“Private Photos from a Beautiful Moment in the Life of Cicely Tyson, and the Work-of-Art that Filled her Eyes with Tears of Joy” including Tribute by Debra Hand

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Cicely Tyson at the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Denzel Washington at Dolby Theatre on June 06, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Erik Voake/Getty Images for WarnerMedia) 610530

Our beautiful Queen Mother, Cicely Tyson, brilliantly gave her artistry to us for almost a century.  She is our family.  We love her as our own.  Through her art, she fought for us.  Now it is our turn to preserve her legacy.  

Today as we try to comfort each other through the sharing of stories and photos, I would like to share a personal moment from her life with our community of readers. Cicely Tyson gave and gave her art for us, but one day I was honored to be there for a special moment where she was the receiver of art.  She allowed no photos except for the ones you’ll see here.  They are from my private mementos.

I was brought into this moment by the Chicago Sinfoniette Orchestra.  Cicely Tyson was scheduled to perform a narration with the orchestra.  After the performance, a private reception was planned during which Maestro Paul Freeman would surprise Cicely Tyson with a sculpture I’d created.  I was asked to write a few words to say at the unveiling, something about how her art has inspired me.  I want to share what I said to her. 

But, first, let me briefly put this moment into its proper historical context:  

Maestro Paul Freeman was a world-famous African American maestro who was admired world-wide.  He used his artistry and power in classical music to expand its landscape and to enrich it with diversity.  Maestro Freeman was the one who gave the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma his first chance to perform with a professional orchestra.  

In the 1960’s when Martin Luther King, Jr. learned that Paul Freeman had been chosen to lead the Atlanta Symphony, he told Freeman that he’d broken down the final barrier…“the last bastions of elitism.”  Freeman succeeded greatly in his goal to diversify the field of classical music, across the world.  He conducted hundreds of orchestras around the world.  Finally, in 1987, Maestro Freeman founded the world famous Chicago Sinfionetta Orchestra.  

Now, Cicely Tyson was scheduled to accompany the orchestra.  It was 2003.  Maestro Freeman would personally conduct as his friend, the great Cicely Tyson would perform a powerful narration.  It was a Black-tie affair.  The auditorium was packed with Chicago’s who’s who.  Everyone was so excited to witness her artistry in person.     

The lights dimmed and Cicely Tyson in all her majesty and regal-ness, arrived on-stage  to the deafening cheers and applause of a standing ovation.  She took her place in the spotlight and performed flawlessly before a spellbound crowd.  The orchestra was superb.    When her performance was over, Cicely Tyson bid the crowd farewell and exited the stage to even louder cheers and standing O’s.  

After a short time, she was escorted into the private reception where she was greeted with more fanfare from the waiting VIP guests.  

This is the context of the room… a private reception where one legendary juggernaut in the arts, Paul Freeman, was about to surprise his dear friend, Cicely Tyson, another legendary juggernaut in the arts, with the gift of a work-of-art.  And now it was time for me to speak.

Shakily, with a nervously unfolded letter in hand, I proceeded to the podium and said these words to her. Dear Cicely, 

Thank you for the greatest gift you could ever have given me.  Thank you for giving me “something in myself.”  Thank you for the gift of cultural pride and dignity, and for the lessons of self-worth reinforced over and over by the strength of the characters YOU brought to life so that I could see, hear, learn, and feel the passions of the ancestors who M-A-D-E us survive.  Thank you for breathing life into proud characters that denied me the “right” to fail when faced with those who sought to deny me the right to succeed.  Thank you, Jane!  Thank you, Harriet!  Thank you, Rosa, Coretta, Marva!  Thank you, Cicely!  Thank you for using your artistic prowess to honor and cultivate the dignity of — not just women; not just African Americans; but the dignity of the entire human race.  

I am so honored to be able to present you with one of my sculptures.  I am so proud to say to you, through my own work, that your work has so greatly mattered to me and my family.  With my deepest appreciation, respect and love, Debra Hand /9/20/2003 

This is the moment Paul Freeman unveiled the piece.  Here is Cicely Tyson’s reaction.

