Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer: the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate and the first woman candidate for a major-party nomination for president of the United States. Still, despite her tremendous influence on American politics, biographies of Chisholm have been immensely hard to come across.
With her recently released book, “Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics,” Anastasia C. Curwood, a professor and interim chair of the Department of History at the University of Kentucky, hopes to alleviate this gap. A cradle-to-grave biography as Curwood calls it, the book gives insight into who Chisholm was as a person and how Chisolm’s many lived experiences and multiple identities shaped who she was. In the book, Curwood coins the term “Black Feminist Power Politics” to describe how Chisholm’s identity as a Black woman born to immigrant parents in a working-class family allowed her to empathize with the lived experiences of marginalized individuals and informed her politics.
The 19th spoke to Curwood about her book and the prevailing lessons from Chisholm’s life and legacy.
Rebekah Barber: Outside of her memoirs there haven’t been many books written about Shirley Chisholm’s life. Why is this?
Anastasia Curwood: That’s a great question. I, myself, have had several different theories over the years, trying to figure out why that was. It took me 15 years to write this book. In that time, there was one book intended for college students that was published by a colleague I have at Brooklyn College.
There’s been no cradle-to-grave biography. I think the reason I wasn’t scooped in the middle of all this is because first of all, Chisholm was a Black woman and Black women are very underrepresented in the world of biographies. Women are seen as somehow not universal or relevant to everybody else, and Shirley Chisholm’s life actually shows me the opposite. Her life is incredibly relevant to everybody.
The other thing is that she’s so iconic. To those who do know about her, she has this iconic status. She’s a symbol of principled Black and feminist political action and she ran for president — so she’s a famous first.
When people sometimes see a symbol, they don’t actually look behind the symbol and think that this person might actually be a real human being. That’s why I wanted to write a biography — to find the human being in the midst of big historical events, but I think most people don’t. It’s really hard to see symbols as human.
To that point, Shirley Chisholm was known for being “unbought, unbossed and unbound.” Since she was elected, I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen someone be able to be that unapologetic and still hold elected office. Why do you think that is?
It’s a combination of the person that Shirley Chisholm was and the times that she lived in. She was very outspoken and fearless because of her temperament, because of the Caribbean politics that she grew up in and around.
Caribbean people in the first part of the 20th century tended to be radical and get involved in politics. These are folks who came from, in many cases, majority Black countries where they saw Black people in power and then coming in and meeting up with American-style Jim Crow, a number of those folks became very politically active, especially in New York where she came up in.