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US Lawmakers Push for Statue of Shirley Chisholm, the First Black Woman Elected to Congress

The latest on a bill that would commission a statue of the pioneering politician — and a few artists who could rise to the task of creating it.

Kadir Nelson, “Shirley Chisholm,” in the collection of the US House of Representatives (2008, image via Wikimedia)

A senator and a House representative have joined forces in an effort to erect a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president, at the US Capitol.

On the last day of Black History Month, US Representative Yvette D. Clarke, a New York Democrat, announced on Twitter that she would co-sponsor a bill to commission the statue with Senator Kamala D. Harris, a California Democrat. The bill has the support of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and 10 others.

In a press release, Harris wrote, “Shirley Chisholm created a path for me and the 40 Black women members of Congress who have served after her … Shirley’s legacy is one that encourages us to keep up the fight for our most voiceless and vulnerable, and deserves to be cemented in the United States Capitol.”

Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in 1924, Chisholm would go on to become an educator and a member of the New York State Assembly before her election to Congress. She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus — all before campaigning for the presidency, with “Unbought and unbossed” as her slogan. “We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal,” she wrote in her book, Unbought and Unbossed. She was more than qualified.

Shirley Chisholm in 1972 (photo via Wikimedia)

So who could build her likeness? The task might once have been undertaken by Selma Burke, Edmonia Lewis, Augusta Savage, or Elizabeth Catlett (who was commemorated by the Shirley Chisholm Project). Here are a few candidates who could rise to the occasion today.

First, Simone Leigh. Her sculptures of black women have the stately profile of coin-figureheads; layered with roses or depicted alongside cowrie shells, they seem feminine and strong. Leigh’s New Museum exhibition, The Waiting Room, decried the lack of proper healthcare and support given to black patients, paying homage to the Black Panther Party, the United Order of Tents, and Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died after sitting in a hospital waiting room for 24 hours, ill and unassisted. Then, it sought to heal the wound: the show offered care to its visitors, including a guided meditation in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Chisholm, too, advocated for healthcare reform.

Alison Saar, “Swing Low: A Harriet Tubman Memorial” (2008, image by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons)

Second is Alison Saar. In her sculpture of Harriet Tubman, “Swing Low,” literal roots to the South — which tug at Tubman’s skirt — are a reminder of her 19 journeys to bring the enslaved to freedom. It would be intriguing to see which elements of Chisholm’s own roots Saar would incorporate into a statue, how she’d depict the spirit of being unbought.

A third candidate might be Manuelita Brown, whose work currently appears in Legacy in Black, at the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art. She specializes in lifelike bronze; her statue of Sojourner Truth at Thurgood Marshall College appears to walk alongside passerby. Her take on Chisholm would likely be a traditional one, as elegant as the thirty-five bronze statues in the National Statuary Hall.

Maneulita Brown, “UCSD Triton” (2008, image via Flickr user olasis)

Finally, Valerie Maynard. Just as her mosaicked, ecstatic prints infuse her subjects with energy, Maynard could infuse a sculpture of Chisholm with the politician’s spirit and strength. “Human-beingness is who I am,” Maynard once said. “I don’t think of myself as an artist.” Chisholm, proud as she was of her identity, had a similar sentiment. “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud; I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that,” she said. “I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

Valerie Maynard, “Polyrhythmics of Consciousness and Light” (2002, image via Wikimedia Commons)
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