Today's episode of Super Cell Conversations has brought to you by the new film Nomad Land from Searchlight Pictures, written and directed by Chloe Chow in Nomad Land Academy Award winner Frances McDormand plays Fern, a 61 year old van dwelling modern day nomad who embarks on a journey through the vast landscape of the American West.
It's one of the best reviewed films of the season, with 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and featured in over 100 top 10 lists. Nomad Land is in theaters across the U.S. and streaming on Hulu February 19th. I'm Oprah Winfrey, welcome to Super Cell Conversations, the podcast, I believe that one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself is time taking time to be more fully present. Your journey to become more inspired and connected to the deeper world around us.
Starts right now.
Born and raised in Harlem, it was Cicely Tyson's iconic beauty that got her noticed. But her talent made her a legend.
She started out as a fashion model in the 50s, and in 1963 she became one of the first black actors to get cast as a regular on a TV series and East Side West Side. Her big break came in 1972 when she starred in Sounder. That performance earned Cicely an Oscar nomination. Five years later, she was cast as Binta Kunta Kinte, mother in Roots.
You know, I've always wanted to sit in this room with you and have a conversation. Now we're having it in front of lots of people care. And I always wanted to do that because when I first started to be able to afford to buy real art, this painting behind us is the first painting, real piece of art that I, I purchased.
And when I saw it, I felt immediately that I had to have it. It's called to the highest bidder. And every time I pass her, which is, you know, many times a day, I always think of you. Really? Yes, I try.
I always think of you. Yes. Yes. What is it about her?
There's something about her presence and her strength of character that reminds me of you and the roles that you've played and how you brought that to life for us and everything that you have done, particularly in Roots and Miss Jane Pittman and Sounder and all of those roles.
So when I think of her, I call her I call her Miss Cicely.
Oh, dear. So I am. No, I am with you always. Yeah, I love. Absolutely. Yeah. And in this room on the wall are all names of slaves that I bought from documents from old plantations.
So I keep their names near me. Yeah. To remind. To forget. Yes. Lest we forget. So you're the first person and only person I will ever interview in this space.
Do you want an interview or not? I'm taking my breath away.
So we're here celebrating, honoring 35 years of you playing Benta banter.
Yeah, yeah. Kunta Kinte, his mother. It's hard to believe. Yeah, it's five years.
And you were really it's hard to also believe you were only in one episode.
One episode. I gave birth. You gave birth. I gave birth. It was quite a privilege.
What does it mean to you? What did it mean to you then to get that role?
Did you did you know that it was going to become the phenomenon? Did you know when you read the script, could you feel that something was special about.
I knew that I. As well as millions of others would be introduced to ourselves in a way we had never been introduced to ourselves before in terms of who we were, what we were and why we were on this planet. I knew that you did know that. I knew that I felt it because I learned things in the reading of the script that I did not know before. And so I knew that I, as well as whoever viewed it, was in for a real education in terms of who we were.
When we first see you on screen there you are giving birth. And Maya Angelou. Yes. Is there playing your mother? Yes. What do you remember about the filming of that scene?
Wow. Well, when I was giving birth to Kinta, I. I I don't even remember I was taken over, consumed by something I don't even remember, what I do remember was that I felt a fire on my back and I didn't know where that was coming from. And it turned out I found out after that it was cold. And they had these big lamps, too, to give warmth to those huts. And that was burning my back.
And I am allergic to the sun. And when I was finished, my whole back was swollen from the heat.
And I love the lamps of the of the camera crew. That's right. Yes. And I just put that all into the pain that I was having. The birth of giving birth. Yeah. Yeah. Wow.
So how did or did Route influence the roles that you took afterwards?
I think, you know, it's so important for us to understand who we are, where we came from. OK. And that I had. The privilege of being the mother. Huh? Yes, yes. It it made life as a black woman more meaningful to me to be able to say to a generation after generation after generation, this is where you come from.
That's what it meant when you decided to become an actress, your mother didn't speak to you for a while. I heard that she finally came around.
She asked me to move. Really? Yeah. She said, you can't live here and do that.
So I wrote a story that you were working as a secretary. Yeah. And that you stood up in the secretary pool one day and said, I know God did not intend I should.
Is that true? Yes, I did. That's a true story. Oh. Yes. I was sitting there typing.
I was working for the American Red Cross and I worked for the vice president of the organization, plus the psychiatrist who came in to deal with the problems of some people. And this woman sat there who was a client and talked about the fact that she had a daughter who was eight years old and that her husband was molesting the daughter and she was afraid to tell anyone because she didn't want him to lose his job. Oh, my.
