In 1969, newly-elected Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was asserting herself as a dynamic national voice for youth, women, racial minorities, peace advocates and the poor. She was protesting the Vietnam War from Capitol Hill, and fighting the day-to-day effects of Nixon’s domestic policies from her Brooklyn District office. At the same time, she was embarking on a national tour of college campuses, lending her mind and her voice to what she often called the “social revolution” that was sweeping the country. To Washington insiders, Chisholm’s rise from public schoolteacher to the New York State Assembly in 1964 to Congress in 1968 and then presidential candidate in 1972 seemed improbably swift. But, in reality, her eventual political rise was the result of many years of painstaking work beneath the radar and behind the scenes of mainstream political life.
The same can be said of Shirley Chisholm’s recent re-emergence into the public consciousness. After years of obscurity, a recent New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer declared that “2019 Belongs To Shirley Chisholm.” Dr. Zinga A. Fraser, Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College spoke of the extensive public outreach and research that went into re-introducing the public to Shirley Chisholm and her monumental achievements. In Professor Fraser’s words:
[For example: Drs. Barbara Winslow (founder of the Shirley Chisholm Project), Niambi Carter and Christina Greer appeared in the 2016 PBS series The Contenders]. [In this video, also from 2016, Dr. Fraser spoke with BBC Africa on Chisholm in the context of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy].
“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,”
This past year in particular has been a significant year for women’s grassroots activism, women of color in politics and the legacy of Congresswoman Chisholm. In light of this, it was also a busy period for the Project. Preparation for the 2018 Chisholm Day Celebration was the focus of much of last year. The Project organizes Chisholm Day annually at Brooklyn College, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s achievement as the first Black woman elected to Congress and necessitated an expansion of our normal programming.
Therefore, we organized a day-long symposium to commemorate both the major political gains made by women of color in the 2018 midterm elections and honor Chisholm herself, who was essential to laying the groundwork for those gains. After an intensive process to select guest speakers and panelists for the anniversary, we secured the support of a number of amazing speakers. They included Brooklyn College students, local public servants, political scientists and a renowned poet-activist.
Chisholm Day 2018
On Tuesday, November 27th we held a panel discussion on “The State of Black Women’s Politics.” The panel was lead by our Director Dr. Zinga Fraser, who was joined by two more of the nation’s foremost scholars on African-American politics—Dr. Niambi Carter of Howard University and Dr. Christina Greer of Fordham University. Our audience for the Roundtable exceeded the capacity of our venue, the Gold Room of the BC Student Center. Prior to the Roundtable itself, our audience was addressed by BC students (leaders and activists in their own right), Provost Lopes and local officials. These included now-City Council Member Farah Louis (at the time representing the office of Jumaane Williams), then-Councilmember Williams himself (who is currently serving as the NYC Public Advocate). Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte also provided remarks. In addition, the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority came out in strong numbers to support the event and their soror Chisholm, with their president Shawna Greene also addressing the audience.
As for the discussion itself, Drs. Fraser, Greer and Carter engaged on a number of issues including the long history of Black women’s political pioneering; indispensability of Black women to the Democratic Party and broader social change in America; the fragility of the democratic process in the U.S.; and, the importance of continued struggle and engagement to protect the rights of women, the working class and racial minorities.
The keynote event of Chisholm Day was a discussion between Dr. Fraser and renowned poet-activist Dr. Sonia Sanchez. This dialogue, held in Woody Tanger Auditorium, was also before an enthralled standing-room-only crowd.
Before the keynote event, we were also privileged to count the following among our guest speakers: Dr. Una Clarke, former member of the NY City Council and Deborah Peaks Coleman, Director of Programs for Delta Research and Educational Foundation. Dr. Sanchez shared from her body of poetry, reflected on triumphs and turbulence of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras and contextualized Chisholm’s place at the center of that era and our own.
She and Dr. Fraser discussed the many obstacles Chisholm faced on her path as a catalyst for change, the convergence of the women’s and racial justice movements as well as the importance of young citizens today to become involved in the political process. The Q&A session with Dr. Sanchez endured long after the scheduled end of the program, with Professor Sanchez engaging students on the historic and contemporary importance of the ballot; bridging divides within the Black community; and cultural heritage and pride alongside the building of diverse coalitions.
For Chisholm Day 2018, the Project attracted and engaged nearly 600 students and community members throughout the day. Judging by the size and enthusiasm of our audiences at both events, there is no doubt that our 50th Anniversary celebration was a great success. The Project’s efforts to raise awareness about Chisholm’s life went beyond our Chisholm Day events and beyond the walls of the Congresswoman’s alma mater.
