This is the third entry in the series Honoring Black History.
I’ll start by admitting that Shirley Chisholm was not a woman I had much familiarity with growing up. Even though I spent a good portion of my youth in New York, my family (my mother especially) leaned heavily republican when it came to politics. Over the years, her name cropped up, but it wasn’t until Kelly became a recipient of Girls, Inc.’s “Unbought and Unbossed” award that I began to look into her history and appreciate the lasting impact of her life on this earth.
First of all, she was an educator. A firsthand witness to discrimination, hunger, and other issues within the education system, she turned her focus to politics. She did amazing work there, first in the New York State Assembly and later in the U.S. House of Representatives (as the first black woman elected to Congress, where she represented Bed-Stuy). She fought for the oft-forgotten and overlooked: students (naturally), domestic workers, the poor… And she staffed her office entirely with women—half of them black—which is pretty revolutionary considering she was in Congress from 1969–1983.
Perhaps the most instructive part of her career—for me at least—was her run for President in 1972. She was running for the Democratic nomination, ultimately finishing seventh, but she faced many struggles in that run. Naturally, being black, she found it difficult to gather support from enough white Democratic voters. But beyond that, she also failed to get the support you might expect from her black male colleagues (and men in general). In an interview, she remarked:
They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back. Being a woman is a bigger drawback for me than being black.
And yet, despite all of the systems and people working to hold her back, Shirley Chisholm was a force to be reckoned with. She took the cards she was dealt—like being assigned to the (yawn) Agricultural Committee early in her career—and found a way to make them play—by using her position to expand food stamps. She was gutsy and unafraid to speak truth to power.
I’ll share two quotes from her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed (which also happened to be her ’72 campaign slogan), that really resonate with me. The first concerns race:
My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference. What can I say to a man who asks that? All I can do is try to explain to him why he asks the question. You have looked at us for years as different from you that you may never see us really. You don’t understand because you think of us as second-class humans. We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal. When the good-natured, spiritual-singing boys and girls rise up against the white man and demand to be treated like he is, you are bewildered. All we want is what you want, no less and no more.
The second, on the fight for gender equality:
It is true that women have seldom been aggressive in demanding their rights and so have cooperated in their own enslavement. This was true of the black population for many years. They submitted to oppression, and even condoned it. But women are becoming aware, as blacks did, that they can have equal treatment if they will fight for it, and they are starting to organize. To do it, they have to dare the sanctions that society imposes on anyone who breaks with its traditions. This is hard, and especially hard for women, who are taught not to rebel from infancy, from the time they are first wrapped in pink blankets, the color of their caste.
Shirley Chisholm’s leadership inspires me to use the power I have to empower the oppressed and under-represented. And while I may not have known about her my whole life, her legacy will live with me for the rest of it.
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