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December 02, 2022
What A Day
Remembering Shirley Chisholm, A Catalyst For Change

In This Episode

  • In this special bonus episode of What a Day, we look back on the life and legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to seek a major party nomination for president. She would have turned 98 earlier this week.
  • Host Juanita Tolliver sat down with Representatives Barbara Lee and Ayanna Pressley, and biographer Dr. Anastasia Curwood for a candid conversation about Chisholm’s trailblazing legacy.


Show Notes:


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Juanita Tolliver: I’m Juanita Tolliver. And this is a special bonus episode of What A Day. I am beyond excited, elated, even to be able to take a moment to celebrate and commemorate the birthday and the legacy of the petite phenom Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to seek a major party nomination for president. [music break] You may have heard a preview of our interview on November 30th. Shirley Chisholm’s actual birthday. But we wanted to share more of the special conversation I had with three incredible Black women who were guided by her, touched by her, and who explored her powerful mystique. Joining me for this discussion about Shirley Chisholm’s legacy and her humanity are Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Dr. Anastasia Curwood, professor of history and director of African-American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky and author of the forthcoming Shirley Chisholm biography, Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics. How did Shirley Chisholm come into your life? Dr. Curwood, why don’t you kick us off? 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: I saw a picture of her with my parents. My parents worked on the campaign in Massachusetts, and I saw this well-dressed Black woman sitting with them. And I thought she was my Auntie Sally, because my Auntie Sally kind of had the same [laughter] same aesthetic. And my parents corrected me. They said, nope, that’s Shirley Chisholm. She ran for president. And one day you could do. 


Barbara Lee: I was president of the Black Student Union at Mills College in Oakland, California. But I was also a community worker with the Black Panther Party. So I was very conscious of politics. So as president of the Black Student Union, though, I invited Shirley Chisholm to come to the campus to speak to the Black Student Union and to the student body in general. And in her speech, she said she was running for president. And, you know, I did not know that because the press hadn’t really covered her campaign. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Barbara Lee: So I told her afterwards that I had this class and I loved her. What she had to say, she spoke fluent Spanish. She stood up for immigrant rights. She was against the Vietnam War. She was an early childhood educator. I mean, she was really a very progressive Black woman, reproductive rights, the whole nine yards. And she took me to task. Uh. She said, ask me if I was registered to vote. I said, no. [laughter] Why? And she, I don’t know she’s a little girl and I was in my twenties, I was a returning student and she still called me little girl. Up until the–


Juanita Tolliver: Wait, she literally said little girl. 


Barbara Lee: Up until the day she passed away [laughter] or the month she passed away. Yeah. And there’s a video of her when I was um elected to the state senate where she called me little girl. 


[clip of Shirley Chisholm] I remember now I was walking down the street of Oakland, and this little girl, I don’t know why I called her a little girl. [indistinct] [laughter] But this little girl. She was around 17 or 18 at the time, and she had her nice little afro and nice little round face. 


Barbara Lee: So then I asked her about her campaign, told her I had this class I was about to flunk. But now that I met her and knew she was running for president, I’d try to pass the class. So of course again told me, register to vote. And she said she didn’t have a lot of money for a national campaign, so she was leaving it up to her local organizers. She says, but look, you if you believe in making systemic change and if you believe in changing the rules of the game, she said because you can’t stay on the outside, you’ve got to get on the inside. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Barbara Lee: Remember, those rules weren’t made for you alright. So you’ve got to help change the rules of the game. 


Juanita Tolliver: I love that. What about you, Representative Pressley? 


Ayanna Pressley: A parent is a child’s first teacher, and I had an extraordinary one in my uh mother. May she rest in power. And um you know she never read me childhood bedtime stories of princes saving me. Uh. Instead, she read me uh the speeches and the words of Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. 


Juanita Tolliver: Come on, Mama Pressley. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Wow. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yes. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Yes. I wish I’d put that in the book. [laughter]


Ayanna Pressley: Yeah. And um, you know, in fact, when my mother was in the final throes of her uh her leukemia uh battle, unbeknownst to me, until she had transitioned, I did not know she’d been putting together a book for me. And the final tab is is for inspiration. And it’s printed uh speeches of Shirley Chisholm’s. 


Juanita Tolliver: Oh gosh. 


Ayanna Pressley: And the first one is her um her campaign announcement. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yes. 


Ayanna Pressley: So she has figured uh very prominently and consistently uh in my consciousness, and that was uh because of my mother. 


