Our Elders, pioneers, and “way makers” continue to leave us here every day and take their place among the Ancestral Council. Most recently we said good-bye to baseball great Henry “Hank” Aaron and the Grand Dame of film, stage and television Cicely Tyson. The documentation of their life’s work and accomplishments would fill volumes and entire libraries. We are so fortunate to have experienced even a part of the great and powerful legacy that these two incredible human beings have left us. Many of us have been directly impacted by the barriers that they broke down or the examples that they set before us. As we enter into the month that we have designated as Black History Month, let us not forget that Black History is made every month and fills each and every day of each and every year with the accomplishments and triumphant resilience of Black people, both famous and the many more yet to be recognized. Hank Aaron and Ms. Cicely Tyson were both iconic in their respective arenas of influence and left a legacy that will be marked in history forever.
“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” an historic and groundbreaking made-for-tv movie came out in 1974 and was a tour de force for Miss Tyson. A performance for which she won an Emmy for her portrayal, over 9 decades, of the life of this fictional character. Miss Tyson took us on a journey that spanned the lifetime of an extraordinary Black woman beginning just after the Civil War and bringing us all the way to the modern- day Civil Rights Movement. Tyson’s portrayal was an incredible feat of brilliant acting, talent, grace, range, depth and technique. She was phenomenal and her ability to capture the life, love, sorrow, and resiliency of this fictional woman. In in so doing, she made us all stand in awe of this physically petite Black woman with a gigantic talent.
As I was just beginning my studies as an actor, the artistry and career of Cicely Tyson was my example. She gave me the example of what is possible with talent, perseverance and respect for yourself and for your People. Cicely Tyson lived her life as unapologetically Black before it was either fashionable or profitable. In fact, she made a commitment very early in her career to only do positive, uplifting and truthful portrayals of Black women whether on stage, in film or on television. The consequences of this choice required her to turn down roles that could have made her more “marketable” and certainly more well-known while personally becoming commercially profitable. The narrative that Hollywood wanted to champion often had Black people as criminals, poor, uneducated, and victims. Rarely were there stories of our triumphs or truthful portrayals. Cicely Tyson would not cooperate in perpetuating those narratives even though she
could have worked more consistently and made a lot of money doing it. She was a woman of unquestioned integrity. And the legacy she has left us testifies to that fact.
Hank Aaron’s mark was made by breaking the barriers of segregation and false narratives told about Black people in the world of sports. Specifically, in the arena of “America’s favorite pastime,” a baseball career that spanned 23-years. Although there were consistent threats made upon his life, Hank Aaron smashed Babe Ruth’s homerun record of 714 in the same year as Cicely Tyson made “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in 1974. Two years later, he retired with 755 homeruns. Hank Aaron played baseball in the major leagues at a time when he endured the foul-language and jeers of fans calling him the N-word every time he stepped up to the plate. He was an all-round player with deceptive speed as a base stealer and he also won several Golden Glove Awards for his defensive skills. In 1957, he led the Milwaukee Brewers to a World Series win and remained a potent force at the plate well into his 40s. Hank Aaron used his fame and platform as a major league baseball player to become a fierce advocate for Civil Rights and became an ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves. His nick-name was “Hammerin’ Hank Aaron”, and he was a majestic, courageous, talented and generous man. His sports career has inspired generations and, is in part responsible for my own son having a professional baseball career.
We celebrate both of these individuals as formidable and unforgettable in making the way for the rest of us. Their talents and gifts are the Legacy and the Legend of Black History.