- “A New Era in American Politics”Shirley Chisholm and the Discourse of Identity
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In January 1972, Barbadian-American politician Shirley Chisholm stood before a congregation of seven hundred supporters at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, and announced her bid to become the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. “My presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history,” Chisholm triumphantly declared, “Americans all over are demanding a new sensibility, a new philosophy.”1 Well aware that the majority of her constituents had reached a tipping point regarding the drawn-out war in Vietnam, President Lyndon [End Page 1013] B. Johnson’s blind acceptance of counsel from foreign policy aides inherited from John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon’s dishonesty in spreading the war to neutral Cambodia, Chisholm—a Brooklyn-born black woman with working-class and immigrant roots—presented a new face and a refreshingly candid voice in contrast to the well-heeled white men she was up against. As Chisholm addressed the crowd at Concord Baptist Church, her optimism and authoritative voice met with great applause as she defined this new era in American politics as one of “freedom from violence and war at home and abroad”; “freedom from poverty”; and “medical care, employment, and decent housing” for all Americans.2 Drawing upon values of the Peace Movement and tenets of the Great Society, Chisholm proclaimed her commitment to rebuilding a “strong and just society.”3
Chisholm had already made history in 1968 as the first black woman elected to Congress— representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the United States House of Representatives. Less than four years later, Chisholm continued to rock the proverbial boat by throwing her “hat, rather bonnet,” 4 as CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite put it, into the Democratic presidential race—and became the first black person to run for “the highest office in the land.”5 As is evident in Cronkite’s self-correction and gendered language, a black woman’s formidable presence in the United States political arena was so new that many contemporary commentators lacked the language to adequately discuss and make sense of the political phenom. Chisholm’s political voice grew out of and represented broader contestations over gender roles within the private sphere as well as feminists’ demands for women’s equal representation in local and federal political institutions.
In this article, I argue that Chisholm effectively reconciled seemingly contradictory philosophies of racial, ethnic, and feminist pride with humanist and universalist ideals to win over a broad spectrum of voters. She leveraged her identity as a woman, as a black American, and as a descendant of working-class immigrants to gain support from constituents with similar backgrounds, but she also essayed to transcend these categories of race, class, and gender by emphasizing the common desire of all Americans to lead healthy and productive lives—equally protected by the laws of the land. Chisholm’s simultaneous focus on the particular and the universal helped her galvanize support from women, anti-war advocates, young voters, and working-class citizens from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
This discussion of Shirley Chisholm’s political career is part of a broader study entitled Re-Visioning Blackness: West Indian Intellectuals and the Discourse of Identity, New York City, 1920–1980, in which I compare and contrast Chisholm’s constructions of identity with those of five other understudied West Indian intellectuals.7 Most academic and journalistic treatments of Chisholm’s career have put her femaleness and blackness in the foreground, but I intend to broaden the discourse by highlighting her West Indian immigrant identity, as well as her family’s working-class background, to demonstrate the moral foundation and subsequent efficacy of Chisholm’s appeal to working-class...