I was only 8 when Shirley Chisholm announced her presidential bid in 1972, but I remember with crystal clarity the excitement in my mother’s face—no her entire body—when she told me that a black woman was running for the nation’s highest office. I had gone to the kitchen to get a snack, and there was my mother, reading the newspaper, barely able to contain herself. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Mom, is it OK if I get a cookie?
Her: Shirley Chisholm is running for president.
Not the response I was expecting. In fact, it was so unusual that I wanted to know who was this Shirley Chisholm person and what did she have to do with me having a cookie. What ensued was the first of many conversations I can recall my family having about politics. My mother conveyed that Chisholm was making history; that she couldn’t wait to vote for her in the newly restored Michigan presidential primary; and, most importantly, that Chisholm was fighting for issues that were important to our family.
As we move toward the 2016 November election, I think a lot about what Chisholm’s candidacy meant and accomplished. Make no mistake: her bold run paved the way for the U.S.’s first black president and now potentially the first woman president. Chisholm’s “unbought and unbossed” leadership provides many lessons we should heed today—principally that black women have a definitive role to play in leading and determining who will lead on the local, state and national levels. It will be a shame if we sit 2016 out or fail to harness our substantial political clout, which Chisholm helped to create.
We black women have crucial roles to play in fixing our country’s increasingly caustic and inequitable climate, but we’ll need to go beyond deciding who to pull the lever for in 2016 in order to claim those roles. We must also place ourselves firmly at the front of community coalitions and make clear to candidates that our votes and support are fully contingent on realized policies and seats at the table.
Shawn Rhea is a Higher Heights supporter, writer and nonprofit communications expert who lives in Harlem.