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2019 Belongs to Shirley Chisholm

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tags: African American history, womens history, Shirley Chisholm



Shirley Chisholm stares out from the side of a dozen coffee mugs these days, her epochal glasses, brocade dresses and distinct crown of curls recognizable trademarks of the most regenerative political figure in modern American culture.

As a number of new congresswomen begin to emerge in her image, Ms. Chisholm, who 50 years ago began her service as the first African-American woman in Congress, representing Brooklyn’s 12th District, is enjoying a resurgence of interest 14 years after her death.

The actor Viola Davis is producing and starring in a feature film about her, “The Fighting Shirley Chisholm,” and the congresswoman will be portrayed by the actress Uzo Aduba in the upcoming series “Mrs. America,” which chronicles the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Shirley Chisholm State Park — the largest state park in New York City — opened July 2 in Brooklyn. The congresswoman will soon be the first female historical figure to have a public monumentin Brooklyn. Representative Yvette Clarke, who holds the seat held by Ms. Chisholm, is working to get a statue of her placed in the United States Capitol.

This month, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, another Brooklyn Democrat, had a portrait of her made to hang in the office of the House Democratic Caucus — which he heads — on Capitol Hill. “The social, economic and social-justice fights that Shirley Chisholm once led have sharpened in the Trump era,” Mr. Jeffries said. Those forces have converged, he added, with “the logical attention to her 50th anniversary of becoming the first African-American woman in Congress.”

John Stanton, a writer in New Orleans, recently had a replica of the 2008 portrait of Ms. Chisholm that hangs in the Capitol tattooed on his knee. “People want heroes right now,” Mr. Stanton said, “and they’re looking for heroes that aren’t just straight white men.”

Before the feminist movement fueled a slow wave of new women into Congress, Ms. Chisholm was a one-woman precursor to modern progressive politics. A community activist and educator who served briefly in the State Legislature, Ms. Chisholm decided to run for a House seat in 1968, her campaign centered squarely on gender; her primary opponent repeatedly suggested that a man was better suited to represent the area in Washington.

An advocate for the poor and working class, Ms. Chisholm employed a pre-Instagram method of direct engagement, a sound truck that she rolled up to Brooklyn housing projects bellowing, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.”

As the first African-American woman in Congress, Ms. Chisholm was often frozen out by men of all races and felt alienated by the feminist movement. In a 1974 speech at the University of Missouri, she said: “It is quite understandable why black women in the majority are not interested in walking and picketing a cocktail lounge which historically has refused to open its doors a certain two hours a day when men who have just returned from Wall Street gather in said lounge to exchange bits of business transactions that occurred on the market. This is a middle-class white woman’s issue.” Her efforts took years to be replicated. “You now have 20 black women in Congress,” Ms. Clarke said. “She was the only one.”

In 1972, Ms. Chisholm became the first African-American woman to seek the nomination of a major party for president of the United States. Thinking she could consolidate black, female and working-class voters under her campaign slogan and theme, “Unbought and Unbossed,” she ran up hard against the political realities and institutional sexism and racism of the era.

Ms. Chisholm was initially blocked from a televised debate, was derided by many of her black male colleagues in Congress who thought she had overstepped and was abandoned by white feminists like Gloria Steinem. But her unsuccessful run sealed her legacy as an unapologetic antiwar, feminist and working-class advocate, work she pursued until retiring from Congress in 1983. (In a twist, she also formed a genuine friendship with a presidential opponent, George Wallace, the former pro-segregationist governor of Alabama, and visited him in the hospital after he was shot.)

“A number of scholars have been doing a lot of work to expand the discourse on Shirley Chisholm for about six years knowing that there would be the 50th anniversary of her election to Congress,” said Zinga A. Fraser, director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College. Still, “Hillary Clinton did not evoke her during her campaign,” Ms. Fraser said. “Neither did Barack Obama.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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