Just as I am

“Just As I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and mother, a sister, and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by His hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” –Cicely Tyson

The scenes with Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis in the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” were raw, unyielding, and true. Before that, Tyson walked many miles in many roles since most of us became aware of her in “Sounder” (1972) and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974), after some nice roles in the 1960s.

She was the actress I most wanted to meet, not outside some stage door, but at a gathering where we could talk because, in her eyes, I saw wisdom that–now that we lost her January 28th–I hope to find in Just as I Am.

Long-time actors and actresses have much to tell us, partly from their exposure to so many roles and to the business of making plays and movies, but also from finding a way out of hard-times beginnings to success. In many ways, one can see the soul and experience of a performer in the way s/he presents his/her most difficult roles.

If you can find the episodes (possibly on YouTube) of “How to Get Away With Murder” with Tyson that aired (I think) during the series’ two final years you will find her best work of late and understand why authors and others could have learned so much from her had she taught a class.

“I never really worked for money,” she said in her last interview. “I’ve worked because there were certain issues that I wish were addressed about myself and my race as a Black woman.”

She certainly did that,

–Malcolm

Review: ’99 Girdles on the Wall,’ by Elena Louise Richmond

For her estate sale, I nailed my mother’s twenty seven girdles to the wall of her bedroom. Girdles, instruments of torture that impede the breath, and imprison joy were emblematic of her repressive influence. Even when she lay dying, she had the energy to tell me to put my knees together.

In Elena Louise Richmond’s candid and well-written memoir, 99 Girdles on the Wall, her mother’s girdles symbolized everything that was constraining in a childhood governed by an alcoholic father, an emotionally disturbed mother, and an infinite number of Christian fundamentalist imperatives. Early in life, Richmond found refuge in her music, but it would take her 35 years to escape from the prison of clinical depression.

Readers who have coped with the slings and arrows of an outrageous childhood will appreciate the dark humor and sharp edge of Richmond’s prose:

My mother’s prayers always ended with “Guide and direct us in all they ways.” She also went in for a lot of sighing. She wanted God to know what a heavy burden she was carrying down here and but for her recalcitrant family, she could do better.

The book is also a positive journey of hope, for Richmond—who was a prime candidate for simply giving up—found ways to hang on to and develop a career in music while learning how to fall in love with her own life.

I loved teaching. I had an intuitive way of working with the children who came for lessons. I had never forgotten what it felt like to be a child: the wonder and curiosity; also the confusion, the fear of adults, and the feelings of powerlessness.

Her journey included a strong reliance on music teachers, therapists, Christian groups and her “pilot light,” as she called her inviolate spirit, until she was strong enough to make her own rules for living outside the confines of a constricting childhood.

Those who do not suffer from clinical depression often equate it with the garden variety depression of having a bad day. Richmond’s memoir is a powerful antidote to that myth, a road map for others wearing their own figurative girdles, and a story of triumph in a world where one feels out of place.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”