Well, when she was finished, I sat there typing up the case history. And I thought. This is not for me. I said I just pushed myself away from the desk and I said, I know that God didn't put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life. I know there must be something else for me to do. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to find it.
Wow, and then I pulled myself back up, proceeded to finish whatever I'm describing, I know it's just quiet and all, I looked up.
And they were all looking at me.
I had lost my mind and I suppose for a moment or so I did, but I knew that there was something else for me to do.
And was there also an incident where a woman had received a watch? A gold watch? Oh, yes. Mrs. Johnson, can you imagine? I remember her name.
Well, I can tell you exactly the way that woman looked at everything she had on that day. What happened? She heard this was next to mine and she had been there for 30 years, 30 years, 30 years. And so they had a little party and they gave her a gold watch. And I said. Uh. I want to buy my own gold watch, I am not going to be any place for 30 years and had them hand me a gold watch.
Wow, that's true. How old were you at the time? Old enough to know now not to tell you how.
Oh, isn't that amazing how I do find it truly.
And the word is appropriate.
Amazing that in an incident like that, a small thing like that becomes such a huge influence in your life. But you know this Johnsen's. Yeah, yeah. 30TH Anniversary Gold Watch. Yes.
30 years of your life. No, no. But it stayed with me. And I tell you, I could see her face as clearly as if she was sitting next to me. That's how what an impact it made on me. Yeah. Which is interesting. None of us realizes, and I'm sure she didn't at the time, the impact that we have on other people. No, no, no.
Isn't surprising. Yes. I know that during the filming of routes, you were mourning the death of your mother and that you said that that actually broke you. Yeah, because her death was quite unexpected yet. I was on a plane, the word I, I was going to New York. To gather up some formalwear to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who was being honored by Queen Elizabeth. And so on that plane, I had this dream.
I dreamt. That I fell in the street and I had my right hand extended for help. When I got to New York, I said to my assistant, Susan, at the time, I said, Susan, something's going on, something's happening. Somebody somebody's trying to get a message to me, OK? And she said, What do you mean? I said, because I told her the dream, because you've always had this sixth sense.
I mean, my mother had it, too, and she she just passed out. So I told her to dream.
She said, well, you know, I mean, I haven't gotten any news, so I guess everything's all right. So I was still tortured by the fact that I could not get on that plane that night until they found out what the message was. And so I went home and I started getting things together and the phone rang. It was my sister. I said, how are you? She said, not the mother just passed. My mother woke up that morning, she called my sister in law and said, Bernie, I'm going home to my mother.
And Ernie said, oh, mother, don't talk like that, I don't like to hear you say things like, why don't you wait until sister come? All my family members come. And she said, OK, all right. She did not know.
That I was on the East Coast, I didn't call to tell her she got dressed in her Sunday best. Walked out of the house six feet from her door and she dropped justiciability if she had her right. Exactly. Wow. Yeah, yeah, so I'm the kind of person who when I get these kinds of things. I don't ignore them because it is a message to me. Mm hmm.
So having that sixth sense, that connection, I would think that you understand then also that, you know, the spirit lives on.
Yes, no question. No question. No question with me.
Did it ever frighten you having having this? Yes, ma'am. I would think yeah. It's both advantageous, but also kind of scary. Yeah. Yeah. I went through a terrible time, but she said when I was six months old, she was pushing me in a carriage and a woman stopped her and said, take care of that child. She has a sixth sense. She is going to make you very proud one day and she's going to take care of you in your old age.
Uh. Wow. Wow, I had forgotten all about it, and when I lost her, I just could not adjust. I felt for the first time I understood what people who are amputees mean when they say even though the limb is gone, you feel as though it's still there, really. And that's how I felt. I felt that it was gone. My right arm was gone, and yet it was there, you know.
Did you use the mourning of her, the loss of her, the yearning for that?
You know, part of what was missing is, as your character has been to you know, people ask why? I've always been so private, you know, that I don't discuss my personal life, I mean, and I remember being asked that by an interviewer and I said.
Because it's my personal life that allows me to give you what I do. Mm hmm. It's what's innate in me as a being.
Yes. That allows me to give a role what it should have to make it live for you. Yes, OK. And so, I mean, I think. You know, I don't think my my life is so meaningful in the sense that I have to walk around talking about it. Yes. To every Tom, Dick and Harry, it isn't you know, it's the life that I've lived in every I am, in fact, the sum total of my whole life experience and everything, everything, everything.
Believe me when I say I think that I have profited more from the negative as opposed to the positive.
Really? Yes. Because negative experiences.
