“….to be aware of the fact that my candidacy is not to be regarded as a candidacy of which I can win the presidency of this country at this moment, but a candidacy that is paving the way for other ethnic groups including Blacks to run and perhaps win the office.” – Shirley Chisholm
As we stand on the historical precipice of Kamala Harris the first woman and Black woman as Vice President-elect of the United States, the remarkable legacy of politician and activist Shirley Chisholm has rightfully gained significant notice.
The resonance of the similarities between Harris and Chisholm are notably striking. Harris of Jamaican/Indian heritage shares her West Indian ancestry with Chisholm, of Guyanese/Barbadian roots. Harris is the first woman and first Black woman to become Vice President-elect of the United States. Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress in 1969, as well as the first woman and Black woman to run as a Democrat for presidential candidacy in 1972.
Chisholm possessed a rare quality; the power to awaken. During her highly distinguished career, she remained acutely aware of her role as an “Unbought and Unbossed” trailblazer. Fiercely unapologetic in her tone and tenacity, Chisholm proved to be a worthy contender of her white male counterparts. Her unflinching character was impactful crossing cultural, demographic, and political lines. While snippets of her rousing speeches are often quoted, perhaps one of her shortest statements simply and poignantly encapsulates her motivations; “Why not dare to dream?”
I had the pleasure of interviewing the Project Director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association Kayla Jackson, a 1986 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who was a student of Chisholm’s.
CC: Walk me through a class with Mrs. Chisholm?
KJ: She taught politics and sociology; she was the Purington Professor, that was the chair she had. I was a sociology minor. I took two classes with her.
She taught at 8:35 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ve all been 18, 19, 20, and none of us were morning people, and we were a small college, 2,000 women or so, so we didn’t have those huge lecture halls. We were in a classroom that probably seated maybe 30. It was small. We had great access to her. As I recall, the desks were more horizontally lined across the room as opposed to vertically. They went across lengthwise and she was in the front of the room. She was suited and booted, always dressed. She was in a suit and heels. I’m sure snow boots were somewhere because nobody is walking around New England in pumps all the time. She showed up to class dressed, and for us, that meant a lot. She had traveled from somewhere the night before. She didn’t live in South Hadley. She had her place in New York so she was, oftentimes, commuting in, and there were times we knew she flew in that morning on a 4:30 flight. I understand the early morning flights now, in a way I didn’t understand then. She always showed up ready to go. What that did, particularly for the Black girls on campus, is make-us take notice of how we showed up in her class. I remember, we sat down one day after class and noted that we were rolling up in sweats and sweatshirts and jeans. You know, you are dressed, but you are not making an effort, and we couldn’t allow her to continue to show up for us and not show up in the same way for her. It was disrespectful, so we then began changing how we dressed for class, as a sign of respect for her. We started to make an effort to get up, maybe put on a little makeup, do our hair, to do more than just wear jeans and a T-shirt, again as a sign of respect.
CC: Did she ask you to do that?
KJ: No, no!
CC:…or did her presence influence you to do that?
KJ: Oh Yea, yea. We were not unaware of who we were sitting in a room with and for us Shirley Chisholm’s name was a name that had been ever-present in our lives. We recognized that we were sitting in a room with history and our history at that.
CC: Was there anyone in your class who didn’t know who Shirley Chisholm was?
KJ: No. This was 1984, ‘85, ‘86..everybody knew who she was.
CC: How was she when she was teaching? Was she everything we saw of her in public?
KJ: Yes. She was a teacher before running for Congress, so you combine the educator with real-life experience and so she knew her subject matter in a way that so many of our professors didn’t necessarily. A lot of them were educators, not practitioners. She took her field experience, her first-hand knowledge and brought that back to us in the classroom. I would say I was in college at a fortunate time. In that place, Shirley Chisholm was there, and James Baldwin was the Five College author in residence. We had opportunities to see Maya Angelou speak, she was the commencement speaker at the sesquicentennial the next year after I graduated. Toni Morrison came to campus and spoke. Spike Lee came to campus while he was a graduate student at NYU. He showed “Joe’s Barbershop – We Cut Heads” prior to “She’s Gotta Have It” prior to all his success. We had an incredibly rich opportunity to be in a room with some amazing folks who looked like us.
CC: You were able to experience Shirley Chisholm on a more intimate level. Outside of her achievements, what set her apart? What was it about her?
KJ: So here is my own personal story, I don’t do a good job of putting people on pedestals anyway and didn’t from the time I was young, and part of that is because of her. I was a second-semester senior, majoring in English and people would ask me, are you going to teach? Oh God no! So I was going to a very traditional liberal arts college. I decided to try to go to work for a bank. You don’t need to have an economics background because they will train you and I had a job interview that coincided with her class. The interview had been set up and I knew I wouldn’t be there for the Tuesday class. So, I stayed after class and I said, you know Mrs. Chisholm, I am so sorry, but I am not going to be here for Tuesday’s class. I have a job interview. It’s at this time and I won’t be able to get back to South Hadley in time for your class, and I am so sorry and I wanted to let you know that I wasn’t skipping your class. And she said, and I am paraphrasing, “Your parents sent you here to get an education so that you could get a job don’t worry about missing class, go get your job.”