Dr. Fraser’s Campaign to Preserve Chisholm’s Legacy
Throughout 2018 (and continuing into the current year), Dr. Fraser has embarked on a tour of public appearances and interviews with local & national media establishments to shed further light on Shirley Chisholm’s exceptional public career.
Dr. Fraser’s work focuses on African American Politics, Black Women’s History and Feminism. She is an expert on Black Congressional Politics, and has studied Shirley Chisholm over eight years. Her master’s thesis, “Unbought and Unbossed: A Radical Political Ideology” received the Zora Neale Hurston Award. Furthermore, her doctoral dissertation was a comparative study of Shirley Chisholm and her colleague Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. This extensive body of research is the basis for her upcoming book: Sister Insider / Sister Outsider: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Black Women’s Politics in the Post-Civil Rights Era
This research is also why USA TODAY, The Associated Press, Essence, The Guardian and other publications have sought out Dr. Fraser to shed light on Shirley Chisholm’s life and Black women’s political activism today. For example, in a February 2018 article, “Unbought and Unbossed: Shirley Chisholm Blazed Multiple Trails,” Dr. Fraser spoke with USA TODAY on Chisholm’s coalition-building prowess and her presidential campaign. Dr. Fraser was prominently featured in a November 11th article by the Associated Press, “50 years in, Chisholm’s historic victory offers inspiration.” The article was distributed to various publications nationally including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC New York, US News, The Tampa Bay Times and The Houston Chronicle. Chisholm Day 2018 was also covered in the New York Amsterdam News article, “Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm honored on the 50th anniversary of her historic election.”
Following Chisholm Day, Dr. Fraser was sought out again regarding the Prospect Park monument to Chisholm currently in development. Dr. Fraser’s insights were the basis of a December 2018 article by the Guardian. Drawing from Dr. Fraser’s quotation, the article was entitled: “‘It’s About Time’: Shirley Chisholm, First Black Congresswoman, Will Get a Statue”. The Chisholm Project Director was also quoted for another article, this one for AM New York, on the comparisons between Chisholm and women of color who were elected to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections (“The legacy of ‘fighting Shirley Chisholm’”).
In addition to outreach specifically related to Chisholm, Dr. Fraser also engaged media outlets on the connection between Black women’s cultural history and their culture of resistance against social marginalization and political oppression. She was prominently featured in Elle magazine’s documentary “Braided” [see video below] and in the Essence article “Respect Our Roots: A Brief History of Braids” (July 2018). Finally, she was also interviewed for a December 2018 article for Hello Beautiful which focused on the personal and political ramifications of cultural appropriation.
Like 2018, 2019 has been another busy year, with Dr. Fraser collaborating with more media outlets including Buzzfeed News in January. In her interview with AM2DM, she commented on the proposed statue, state park and film projects all bearing Chisholm’s name and likeness:
We really hope that people stay true to Chisholm’s advocacy, the issues that she spoke about, to infuse that into who she was. And also have a nuanced understanding. She wasn’t just a boring congressional member—she was on fire, she loved dance, she was full of life.
This March, the Shirley Chisholm Project co-sponsored the Women’s Political Conference, an event that was organized by the Women of Color at Brooklyn College. In addition to co-sponsoring the event, Dr. Fraser gave the opening address. Like she has in many public events, she admonished the audience—we cannot just look up to Chisholm as a political symbol, but fight for the people and the causes she fought for.
Aside from Chisholm’s political career, she addressed the political and socio-economic inequalities that plague Brooklyn and the nation even today. Since Chisholm fought her entire life against discriminatory housing policies, Dr. Fraser suggested to the audience that the Brooklyn we see today would be unrecognizable to Chisholm. What does it mean, given the work that still needs to be done to protect marginalized communities, to truly follow in Chisholm’s footsteps?
One of the other issues that Shirley Chisholm was most passionate about was inspiring women—especially women of color—to become more involved in the political process. Chisholm herself was relegated to the most thankless tasks of political life early in her career. She began her career in politics as a worker in political clubs like the Seventeenth Assembly District Democratic Club and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, in her words “stuffing envelopes, organizing rallies, writing speeches and answering phones.”[On the campaign trail, as seen in the video above, Chisholm often pointed out the hypocrisy of the many male politicians on her ideas to write their speeches but laughed at the idea of her running for president. “For fifteen years, I was the ghostwriter for a lot of them!”]