Yes, absolutely. I, I really relish and treasure them more than positive because if I have been able to survive it. And reached another level that has given me more growth, more strength, more confidence has enriched my life more. And that's why I treasure. Today's episode is supported by Chopra, Your best you is waiting inside wellbeing is a journey. Let Oprah and Deepak Chopra be your guide. Over the past seven years, Oprah and Deepak, I produced over 300 meditations that will last a lifetime, transform every aspect of your life with a complete 21 day meditation collection from the pioneers and well-being for a limited time.
You will also get a year of the Chopra app putting a comprehensive guide to well-being in the palm of your hand. Unlock the full 21 day meditation library now before it goes away forever. Visit Choper dot com, slash Oprah and start your journey today. I never think of what people perceive as being negative, as negative at all. To me, it's the most positive. Wow.
Because you use it as an opportunity, you use the opposition as opportunity, I just think that you have a negative experience which you think will bring you to your knees. And it doesn't. It doesn't. And you survive that. You're stronger. You're richer. Your father. He have more. In touch with what God wants you to be. I'm marveling at what you're saying, because I just heard T.D. Jakes, Reverend T.D. Jakes preach an entire sermon about this.
He called it saving the scraps. And he talked about the in terms of the loaves and fishes when God when Jesus was feeding the multitudes and asked the disciples to pick up the baskets of scraps. And he was saying that your real power is in the scraps and the scraps of your life. Yes, absolutely.
And we don't we decry that. Yes. I just think you stand by. Yes. That's the important thing. You survived it. And once you have survived it, you're on another level. That's right. You've come through that stuff.
So there are certain roles that you refuse to take in your career. You've said that you didn't have the luxury of just being an actress. Well, you know, my mother just felt very strongly that I was going to live in a den of iniquity. You know what that means?
I know all mothers think that when I when I told my father when I first said I wanted to be an actress, I remember clearly the day and he said no daughter of mine is going to be lying down on some casting couch.
I mean, it was like he bought in the name of it. Yes, yes. Yes. Very good. Very good. Yes.
I mean, the I think the interpretation was that, yeah, well, we never we were not children that went to the movies, never went to the movies, is the fact that I'm in the business as a source of amazement, not only to my family and friends, but to myself, because we were not children that did our choice on Saturday and were rewarded by going to the movies. Yes, we were. So I didn't sit there ogling over this.
Character on the screen, I want to be that I never but she she felt very strongly about that. She told me that, as I said earlier, that I couldn't live in her house and do that. And so I moved. I found a girlfriend who was my size was the same size clothes, had an apartment, had a job so that when I had to go out on interviews, I could borrow a dress or I had someplace to sleep and so on.
So. Then two years later, I did. A play at the Y, and that's the first time I ever stepped on the stage. And it was produced by my then teacher. Her name was Venette Carol. And she was directing a play, Dark of the Moon was the name of it. And so I decided I would ask my mother to come and see. So she agreed I put her in the center. Of the third row, because I wanted to know where she would be so that I would avoid that area.
So that's very apparent from the moment I walked onto the stage.
A wash. Kandia, she started talking about her, I mean, she's talking to her neighbor, but she thinks she's whispering and the whole theater is hearing this woman comment on every move I made on the stand.
OK. All right, I got to that. I go backstage room makeup and hair and costume, I come out, my mother is standing at the door accepting congratulatory remarks. Yes, I always know ever since she was a little girl, you know, she like to sing and dance. I knew one day this is the woman who told me that I could not live in her house if that's the life I wanted to live. After that. She became a little bit more tolerant of my being in the business, then when Sounder opened, I invited her to the opening.
I'm sitting here, she's sitting behind me. She's tapping me on the shoulder to say Ed Sullivan is sitting behind me.
She loved Ed Sullivan. I said, Ed Sullivan, I'm sitting here talking to you. But you know what I realize and this is what I mean when you can take lemons and make lemonade. We had a very, very difficult time. My mother and I. And I learned. That all the adversity that existed between us, primarily because my dad. I look just like him every time she looked at me, she saw him and so I became, you know, but.
What the adversity that existed between the two of us. Was and I say that I don't think she left here without realizing that she, in fact, is responsible for what I have become. Because that's what I used, you know that. That relationship fighting to get and she was fighting to protect me. I was fighting for my independence. Yes.
You know, and but that is what brought me you never know where you are source of energy is going to come from. You just don't. And believe me, she was my source of energy. And I realized that she was gone because it was so difficult for me to to get it together. You made a distinct choice not to take roles that in any way were going to be detrimental to the character of black women.