Barbara Lee: Mmm. 


Juanita Tolliver: I love that so much. And speaking of the power of Shirley Chisholm’s words, we got a couple of clips that I want you all to react to. The first one is for you, Representative Pressley. 


[clip of Shirley Chisholm] I realize that this is a rough road, but a catalyst for change of a society is usually persona non grata with those who have been the beneficiaries of the system. A catalyst for change has to be able to withstand the insults, the humiliations, the abuses, and the slurs. 


Juanita Tolliver: So, Representative Pressley, it’s no secret that you were targeted and harassed on multiple occasions by the former occupant of the White House, as you so aptly dubbed him. And I want to know what your reaction is to what Shirley Chisholm communicated here and which of the qualities that she possessed that you really leaned on as you suffered through these moments. 


Ayanna Pressley: You know, it’s just so true that oftentimes, what you are enduring becomes a new blueprint and survival guide for those who come after you. And uh it wasn’t that long ago I was organizing an Indigenous uh community around an environmental justice issue. And one of the elders there had challenged us to be better ancestors than we are descendants. 


Juanita Tolliver: Mmm. 


Ayanna Pressley: I think uh this clip of Shirley really does embody that. So the indignities and the attacks that she endured and overcame that has become the blueprint for my own survival guide. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Ayanna Pressley: I love how you referenced her as a petite phenom because many people did not even realize just how diminutive and petite she was. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Ayanna Pressley: Because she was so commanding and took up so much space unapologetically. But even her speech pattern and how she speaks, there’s so many reasons why people would have been naysayers about uh the trajectory and the impact that ultimately she has gone on to have. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. And I appreciate you talking about your work with Indigenous communities because. Dr. Curwood, in your forthcoming biography, you describe how Shirley Chisholm’s Black feminist power politics extended well beyond her congressional district to include all Black people in America, other excluded communities like Indigenous people, Latino people, poor people, LGBTQ people, and more. What do you surmise led her to that inclusive approach to recognize and respond to their needs? 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: I think it was living intersectionality. You know, in some ways because of being a target, because she was getting it from at least two sides. And so she lived it. And she’s like, if I am dealing with all of these things coming at me, then my freedom means the freedom of everybody else. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. And I think one of the other things around her identity that she did not shy away from is the response that she received from other Black leaders, particularly Black men, as she rose through the political ranks. And I want you to react to this clip about how she was perceived while running for Congress in 1968. 


[clip of Shirley Chisholm] I cried many nights because I was misinterpreted. She wanted to take things away from the Black men. She’s the one that’s gonna divide the Black men from the Black women. All of this crazy stuff that was coming off the wall. But I didn’t let it affect me that much because I understood our history. I understood why the men would feel this way. They would feel this way because actually they felt the time had come for Black men. It was Black men’s turn, and nobody could get in the way, including Black women. 


Juanita Tolliver: So not only does that clip communicate how Shirley Chisholm processed her own human response to that harmful treatment, but she stared it in the face and refused to back down multiple times, especially during her 1972 presidential run as well. So what’s your reaction to hearing her in her own words respond that way? 


Barbara Lee: Well, I think she was very generous in her response because she understood the history and the conditions and the structural issues in terms of racism. And she understood the plight of Black men and Black women. And so she understood it, but yet she wasn’t going to stand for it because she wasn’t going to stand to be diminished herself as a human being. But that was the beauty of Shirley Chisholm. She really understood the context, but wasn’t going to let that stop her from her fight for justice for everyone. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: This is the thing that she would talk about most in terms of the emotion she felt. She was pretty private. She didn’t talk a lot about her personal life and was a little bit reluctant to to be seen as as human as she was, except when it came to these kinds of political slights because of her womanhood. And this is the thing she would say, you know, it’s not as fashionable now that even though she lived this intersectionality, she would say repeatedly over and over again, I have faced more problems because I’m a woman in politics than because I’m Black. Which is incredibly unpopular, especially in 1972, when the Black men thought that their time had come. And she also talked about how it was just devastating to her because she felt misunderstood and other people other people didn’t get. So it’s striking how she’s willing to talk about those emotions. 


Juanita Tolliver: Congresswoman. 


