Hilton Als

On Shirley Chisholm

In 1976 Rolling Stone magazine published Richard Avedon's "The Family," a series of portraits of figures who counted, for good or ill, in a post-Watergate world. The editor behind this project was the esteemed writer, Renata Adler, who, in addition to her knowledge of politics, contributed something, I think, to Avedon's understanding of how an American political system worked. And what editor and artist came away with was a portfolio about a family of sorts, one united in its interest in democracy--and power. Shirley Chisholm is just one of two distinguished women of color in the series--the other is Barbara Jordan--and when I look at the picture I recall how much Chisholm meant to the West Indian-American community I grew up in, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, in the nineteen-seventies. She was one of "us"; her mother was from Barbados, my ancestral home. In Brooklyn Chisholm attended all the schools--Girl's High, Brooklyn College--I knew because they were the schools good West Indian girls went to. But by the time Chisholm became the first black woman elected to congress, in 1968, her Brooklyn world was changing; her parents and my grandparents immigrant dream of a better world was collapsing under the weight of first generation anger and destruction. In 1972 Chisholm became the first black woman to run for President of the United States; she called for a "bloodless revolution." Her campaign was underfunded, but the freedom and pride was in the trying. In the Avedon portrait she's wearing a safari jacket; she was a big game hunter in a world that, because she was a woman, treated her as prey. Had she bothered much with what other people thought of her, she wouldn't have been herself.