Black primarily because I was doing an interview in Philadelphia. It was a press conference. And this journalist stood up and admitted that he discovered a bit of bigotry in himself while viewing Sounder, and that came about because Kevin Hooks, who played my oldest son, referred to his father as daddy. And so I asked him whether or not he had any children. He said, yes, I have two sons. What do they call you?
Daddy, he said he could not equate the fact that this little black boy was calling this black man daddy, as his son did here.
I thought to myself, my God. I can't believe that I had that I was doing an interview in Los Angeles and this young lady said to me, It's hard for me to believe that love. Existed between black men and women, the likes of which you exhibited in sound.
I said, do you realize what you're saying? You're saying that we're not human beings. Yeah, I know. I know.
And she said, well. I don't know, you know, I don't know them, I never lived among them, I never went to school with them.
I didn't know them then talking to me and she said, I'm. I'm sorry your guilt lives in your innocence. I said your client lives in your innocence. I cannot accept that you can't live in this society during the civil rights era and not know what's going on. With a race of people, I'm sorry, your guilt lives in a sense, it's hard to believe, but it's true. Yeah, it's very difficult to believe. I mean, I sometimes think, you know, you can't live in this society and not be aware unless you are completely shut off from them.
But, you know, at the time, people were shut off. And also for me around, you know, my whole life, I was always the only black kid in this. I was the first black person to do in this first on the television and so forth. And it's just a part of our lives.
It's just a part of our lives. But for a lot of people. If not through their housekeepers, if they they had no friends, they had no introduction to black people.
I think that we we, in order to survive in this society, have had to learn them. Mm hmm. They have never had to learn us. And I think that's where the ball was dropped. We had to learn them in order to survive.
What did you realize at the time of root that that was the first time for actually a lot of black people, unfortunately, who did not know the history, did not understand.
And certainly for most of the white people, that was the first time anybody even had a clue.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because, well, it's like the young lady said to me, well, I don't know them. I never went to school with them. I didn't even in the same neighborhood and so on. So so there was no need.
Right. To know who I was. Yes, OK. But there was a need for us to know who they were in order to protect ourselves.
I think that's what it's important for you to know people in, not for you to understand or to have any kind of relationship with them.
How else? Do you get to have a unity among people if you don't do that?
You were a trailblazer. You've always been a trailblazer. But I think it was Ebony that that called you the mother of the Afro style. You were doing it before it was popular, before when you were doing it, people were saying, why is she wearing her hair that way?
I would listen if I were one to have saved these things.
I could give you a room full of letters, really, from people, primarily blacks, black people, who absolutely crucified me for doing what I was told that I was in a position to uplift the image of the black woman.
And I was absolutely destroying it by wearing my hair in natural. The interesting thing is that I was doing a a a a Sunday morning television show that was. Oh, my goodness. Is that you?
Yeah, somebody just brought this picture. You know, I thought this was I thought this was Kimberly Ellis.
That's why I think she's my daughter. That's right. You were doing that in 19. I don't know.
Wow. That was bold and people thought you you were degrading the race. That's right. And when you did this, people thought you were degrading the race.
This came about as a result of the movie. See, everything that I did had to do with a character that I was playing. This was a movie entitled Between Yesterday and Today. And it was about a couple who during the transition of Africa to the more a Western world my husband wanted to change.
I did not want I wanted to stay with the old culture and the old customs of that was the movie that it was done.
It was entitled between yesterday and today. Now it was done live. It was a television morning show Sunday morning. And so that night before I was so unhappy about the fact that my hair was straightened and long and I went up to Harlem and I walked into the Shalimar barbershop with Duke Ellington's barbershop.
The Shalamar barbershop. Yes.
I walked into his barbershop, that barbershop. And I said to this gentleman who approached me, I said, I want you to cut my hair, you know, just cut it. So he sat me down, put this smock around me, and he started cutting and he cut it down to about me. And so he said, how does that look to you? Does that make you happy? And I said, No, no, no, no, no.
You don't understand. I want you to shave it all off, shave it as close to my head as you can possibly get it, and then wash it so that it goes back to its natural state. The man went and sat down.
He said to me, Are you sure that's what you want?
And I said, Yes, that's exactly what I want. So he said, OK, the next morning I get on set. I have it tied up. OK, well, they do the makeup and the costume and the director says, OK, we're ready. I take this scarf off. Do the people pass out?
So finally the director walks over to me and he said cheerfully, You cut your hair. And I said, I didn't say anything. I just shook my head. He said, you know, I wanted to ask you to do it, but I didn't have dinner. Wow. And that that was it. Wow, so when people were sending you all of that mail saying you're degrading the black woman and you should be lifting us up. How dare you?