Ayanna Pressley: I look forward to purchasing the book and gifting it. Uh and I love that you were offering the entirety of her every dimension, including her humanity, because I often say, you know, for us, as we do this work in centering the humanity and dignity of everyone else, that often ours is completely erased. Uh in particular as Black women. Uh. One of my favorite images of her is laughing, uh which she laughed easily. And, you know, she loved to dance, but laughing with her husband. So I thank you for naming her humanity and for sharing that clip. As much as it pains me to think about her having those those moments of pain and being misunderstood from her brothers. I make it a point, being aware of that to say I’m here to do the work of Black liberation and the liberation of all marginalized people. I cannot do that without the Black man. And we do not need to be in a competition for, are you your brother or your sister’s keeper? You know, this is not the oppression Olympics. There is no hierarchy of hurt here. And we need each other. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Well, yeah, I mean, that was amazing. And it got my mind going. So I called the book Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics because of the way that she understood power, that she understood how power worked, and that the kind of power that she was seeking on behalf of the people was not heteronormative, patriarchal, white supremacist power. That she understood that power had to be fundamentally reconfigured. And as far as a person who really got how power works in America, she was so clear eyed, she could see from her vantage point how it all was set and what needed to change. And so when she saw these guys criticizing her for taking down the Black man, she just thought it was irrelevant. [music break] 


Juanita Tolliver: We’ve got a lot more conversation for you to hear and we’ll be right back after these ads. 




Juanita Tolliver: Welcome back. You’re listening to a candid and human conversation about the honorable Shirley Chisholm with Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Representative Barbara Lee of California, and Dr. Anastasia Curwood, author of the forthcoming biography Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics. We also know that Shirley Chisholm had guts, and she attributed that to growing up in Barbados and spending some formative years there. So I want you to react to this clip on the other side. 


[clip of Shirley Chisholm] Those early years of my life on the island of Barbados gave me this spirit. Gave to me the spunk that was necessary to challenge all of these age old traditions. 


[clip of unspecified interviewer of Shirley Chisholm] Yes, yes. 


[clip of Shirley Chisholm] And I think I was never afraid of anything. I was never afraid of anybody. And today’s the same way. I’m not afraid of anything. 


Juanita Tolliver: So growing up there, core to her identity, core to her approach in politics, core to her backbone and standing up to any and every person who stood in front of her. But how else do you think her time in Barbados influenced how she moved as a Black woman in the U.S. in the political sphere? 


Barbara Lee: Even though we were enslaved in the Caribbean, you have majority Black countries. And so you don’t you’re not in a minority status in the Caribbean, which gives you as a child a different orientation to being Black in um a country that is majority Black. And I think that’s what uh impacted Shirley and so many people from the Caribbean now. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: By all accounts that I could find, she was fearless anyway. That was that was her and what the person she met in Barbados who helped foster that was her grandmother, who kind of encouraged her. Now, that said, there is a long tradition of Caribbean people stepping into politics, especially in New York City. And that she had this string of mentors. She had Bertram Baker, who preceded her in the New York State Assembly from Brooklyn. He was from Nevis. So like that tradition of Caribbean people coming to New York and being active in politics, that was very much alive. 


Ayanna Pressley: Um. I would just add that what I saw in her and I have seen with so many of my colleagues today who have those Caribbean roots, is just a level of agency and excellence. Knowing your ancestry and your heritage. And so I think we see that uh play out in with Shirley Chisholm.


Juanita Tolliver: Right, Representative Lee, as an extension of Shirley Chisholm’s legacy. I would love your reaction to the news that Speaker Pelosi is not seeking a leadership position in the next Congress, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries will become the next leader for House Democrats and thus the first Black leader of a party in Congress. What’s your reaction to this historic moment? 


Barbara Lee: Well, first it’s a in a lot of ways bittersweet. I’ve known Speaker Pelosi since 1984. She’s a transformational speaker and she has shepherded transformational legislation. So it’s uh she’s been remarkable. And yet here we have now the next soon to be leader, um an African-American man from New York who’s– 


Juanita Tolliver: From New York. 


Barbara Lee: –he has part of Brooklyn. I mean, we visited Shirley Chisholm’s home as guests of Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clark a few months ago– 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. 


Barbara Lee: –In Brooklyn. So I’m excited about this new leadership and working with them very closely on this transition. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. Well I want to wrap up things on a fun note, because it was no secret that two things Shirley Chisholm loved was delivering a good read when she needed to. But also, she loved a good wig. It was part of her uniform. I appreciate how you outlined that in your book, Dr. Curwood and let’s be real–


Ayanna Pressley: Wow! No one has ever talked about that. 


Juanita Tolliver: C’mon! 


