Resurrecting Shirley Chisholm from Symbol to Life

Shirley Chisholm, c. 1972 (Bernard Gotfryd–Library of Congress)

Fifteen years ago, I decided to write a biography of a Black woman. My scholarly genealogy pushed me toward such a project. The gorgeous biography of Sojourner Truth written by my graduate mentor Nell Irvin Painter and the collective biography of Negritude Women by another one of my mentors, Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, both shaped my first book’s deep dive into Black gendered subjectivities. Human choices within historical contexts are at the heart of our craft, especially for Black women historical actors from the vantage point of race and gender. In choosing to take up biography, I wanted to lift up the work Black women have always done in service of democracy and equality, as well as Black women’s humanity and genius.

I will admit some naïveté in beginning such a project. I thought it would take less than half the time it eventually did to write Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics. I thought it would be a relatively simple process of consulting congressional and personal papers and then crafting a coherent narrative of cradle to grave. I realized I would have to pay attention to the recovery process of determining the details of Chisholm’s life, but I did not initially reckon with the challenges of interpreting that life. And that is a good thing, because I might have been too intimidated to start the project at all.

What actually happened was that I chose a subject—Shirley Chisholm—who exists largely in symbolic form, invoked when “strong Black women,” feminists, Black people, the 1970s, the Democratic presidency, or outspoken political officials are a topic of discussion. To be frank, Chisholm was a symbol for me as a ten-year-old girl as I weighed a presidential run. In large part because of Chisholm’s 1972 run for the Democratic Party’s nomination, I was certain that I could run—and win—if I so chose, but my fifth-grade self decided I had other interests such as teaching. I had no idea at the time that Chisholm had started her career as a teacher, let alone the constellation of her temperament, background, and choices that led her to the podium at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. And neither do most Americans. It is as if Chisholm sprang fully formed to a national presidential campaign to become the conscience of a Democratic Party that would eradicate sexism and racism (if only someone were as principled as she was). Her 1968 congressional campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” supported her public image, as did the two memoirs she published in 1971 and 1973.

Her symbolic power meant that my biography was an act of resurrection, a resurrection of Chisholm’s actual life from the shadow of her symbolic one. Over the decade-plus that I have been writing her biography, I have come to rely more and more on Painter’s framework of life/symbol for making sense of Chisholm. Painter identified the generic symbol of Strong Black Woman that became attached to Truth and ultimately obscured the real person. Painter found that Truth was often mistaken for other prominent Black women of her time (namely Harriet Tubman) and was vaguely identified with the US South even though Truth was from upstate New York. Finally, Painter demonstrated that “ar’n’t I a woman?” was not Truth’s utterance but the invention of a white woman who sought to use Truth’s symbolism. I now recognize in this pattern some of the features of Chisholm’s mythology. Chisholm herself has come to represent strong Black womanhood, but she was often mistaken for her colleague Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, she seems to be from everywhere and nowhere (she was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and Barbados), and she has her own apocryphal quotes (“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”). Black women, whatever their exceptional qualities, are lumped together as an undifferentiated mass rather than perceived to have human subjectivity.

Yet both Truth and Chisholm, as historical actors, insist on that very human subjectivity. In resurrecting Chisholm’s complex life, I discovered that heroism and humanity can coexist. Chisholm was the daughter of working-class Barbadian immigrants to Brooklyn in the 1920s, and she was sent back to Barbados for six years beginning when she was four years old. Replanted in Brooklyn, she completed junior high and high school, then Brooklyn College during the years of World War II. Her diasporic background, academic proclivities, and bold temperament shaped the woman she would become. She was extremely ambitious and attuned to the nuances of political power, but forever a teacher.

It is easy to look back in time and see the above qualities forming in the young Shirley Chisholm. But the specifics of how it happened are on a human scale. Chisholm’s Barbadian grandmother Emmeline Seale was a cook who claimed daily dignity and encouraged her granddaughter to violate protocols of children being seen but not heard. Chisholm’s father, Charles St. Hill, was a Garveyite and union man who tutored his daughter in politics and then left her a small inheritance that helped fund her first New York State Assembly campaign. That inheritance resulted in an estrangement between Chisholm, her mother, and her sisters that was never resolved.