Cicely Tyson will always be one of the greatest artists to emerge from the profession of acting.  I’m referring to the whole entire history of acting.  She was a master at resurrecting the lives of our ancestors so that we, the audience, could spend time with them and learn at their knee.  Shakespeare would have given his writing arm for such a star.  Instead, the treasure was given to us.  We got her.  The twentieth century got her.  America got her.  The African-American culture that she so elegantly represented on the highest level…we got her.  We all get to say we lived in the same world, in real time, with such an extraordinary artist.  We are the witnesses; the ones who will now pass down her legacy to younger generations.  She has left standards to us to uphold as she carved her unforgettable mark upon the arts and humanity.    

Cicely Tyson passed away at the age of 96.  Paul Freeman passed away in June of 1987 at the age of 92.  These artists changed the world through their art.  With great perseverance and vision, even when confronted by non-stop systems of injustice, they plowed through every barrier.  They cemented new pathways and opened doors for future generations, all through the power of their art.  

Less known about Cicely Tyson is her ground-breaking impact on the profession of classical and modern dance.  It was Cicely Tyson who helped to found the renowned Dance Theater of Harlem.  

Prior to the unveiling, I’d learned this fact.  This was the reason a dance sculpture had been chosen for her gift.  

Cicely shares the story of co-founding the school with her beloved friend, Arthur Mitchel, when she spoke at his memorial service.  Arthur Mitchel, who was the founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, was also a legend in his field.  In fact, he made history when he became the first African-American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet.  As for founding the dance theater, Cicely Tyson gave this account: On the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Arthur Mitchell and Cicely Tyson walked down the street together in stunned silence.  Almost immediately after getting home, Arthur called Cicely and said, “I want to do something.  We have to do something.  We can’t let his life go like this.”  The next day Mitchell called Cicely again to say he’d decided to form a dance company and he wanted Cicely with him.  It was 1:30 in the morning.  Cicely immediately took a cab to where Mitchell was.  The two of them then went to wake up the actor Brock Peters.  The three returned to Mitchel’s apartment, sat on the floor, and brainstormed for hours.  It was then and there that the Harlem Dance Theater was born:  the founding of the first Black ballet company.

She was also heavily involved in the development and ongoing operation of a school named in her honor, the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts. “I didn’t want my name to be a decoration on the building,” she said.  On that note,  she remained involved at the school, just as she remained on the board of the Dance Theater of Harlem.  Art was her weapon, her tool kit, her barometer.  She didn’t just survive the world for 96 years, she repaired and reshaped it at every point she touched.    

I had the honor of seeing Cicely Tyson on a couple of occasions after the Chicago Sinfonietta unveiling.  Each time I saw her I would humbly mention that I’d created the dance sculpture, and each time she would immediately raise her arms to form a circle above her head, and then kick up one heel to mimic the sculpture’s pose.  She’d laugh heartily and give me the most loving hug.  She’d graciously take the time to make me feel appreciated for creating that piece.  My sculpture had served as a conduit for a special moment between her and her friend, the great Maestro Paul Freeman.                   

This underscores the enduring power of art.  It can transmit sentiments between people that goes beyond the limit and power of words.  The sculpture connected Cicely Tyson and Maestro Freeman on an even more profound personal level because it symbolized his high regard for her, her life, and honored her great contribution to humanity in an area where she deserves to be celebrated for her groundbreaking contribution.  Beyond that, the sculpture represented, for both of them, a beautiful moment in their friendship. 

All artwork has the power to carry stories and messages from one generation to the next, for as long as that work survives.  Those who become the caretakers of artwork also inherit the stories and history of the work.  They get to feel that much closer to the memories of their loved one because they have become the caretaker of their loved one’s prized possessions.  

Cicely Tyson’s body of work and the great collection of performances where she gave her heart and soul to reach artistic perfection for us — this is the prized possession that has just been handed down to all of us from her.  As we watch her films, they will keep us closely connected to her life, her journey, and her contributions to this earth.  And they will continue to strengthen new generations with stories and messages of cultural pride, determination, and purpose.  We have all become the caretakers of her legacy, and it is up to us to insure that her name and work reign atop the highest pinnacles of the performing arts.  

Rest in Power, Queen Mother Cicely Tyson.  Thank you for using your brilliant artistry to serve humanity.  We will remember and cherish you forever more. 

To our readers: As always, please share your thoughts in the Comments Section below.

Also, a very special “Thank You” to my cousin Joan Boston for capturing the unveiling photos, and to the late Kim Jeff for bringing my name to the table for this great honor.