I did not get the job, but that is another story. It was that practical, down-home, commonsense approach, and the realism inherent in her response because she could’ve said, I’m Shirley Chisholm, you need to reschedule that interview. You have the opportunity to kiss the hem of my garment. That was not her at all. She looked at me, a young Black woman, 21 at the time, and she knew what that meant. She knew where I was coming from. You need to go get a job, go do that interview, and good luck. You can make up whatever we do in class, and I thought, wow! So, I think just that essential humanness and that realness translates across everything – generations and status. It took all my courage to have that conversation with her. I don’t know what we talked about in class that day because my focus was on what if she said no, you can’t miss my class. I never told another professor I was going to be out of class, but because of who she was, I felt like, this woman is coming here, I felt like she was doing me a favor to come and share her experience with us.
CC: Describe Shirley Chisholm’s presence.
KJ: She is a tiny lady first of all and I am like 5’11. Small in stature and large in presence. We respect our elders, especially our women. To this day the woman, to me, who knows and knew more than anyone else, was my grandmother on my mother’s side, who had an eighth-grade education. She has been gone now for 13 years and every day there is something I wish I could ask her. Mrs. Chisholm was older than my grandmother, I believe, but I held her in the same reverence as my grandmother. It was in the presence of these women that you sat and you learned. These women were the font from which all knowledge flowed, and that is what made her different. She was the one professor on campus, and I had other Black professors, who put me, “more in the mind of women like my grandmother” because in addition to the academics, she has that practical… she had that street sense. She had been through some things and it wasn’t a secret and even though my family was not an immigrant family, I mean, we are all immigrants but they came over a long time before, she had a different experience and you respect that. She wasn’t soft-spoken, but she didn’t have a booming voice, either, but at the same time she commanded your attention. She was a presence. To even achieve what she did, to get some buzz, that was hard-fought. The strategy she had to have, I don’t even know how she put it together because her voice was one that needed to be heard. I think now she would have been on that debate stage. Could she and Kamala have been the ticket instead of Kamala and Joe? We don’t know. So many years later, but it is interesting to think about.
CC: Was there a time when you were surprised by her reaction to a situation or challenge?
KJ: She was pretty unflappable. If you had dealt with the BS that she had to deal with and survived it, you had to be. We might have questioned but we wouldn’t have challenged and by “we” I meant the other Black women in the class. Shirley Chisholm did set the stage for a Kamala Harris.
CC: What was the one thing she said that you kept throughout your life?
KJ: I don’t think there really was one thing; it was really her example in total. She wasn’t an old woman, she was not a young woman either, but the energy and the drive and the purpose with which she was still moving through life and giving back was an example for sure. That was the time when people were sitting down and enjoying retirement, you are 62, sit down. She was just getting started to some degree on her second chapter, and that there was a second chapter! People didn’t have second chapters in the ‘80s. That’s what I take with me. She could’ve drawn her New York state teacher’s pension and been lovely, but she was out here doing what she wanted to do and that was really inspiring.
CC: Are there any stories you want to share about her?
Graduation is hectic of course and I was hysterical about leaving campus and my friends. We were fortunate that we got our diplomas when we graduated. I walked across the stage and burst into tears at the mic. My mother still may not have forgiven me for that. After graduation, of course, the attendees remembered the Black woman sobbing, so there was a lot of people asking if I was OK as we all milled around, looking for friends, family, and professors. I took two pictures with ‘adults’ after graduation, a picture with my dad and a picture with her (that has unfortunately been misplaced). I had great professors that I loved but I sought her out to take a picture with her and at the time, I didn’t think it meant anything, but looking back she was the professor that most resonated with me. I can see myself in her.
CC: Where were you when she passed?
KJ: I believe I was home cooking, and I just remember being glad for her long life and everything she had done but, sad that her light was extinguished. I remember feeling that in that time. Earlier in my career in my first job after grad school at NYU, I worked at the National Council for Negro Women and worked for Dorothy Height for three years, so I had the honor of being in her presence. I remember feeling the same way when Dr. Height died. Grateful for her time here, for what she had done, and glad to have had the opportunity with her.
CC: What was Shirley Chisholm’s influence on your career path?
KJ: My career path has been about public service. I’ve always worked for non-profits. When I was in college I had two summer internships. I’ve always worked in associations and my work has primarily been in public health. The idea of giving back to see how you can affect change has been my chief motivator.
CC: Outside of the famous quotes we have of Chisholm, is there anything else, or any other message you think she would want the world to know?
KJ: She believed. I really think she believed. She believed in the change and she believed that the change would come.
“The next time a woman of whatever color, or a dark-skinned person of whatever sex aspires to be president, the way should be a little smoother because I helped pave it.”― Shirley Chisholm
Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic Movies. See her work here.