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27 February 2022 SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT! THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF FIGHTING SHIRLEY CHISHOLM by Tonya Bolden, National Geographic, January 2022, 144p., ISBN: 978-1-4263-7236-0


“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.”

– Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)


"Sing a song of America

Once she was a young girl with her heart on fire

Born in the dust of the magic of history

It all goes on, yeah the dream goes on."

-- Paul Kantner/Marty Balin "America” (1986)






Scary, scary days. Days of air-raid drills, of hunts for spies and saboteurs, of occasional dimouts and blackouts, of manned antiaircraft guns at New York forts, of the rationing of sugar, meat, and other goods. 

As for Shirls, she more than soldiered on at Girls’ High.

She excelled in French, earning a medal What’s more, Shirls was vice president of the Junior Arista honor society.

‘Arista’ derives from the Greek word for ‘best.’ And when Shirls graduated from Girls’ High in 1942, she had options on where to go next to be her best. She had snagged several scholarships. Two really thrilled her.

One was for Vassar College, some 90 miles away up in Poughkeepsie, New York. This prestigious, private, then all-women’s school had only recently begun admitting Black women. Knowingly, that is. Years earlier, several very light-skinned Black women had attended Vassar passing as white.

The other scholarship was for Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, nearly 500 miles away. It was one of the first U.S. colleges to admit Black people and women (back in the 1830s.)

Vassar or Oberlin? Vassar or Oberlin? Vasar or–


Those scholarships didn’t cover room and board, expenses Shirls’s parents couldn’t afford–parents who by then had the family living in a small apartment building at 316 Patchen Avenue in Bed-Stuy. Home was now a six-room apartment. It was rent free because Papa was the building’s janitor.

Even if Ruby and Charles had the dough for room and board at Vassar or Oberlin, given the tight rein Mummy kept on her girls, it’s doubtful that Shirls would have been allowed to go away to college, not some 90 miles away and certainly not nearly 500 miles away. Instead, Shirls went to a school that she could reach initially by subway and trolley car: Brooklyn College.”


Four years later, when Shirley Chisholm graduated with honors from Brooklyn College, she was already known both on and off campus for speaking up and speaking out. She was barely out of her teens and planned to become a teacher, but a professor encouraged her to go into politics. And that’s what she did. 


By her late twenties, this eldest daughter of West Indian immigrants participated in a successful campaign to elect Brooklyn’s first-ever Black judge. At the same time, she was attending graduate school in preparation for a job as an early childhood educator. She soon worked her way up to an administrative position in which she oversaw ten New York City daycare centers. 


Shirley also continued to work in the political trenches. By the age of forty, she ran for a seat in the New York State Assembly and won, becoming the first Black woman from Brooklyn to do so. There she fought for housing and jobs, more daycare centers, civil rights, unemployment insurance, and multicultural education classes. 


In 1968, in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman ever elected to Congress. She arrived in the nation’s capital at a time when many white Southern congressmen opposed having a Black woman eating in the House dining room. Meanwhile, the new Nixon administration was advocating the spending of billions for new weapons systems while cutting the paltry sums spent on Head Start programs for poor preschool children. 


In Shirley’s first speech on the House floor, she cited “poverty, prejudice, and neglect” in America as our nation’s greatest enemies.


Ms. Chisholm spoke up in favor of cost-of-living increases for seniors on Social Security. She spoke out in support of honoring Dr. King with a national holiday. She spoke up for the proposed ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, and for gay rights. She spoke out against the Vietnam War and the ever-growing military budget. And, she voiced her belief that, if eighteen year-old American kids were old enough to go fight and die in Vietnam, they were also old enough to vote. 


As a teenager, I heard Shirley Chisholm speak at the first big antiwar rally I attended, in Washington, D.C. That was a year before she ran a shoestring campaign for President that didn’t set the world on fire, but helped blaze the trail for future Black and female candidates. 


Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer on many issues affecting poor Americans and citizens who  didn’t have a seat at the table. Tonya Bolden’s SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT! is a gem of a bio for young readers about a girl with guts, determination, and the dreams that many of us share, for an America that supports and cares about all of its people. 


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com






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