When Chisholm saw women like herself doing all of the grassroots labor and white men gaining all of the positions of power, she decided to dedicate her life to building a foundation for women and minorities to gain political self-determination. In addition to her own accomplishments, she mentored political talents like Representative Barbara Lee, political strategist Donna Brazile and Representative Maxine Waters (just to name a few).
On April 1st, Professor Fraser (along with Professor Barbara Winslow) was asked by She Built NYC to be a member of the review committee and evaluate the various artist proposals in consideration. The review committee voted on the design by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous,“Our Destiny, Our Democracy.”
On April 30th, the Chisholm Project Director also participated in the conference held by NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray entitled “Building on Shirley Chisholm’s Legacy: The Future of Women’s Civic and Political Leadership.” At the event, Dr. Fraser addressed the assembly of leaders, journalists and community members on the importance of staying focused on the substance of Chisholm’s work and ideas. In that day, she said:
Yes, it is true that Chisholm would love this moment. She would love seeing that minority women are showing an acute understanding that they have—and have always had—a legitimate claim to political power in this country. But, never forget: she was also a sharp critic of what she called “see-how-far-we’ve-come-ism.” More than a first, Chisholm was a fighter. And her insistence on fighting the good fight on behalf of marginalized people earned her a host of enemies… So what does Chisholm’s famous mantra of “Unbought and Unbossed” actually mean in terms of fighting for the people? For her, it meant engaging in struggle for her community, and the broader community, even when it wasn’t politically advantageous. This is why we know, for instance, that she would never support leaders who align themselves with the politics of gentrification… Chisholm’s intersectional legacy is fighting for multiple identities at the same time. And, her political legacy is daring to be comfortable in the uncomfortable spaces of public life. It’s impossible to be comfortable and do the people’s work. That’s why we cannot be lulled into a comforting political discourse that only discusses race and gender identities symbolically. We always have to ask elected officials, (and ourselves): what work are you doing—and for whom?
[NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray opening the conference. The First Lady is spearheading She Built NYC, which is overseeing the Chisholm monument construction. She is also Co-Chair of the NYC Commission on Gender Equity].
[Professor Fraser (left) speaking with Barbara Bullard (right), Managing Member, B-Bullard LLC and a co-producer of a Shirley Chisholm film in development.]
[The speakers and panelists of “Building on Shirley Chisholm’s Legacy.” From left: L. Joy Williams, President, Brooklyn NAACP; Unidentified honored guest ; Barbara Bullard, Managing Member, B-Bullard LLC; Dr. Zinga Fraser; NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray; Dr. Una S.T. Clarke, former City Council Member; Liuba Grechen Shirley, Former Congressional Candidate and Founder of Vote Mama; Jacqueline Ebanks, Executive Director, NYC Commission on Gender Equity; and Catherine Almonte, Managing Director, The Broad Room].
[Dr. Fraser (center) speaking at the Free To Be Anywhere conference]
In May, Dr. Fraser spoke at Columbia University as a co-organizer and participant of Free To Be Anywhere In the Universe–An International Conference on New Directions in the Study of the African Diaspora. Her lecture “Black Congressional Women’s Freedom Dreams: Redefining American Democracy.” detailed the work of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan to transform the American society through progressive legislation. She also spoke of the many obstacles—institutional marginalization, naked racism and blatant sexism—that each congresswoman had to overcome to make their mark on the political landscape.
Just a week ago, The Park Slope Reader published an article entitled “Shirley Chisholm Returns to Brooklyn: A New Take on the American Monument”. In that article, Dr. Fraser provided historical context to the monument of Chisholm to be erected in Prospect Park.
“We hope that the new monument will provoke conversation about Shirley Chisholm’s decision to become directly involved in politics even when the system and its defenders actively tried to tear her down. We hope that this will generate conversation about the unique challenges of marginalized communities and how they help transform American democracy for themselves and for humanity at large. We hope that it will also promote Chisholm’s long-held belief that direct involvement alone is the only thing that changes the system.”
This has been an important period for the Chisholm Project in raising the profile of the organization, in generating broader and deeper understanding of Shirley Chisholm’s significance and in educating the public on the importance Black women’s activism and grassroots organizing. Yet, given how easy it is to use the names and likeness of Black women like Shirley Chisholm without substantive engagement with the issues that are important to them, the Chisholm Project still has great deal of work ahead of us.
For the upcoming year, the Project will continue to focus heavily on research and public education. Stay tuned to us on Twitter and Facebook for news on upcoming Chisholm Project initiatives and Dr. Fraser’s upcoming book on Black Women’s Congressional legacies.