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On Aspirations


The following is an excerpt with permission from Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson published by Harper Collins © 2021.

I may not have had much of a voice during adolescence, but I did have aspirations. Given my talent for the piano and organ, I initially thought I’d become a concert musician, a dream my mother birthed on my behalf. My goal shifted the year I was fifteen. By then, I was taking lessons from a lady by the name of Miss Mann. Her eldest son was the organist at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, and I’d sometimes accompany the choir or play for the congregation there. During a concert one Sunday, I played, from memory, “Poet and Peasant,” a fifteen-page overture composed by Franz von Suppé. At the close of the piece when I stood and bowed at the warm applause, I said to myself, I will never ever do this again.

Sure enough, on that afternoon I walked away from the piano, and it was the last day I set my fingers on ivory. Not only had the Franz piece worn me out, the piano demanded far too much of my time. I’d wake up early to rehearse for two hours before school, only to return to that hard bench before bed.

“All that money wasted!” my mother fussed. In hindsight, I’m stunned she let me quit, however insistent I was. Mom continued in her mission to rear us with some culture, and by then, I felt I’d soaked up my share. By age sixteen, I’d moved on to hairdressing. For years, Mom had her hair pressed by a woman who lived two blocks from us, Miss Jones. (How on earth can I remember these names? No wonder I have a headache… so many details in my head!) After Miss Jones passed, her hot comb got handed down to me. I was good enough at pressing and curling that I turned it into a little business, a way to earn my own money in a house where cash was scarce. On Friday nights, I’d pack my bag with the hot comb and bobby pins and curling irons and begin making my way around to the homes of all the sisters in the church. My road show continued on Saturdays. Then on Sundays, I’d peer out across the sanctuary to see my handiwork on display, in pew after pew of fresh presses and pin curls.

Horace had convinced me I was cute, and my hot comb contributed to my vanity. I stayed by the bathroom mirror, running between there and the stove as I laid down my edges and pressed out my bangs. All that primping made me constantly late for class, because no way was I showing up at school with my hair all over the place. I had a different style for every day of the week, from deep waves on Monday to a chignon on Friday. I pressed the life out of my strands every morning, restoring them to order after I’d slept them into a mess the night before. Once when I strode into French class, tardy as usual, my teacher, Miss Byrnes, lifted an eyebrow. “Cicely, why can’t you get here on time?” she asked. I pointed to my hair. “Well,” she said, smirking, “one day that hair is going to put you on the top of the world.” Neither of us could have known just how prescient she was.

This excerpt was featured in the January 24, 2021 edition of The Sunday Paper. It is solely intended to provide information and inspiration. The views are those of the expert. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


Ms. Cicely Tyson is an actress, lecturer, activist, and one of the most respected talents in American theater and film history. From her starring role on Broadway in The Blacks (1961), to the Emmy-nominated 1999 HBO film A Lesson Before Dying, her work has garnered critical and commercial applause for more than sixty years. Her two Emmys for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman made her the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress. In 2013, Ms. Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful. A capstone achievement came in 2018, when she became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar. The Board of Governors voted unanimously to honor her with the award, which came 45 years after her Academy Award nominated performance in Sounder.

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