Ayanna Pressley: Okay. Let’s go hair [indistinct].


Juanita Tolliver: Let’s talk about it. I I saw your episode of Hair Tales Representative Pressley, and I want you to talk about this, because the girlies today could not compete with Shirley Chisholm. So I want to know your reactions to that and other trademark quintessential Shirley Chisholm qualities that still stick with you today. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Shirley Chisholm, the petite phenomenon. She was a bit of a clotheshorse before she got to Congress. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: But then, as you’ve read in the book, one of her, person who became sort of her chief of staff, her executive assistant, helped introduce her to a wig shop. And she rocked those wigs for several years. 


Juanita Tolliver: It was like part of her uniform, too, right? 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: It absolutely was. 


Juanita Tolliver: Like she had her dresses and her wigs–


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Yeah. 


Juanita Tolliver: –Ready to go. 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Absolutely. So she was a catalog shopper. And so anyone, especially her staffers who I interviewed, they’d go to her house and there would be like catalog boxes everywhere, constantly packages coming. Um. The dancing. So she would dance anywhere with anyone. And I’ve got I’ve got one picture in the book of her dancing like with the New York State Assembly, the leader. Um. She was always made up, always the right shoes and handbag. She just her style was was distinctive. And it is it’s who we remember today. If you look at any image of her in her iconography and her as a symbol like that kind of globe of a wig is is what you think of. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yes, it did. Representative Pressley. 


Ayanna Pressley: Well, recently I was at Howard University actually in the Louis Stokes building, like Congresswoman Chisholm, original founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. And um we were there for a panel discussion on the Crown Act, which has–


Juanita Tolliver: Yes. 


Ayanna Pressley: –Passed the House, but we need to pass in the Senate. And um one of the uh students there said that they were majoring in political science with a minor in hair politics. And I had never even heard that this was something that you could [indistinct]– 


Juanita Tolliver: I love this. 


Ayanna Pressley: And I I– 


Dr. Anastasia Curwood: Okay, we need this. 


Ayanna Pressley: Yes! And I want to know more about this, this class at Howard and I wonder if it exists in other places. But speaking of ways with which to to disrupt conventional norms, you know, everything about Black Women is political, including our hair. And you know certainly, you know, for me, living with alopecia and choosing to not wear a wig. The point is like how we show up and the choices that we make, which all of her choices were very intentional, can be disruptive in and of itself. The fact that she didn’t feel that she needed to dress somberly or conservatively. I remember as a, early in my own public service career, I thought the only way I would be taken seriously is if I aged myself. So I’m [indistinct]– 


Juanita Tolliver: Mmm. 


Ayanna Pressley: –wearing multiple strands of pearls and I love a good pearl. But I believe that there was a uniform and that this was– 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. 


Ayanna Pressley: –A way to sort of signal that I I understand the rules. And so I feel that she disrupted that because she was dramatic from how she showed up to how she led to how she governed. So I, you know, I’m wearing this catalyst for change, Shirley Chisholm pin, I have numerous uh paintings and portraits of my big sister in Congress uh Congresswoman Lee gifted me. And you won’t be able to see it here, but this is a photo. Shirley Chisholm is there with an incredible wig on– 


Juanita Tolliver: Oh, my God. I love that.


Ayanna Pressley: –and in a Cape. And a cape. And my office uh my physical office. 


Juanita Tolliver: Yes. 


Ayanna Pressley: Was Shirley Chisholm’s office. I don’t know if you know that Dr. Curwood. So, um you know, I am just uh grateful for her uh in every single way. Her legacy, uh the mantle uh which we have all in our own way uh sought to uh pick up as academics, as journalists, um as elected officials, to just show up in the world fully, authentically, unapologetically as ourselves. And that is one of my favorite quotes of her, is that she just was a Black woman who dared to be herself, that that was– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Ayanna Pressley: –how she wanted to be remembered, not as the first Black woman elected to Congress, not as the first Black woman to pursue the U.S. presidency. But as a Black woman who dared to be herself. 


Juanita Tolliver: I’ve got to say, I’m so grateful and so thankful for each of you phenomenal women, for this beautiful conversation, how you’re all stepping into the space that Shirley Chisholm created for us, Black women. Congresswoman Lee. Dr. Curwood, Congresswoman Pressley, thank you for joining What A Day and honoring Shirley Chisholm with me. [music break] That’s all for today, folks. Thanks for listening and have a great weekend. 


Tre’vell Anderson: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.