Did you feel that you needed to respond to them? Did you feel that you didn't?
That was my problem with that. And I wasn't going to make it mine. I love you. I don't have a pile of it, though. Yeah, not at all. Why did you feel like a trailblazer? Did you feel like. Oh, yeah, I started that thing?
Absolutely not. It was all in the process of my developing as a human being and making my characters real, true to their be.
What has it cost you to have this standard of what you would and would not play?
Has that cost you. I would own your house. Yeah, yeah, you know.
But I made the decision that. When I read a script, I saw my skin tingle on my stomach churned. When my skin tingle, I knew I had to do it when my stomach churned, couldn't do it. I knew I couldn't do it. I knew that whatever monetary gain there was would end up in the psychiatrist hand. Because I could not live with myself, having done certain things that I found were demeaning to me as a woman first and to the race of people.
Just couldn't do it. I could do it. I came pretty close to doing it one time because I wanted desperately to work with this director. And he came to Hollywood and he was going to do this movie, he sent me the script. I took it home, I opened it, I started to read it. At the more I read it, Sicko, I became. And so I called him and I said, I can't do I can't do it.
He came to the house, he said. Let's talk about it. Which we did, and so I said, OK, I'll try again. I set up that whole night, I read the entire script onto a tape, and then I played it back the next morning and I said. I can't do it. And that was it, it just made me sick to my stomach and the thought she you know, if you do a play, you do it, it's over.
But the thought of doing something like this and leaving it on the screen. Is forever. OK, and that's not how lightly. When you look back at your career, you've played, you know. Iconic roles, Harriet Tubman and Jane Pittman, Coretta Scott King and Binta, not just as an actress, really, but as a woman, an African-American woman. What do you want your legacy to be?
I don't know. I don't think about that. I don't know. Yeah. I don't know, I suppose it's it's easy to say whatever. What what ever it has done to improve the human race? I don't know.
You know, it's so interesting. I ask the question because I'm curious about your answer. But when I am asked that question, I remember something that Maya Angelou shared with me when I opened my school in Africa and I said, oh, this will this will be my legacy in Maya. In her Maya way said, you don't know what your legacy will be, that the legacy is every life that was ever touched by you.
Yeah, every person who ever saw, experienced, heard something that you said and they were affected by it. But you don't know.
But you don't know that that's what she said. That's why she said you don't know. That's right. You don't know. I don't know.
Ms. Well, I have to ask, what do you now know about love?
I'm not going to ask you about your personal life and your marriage to Miles Davis and all that. Everybody knows that. But what do you now know about what is it?
What is it? Do you know what it is? What is what is it? What is it? What is love?
Do you know what it is? I think I do. You do? Yeah, I think I do. You know. There are so many definitions given that word, it is bandied about more than any other word, I think, in the English language. Yes, and I don't know that many of us know what it actually means. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
OK. That's as close as I get to it. Do you get as close as knowing, feeling through nature, through church, through whatever that God is love?
Well, when you put it in that context. I think it takes God out of the realm. Of being for me, of being human. A being a person. And we deal with Zumanity. And we relate to each other. In loving ways as human beings. And so. I don't know that I would put it in that context. I know that we are taught that it is, and at times we experience certain emotions in our being that we attribute to love.
Mm hmm. What is that love?
I don't know. I know when I feel a certain. Warmth, the closeness, a desire to to give of myself to another human being.
Is that is that what it is? I don't know, I'm I'm constantly questioning that myself about that, what it is, what makes you happy just fills you up. Brings you great joy, what makes me happy? I live on the 17th floor of a building overlooking Central Park.
Oh. It's interesting, when I was a little girl growing up, my mother, who never allowed us to go out and play with other children. Would after we finish our dinner and our choice, she would take us to Central Park and we'd sit outside the park and these benches and I used to sit there and look at these buildings, these high rises, and wonder who lived in those buildings and why we didn't live there.
And for the last 30 some odd years, I have lived in that building, and so when I wake up in the morning and I. Look at the sky. And the stars and the more. And that various. When I look at the earth and the fullness therein, I wonder why does it matter that thou art so mindful of him? Joy. Try Joy. This has been the honor of my life and career to have you sitting here for my life.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that. Thank you.
I'm Oprah Winfrey and you've been listening to Super Soul Conversations, the podcast. You can follow Super Soul on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. If you haven't yet, go to Apple podcast and subscribe rate and review this podcast. Join me next week for another super soul conversation. Thank you for listening.