Chisholm’s initial career of choice was as a teacher, and she retained a pedagogical approach in her second career of politics. Believing at first that she would not succeed in politics because she was a Black woman, she eventually found herself doing politics anyway within the New York City public school system and community organizations. She came of political age during a realignment in Brooklyn that was getting more Black men into public office, most of whom were first- or second-generation Caribbean immigrants. Always bold, she pushed the change further to encompass sex as well as race.

Chisholm’s legendary personal magnetism (far from being a tedious pontificator, she was warm, witty, a great dancer, and a sharp dresser) concealed a shrewd political mind. Having assessed the shifting constellations of power in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, Chisholm cast her lot with an insurgent interracial Democratic Party organization and made herself indispensable to its leader, Thomas R. Jones. She supported his political ambitions by policing any whiff of Communism within its ranks, to the chagrin of other members.  But she had formed alliances with the right people and, with the financial resources from her work as a public schools administrator and her father’s inheritance, Chisholm made a successful run for New York State Assembly in 1964. She used the same alliances for a 1968 run for the US Congress, this time capitalizing on the high number of women voters in a newly-drawn congressional district that consolidated Black voting power within Bedford-Stuyvesant.

In Congress, Chisholm built a series of coalitions that were focused around issues rather than identities. She arrived in Washington as the pendulum swung away from prioritizing domestic programs while the Vietnam War drained national coffers. She made common cause with antiwar protesters because she thought it unconscionable to spend money on a war that offered only tangential benefits to her Black, brown, poor, and/or women constituents. She convinced colleagues who were reluctant to expand unemployment benefits to domestic workers through one-on-one deployments of her considerable charm. Collaborating with mainstream feminists, she got a universal childcare bill passed in both houses (only to be vetoed by Richard Nixon). For fourteen years, she pushed to preserve or expand federal programs that protected vulnerable Americans.

Chisholm’s presidential run, as a historic first, tends to obscure those years of congressional work. And the purpose of that campaign has itself lost context and meaning over time. For six months in 1972, Chisholm campaigned in a set of states where she thought she might be able to win delegates at the national convention. With convention delegates she would have sway over the party platform and be able to press the eventual nominee toward an intersectional antiracism. But a coalition of enough delegates to do so was elusive. Despite the fact that she explicitly endorsed the premises of the Black freedom and feminist movements, most leaders would cast their lot with one of the white men who were running. Other Black leaders were resentful that she had declared her candidacy while they still were deliberating over strategy for 1972. Women delegates, who were at their largest proportion in the history of the major party conventions at that point, thought it was useless to back a candidate who was not likely to win the nomination. Only Black women seemed to grasp that supporting Chisholm could leverage elusive political clout. Chisholm’s efforts to persuade large numbers of delegates to wait to commit until campaign promises were forthcoming were not successful. Even so, she won over 150 delegates in the first ballot, the most any Black candidate would receive until Jesse Jackson in 1984 and the most for any woman until Hilary Clinton in 2008.

Chisholm’s genius was her intersectional and principled pragmatism. Her humanity was in her relationships in Brooklyn and on the Hill, especially pedagogical ones with younger colleagues. She taught her skills to a generation of citizens. Her congressional staff, whom she allowed to work with considerable autonomy, would go on to careers on Capitol Hill, or as activist leaders, or as elected officials. The young, idealistic voters who worked on her presidential campaign tended to remain in politics or activism. As her grandmother had done for her, Chisholm tried to encourage a healthy skepticism of authority and outspokenness among her mentees. It is this impact, more than stirring speeches or being a historic first, that is the very real legacy of Chisholm’s life.

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Anastasia Curwood

Anastasia Curwood is an Associate Professor of History and Director of African American & Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her scholarship focuses on the interface between private life and historical context for black Americans in the twentieth century. She is the author of 'Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages Between the Two World Wars' (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Her current project is a critical biography of Congresswoman and Democratic candidate for United States president Shirley Chisholm. Follow her on Twitter @CurwoodA.

Comments on “Resurrecting Shirley Chisholm from Symbol to Life

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    I think its great to have history like this for the future and bring new stories to the people on the world scene today.

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    Great work. One adjustment Charles Christopher St. Hill was a Guyanese native. He was born in Guyana.

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