"I was asked to do a show with the emerging African nations. At that time, I was wearing me hair straightened. I wasn’t comfortable in the woman’s skin wearing that style of hair because I knew that they didn’t wear their hair straightened in Africa. So, I went through rehearsals with the straightened hair but the night before the show, which was being done live, I went to a barbershop in Harlem called The Shalamar where Duke Ellington used to cut his hair.
I told the barber to cut my hair as close to my scalp as possible, then shampoo it so it could go back to its natural state. He then sat down. When he regained himself, he came back to me and said, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
The next morning I go to the studio with my hair wrapped in a scarf. I go to makeup and costume. Then when the director said, ‘Places.’ I took the scarf off…You could hear a hair hit the floor. So finally he walked up to me and said, ‘Cicely, you cut your hair…” I sheepishly held my down and shook my head. Then he said, ‘You know, I wanted to ask you to do that but I didn’t have the nerve. [smiles]
Then there was George C. Scott who asked my agent to send me in to meet with them for East Side/West Side. I said ‘Well, what do I do about my hair?’ They said, ‘Your hair? Leave it that way.’ And that is what created the natural hair craze. That show and my wearing it that way. I got letters from hair dressers all over the country telling me that I was affecting their business because their clients were having their hair cut off so they could wear it like the girl on television.
The cornrow in Sounder, I knew during that period that women in the South cornrowed the head. So, I said that [her character] Rebeca would wear her hair in that manner. But everytime I changed the hair it had not to do with me, it had to do with authenticating the character that I was playing.”
—Cicely Tyson, Oprah’s Master Class