By Abayomi Azikiwe -Feb 4, 2021
Harlem-born public figure has been hailed for contributions to the image of African Americans and women in the arts
In the January and February issue of Essence magazine excerpts from a newly released autobiography by Cicely Tyson, Just As I Am, provide insights into the nearly one century life’s journey of a legend within the entertainment and cultural milieu in the United States.
Essence, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2000, is a publication designed to illustrate the role of African women in history and the modern world. Tyson, 96 years old, passed away on January 29 of natural causes.
She was born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Tyson came into existence in 1924 during the period that is popularly known as the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, Harlem was rapidly transforming from a European immigrant community to one which became largely occupied by Black and Latin American peoples.
During this period which began many years prior to the 1920s, witnessed a flowering of African American literary, musical and political contributions to the overall struggle for freedom and self-determination. Personalities such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Josephine Baker, among many others, gained prominence domestically and internationally during this period.
People of African descent from the southern U.S. and the Caribbean flooded into New York City and other urban areas in what later became known as the Great Migration. Although this category of mass geographic movement is associated with the rise of industrial capitalism, the people who participated in this migratory phenomenon were not just seeking economic improvement. Many saw the large and medium-sized cities to which they fled as potential avenues for greater social and political liberation.
Tyson writes in her book that: “The United States has never been ‘one country under God’ but several nations gazing up at him, dissimilar faces huddled beneath a single flag…. The era I grew up in both deepened my racial wound and soothed it with the healing balm of the arts. My childhood spanned the 1920s and 1930s, two of the most economically memorable and culturally rich decades in American history –a period when Negro literature, music and culture flourished.”
The author mentions some of the hallmarks in Harlem such as the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club along with musicians Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, whose contributions shaped the consciousness and cultural life of the early decades of the 20th century. Tyson acknowledges the philosophical reflections of Alain Locke, author of The New Negro, published in 1925 and the works of James Weldon Johnson, a songwriter and poet who composed the Black National Anthem, entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She mentions the classic book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” published at the dawn of the 20th century in 1903 by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, which was still being read voraciously by the successive generations of the 1920s and 1930s….