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.