relief when I finally reached the building entrance and walked inside an air-conditioned lobby. I stood under a vent to cool off, and the cold air felt good against my face. As I lingered there, I checked out the vast crowd. My first time at the civic center, I struggled with how to get to the main auditorium, searching for signs in the area to guide me. I saw men in black suits and women with big floppy black hats with elegant matching dresses, or pantsuits jammed up against each other in the lobby.
I wiggled my way through and saw a sign scripted with the word auditorium. I hurried in that direction and saw two ushers standing across from each other at the doubled doors. They waved me through, and I made my way down the aisle. The auditorium had red velvet seating, which surprised me. I settled in a seat in the tenth row at the end, a perfect spot so I could leave early to beat the funeral traffic.
I crossed my legs, set my black purse on my lap, and checked out the mourners as they floated past me in the aisle. They sat in the row in front of me, and the mayor’s family, along with several dignitaries, sat in a roped off section several rows up ahead. The mayor’s gold casket decorated with white chrysanthemums looked beautiful as it sat in front of a shiny black piano. Light from the ceiling reflected off the casket giving it a multi-colored glow. The rise and fall of people conversating around me complimented the soft, melodic gospel music playing in the background, and after everyone took their seats, the doubled doors finally closed. Singing, speeches, and poems filled the auditorium, moving the crowd occasionally to their feet. The going home celebration for Atlanta’s first African American mayor proved to be quite a send-off. After President Clinton finished his speech, I got up and hightailed it to the restroom.
When I entered the bathroom, I noticed an elegant older woman with smooth brown skin adjusting her hat in the mirror. She and I were about the same height, five foot and three inches tall, and she had the most expressive dark brown eyes I have ever seen. We said our hello’s as I parked myself in front of the mirror opposite of her. She applied her red lipstick while I reached in my purse for mine.
She looked familiar to me, and I wondered where I had seen her before. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking, so I applied my red lipstick, rolling my lips, as I snuck a peek at the elegant woman in the mirror, carefully checking her out. Finally, we made eye contact, and her expressive eyes seemed to have a hint of laughter. “What brand of lipstick are you wearing?” she asked in a silvery, distinct voice.
“Fashion Fair. Red is my favorite,” I replied.
“Ah, Fashion Fair,” she smiled, showing entirely white, straight teeth. “I love a good red lipstick. Tell me, what shade of red is that? It’s pretty.”
“Red Wine. I wear it all of the time.”
“Well, it’s looks nice on you.”
I felt myself blushing. “Thank you,” I grinned.
“I wear Fashion Fair occasionally. Next time I order, I’ll remember to get some of that red wine lipstick.” The woman smoothed out her dress, grabbed her black sequined purse, and turned in my direction. She looked so familiar to me, and I looked away to keep from staring so hard.
“Well, I must go,” she chuckled. “I don’t want to miss Reverend Joseph Lowery. That man can give some entertaining speeches sometimes.”
“Yes, I heard,” I smiled. “Well, it was nice talking to you.”
“My pleasure.” Then she was gone. I knew I’d seen the lady somewhere before, and I thought about our conversation as I returned to my seat. By the time Reverend Joseph Lowery finished his entertaining speech, it finally hit me. That was Cicely Tyson! Oh, my goodness! I just had a conversation about red lipstick with Cicely Tyson! How could I not have known who she was when I was talking with her? No one would ever believe me!
I went home that day, called my sister, and told her about my brief meeting with the great Cicely Tyson. I never forgot that day—my brief encounter with her has stayed with me for my entire life. We were two women sharing a moment, talking about red lipstick. How funny. I would’ve never guessed it in my wildest dreams.
I’ve shared this story over the years with my friends and family. Because of her death, it seemed appropriate to share it again. Her incredible, prolific talent and contributions to the big screen will endure in our hearts forever. Rest in Peace, Miss Tyson, and thank you again for the wonderful conversation we had in the bathroom that one hot summer day. Thank you for reading. Until next time!