How Cicely Tyson Helped Me Try and Become an Anti – Racist

Professor Joe Goldblatt

Cicely Tyson (1924 – 2021)

We were sitting in the third row of a lecture by the acclaimed actress Cicely Tyson at Bucknell University and I began to wonder why she was apprently so angry. She frowned, she pouted, and then she channeled her anger to deliver a passionate reading of poetry and prose.

Ironically, both Miss Tyson and my wife and I had been invited to this small liberal arts college in the US State of Pennsylvania as “Artists in Residence” to take part in their annual salute to the fine and performing arts. This type of weekend programme is an anachronism in America where once per year in towns and cities they celebrate the arts and then throughout the rest of the year the federal government provides among the lowest funding of any country in the western world.

As I sat on the edge of my chair awaiting the arrival of the recent Emmy award winning star of American televisions “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”, the highly respected American poet John Ciardi provided an eloquent reading of one of his poems and then delivered a glowing introduction of Miss Tyson. However, I was surprised when he failed to mention the “R” (race) word as this had been such a seminal part of her career trajectory.

In the United States, even following the leadership of Dr Martin Luther King and in recent times former President Barack Obama, race has become the unspoken evil that similar to child molestation, many citizens are often afraid to discuss in polite company. I have been guilty of this myself.

In Washington, DC I was the director of an adult education programme that provided training for meeting and event planners. Twenty – five percent of our students were African American women. Annually we produced a catalogue of courses to promote the programme. One day, one of my staff who was an African American woman, came to my office and requested a private meeting. I invited her in for a chat and closed the door. She then explained that was she was about to discuss might make me feel uncomfortable. I told her I wanted to hear her thoughts, regardless of my personal discomfort.

She then slammed a copy of our course catalogue upon the table between us and asked me to look at the photos we had selected and I had approved to reflect our happy and successful students. Page by page I looked through the catalogue and then I asked her what was the point of this exercise?

She blinked black tears and said in a halting voice, “Where are people like me? There are no black people in this catalogue”

She was correct. I had overlooked and therefore omitted 25% of the students in our programme. I immediately apologised and made execuses regarding my upbringing as a white male during the period of segregation. I mumbled on about segregated water fountains, segregated toilets and how much we loved the black maid who looked after my sister and I. My comments were a feeble attempt to make an excuse for my stupidity in failing to recognise and honour one quarter of the students in our large programme.

I corrected my mistake by making certain that in the next catalogue that over fifty percent of the photos would represent black, asian and minority ethnic students enrolled in our programme. As a result of this change, our enrollment increased by forty percent. More importantly, anecodotally we learned from the many African American female students in our programme that they and their fellow students had progressed from being secretaries to meeting and event planners and as a result their earning potential had tripled!

Small changes in human society may also make a huge difference to those affected. However, for millions of us and our leaders, we remain firghtened in terms of acknowledging that within every human heart that along side the capacity for love and respect there is also the capacity to distrust and even hate others.

Once while I was visiting the United States, a friend of our family was bragging about a new home that he was building in a southern state. He said that during construction a local Sheriff visited him and said that if he was to see a black man on his land he could shoot and bury him and there would be no questions asked.

I was horrified at his statement. However, to my eternal shame, I remained silent so as not to embarrass my family member who was also present. I regret and am still ashamed of my silence. I know that in my heart I have the capacity to reject racism and that I must on a daily basis seek opportunities to become an even more anti – racist person.

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to be an anti – racist is to constantly fight against racism. To create an equal society, we must commit to making unbiased choices and being anti – racist in all aspects of our lives.

When I visited this museum (the most visited of all the musums in the Smithosonian Institution collection), I was surprised to learn that the majority of visitors were people of colour who for the first time were rediscovering the previous unwritten history of their race. According to one of the museum’s stewards, special training in mental health had been provided to them to help visitor’s with their emotional well being when they are confronted over and over again with the evil of racism in the dramatic exhibits they are viewing.

During my visit, I was shaken to the core. Because of my past experience of living as a young child during segregation in Dallas, Texas I trembled when I saw the counter from a Woolworth’s store from Greensboro, North Carolina that refused to allow black people to sit down. I wept silently when I viewed the horrific tragedy of Emmett Till, the african – american young man who had been tortured to death. And I also later rejoiced at the achievements and contributions that so many African Americans had made to American culture in music, visual arts and literature. This visit was truly an emotional roller coaster that was greatly propelled by my own history of living through racisim and not actually recognising its force.

Woolworth’s counter from Greensboro, North Carolina as part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum
Emmett Till before and after his death, as displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Perhaps my own back story is why I was conflicted when watching that day the body language of Cicely Tyson at Bucknell University. I simply could not appreciate how hard it had been for her to rise in her life and career when for me it had been natural, normal and in fact a much easier journey. Her frowns and my smiles spoke volumes about the distance between our two life experiences.

Forty years later I had the privilege of seeing Miss Tyson perform on Broaday in the first African American production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful”. In the play, Miss Tyson plays an older mother who has to live with a daughter-in-law who hates her and a son who does not dare take her side. She was nearing ninety years of age and as I was surprised when as she in character began singing hymns, many members of the audience, including both black and white people sitting around me, began to spontaneously hum and sing along together with her. I felt as though I had momentarily left the theatre and had been magically transported to a church where there was for a brief shining moment, a sanctuary from racism.

Recently, I binge – watched the ground breaking historical drama Bridgerton and I was at first confused and even irritated by the purposeful casting of people of colour in roles that would normally had been played by white actors. However, within a few minutes, the strength of the performances by each of these actors soon made the colour of their skin invisible to me. Perhaps this too is something we may aspire to throughout all professions in human society.

For myself, every remaining day of my life is now an opportunity to call out evil words and behaviour and more forcefully support the anti – racism movement. Our efforts may be as simple as noticing under representation in publications, such as the one I produced, or as complex as calling upon our leaders to create better and more effective laws to legislate greater equality to protect all citizens. Regardless of the effort you or I make in the future, it may contribute to making the next century easier and more successful for people of colour than was the past century for Cicely Tyson.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He grew up during the period of segregation in the southern part of the United States.

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