The month of March is Women’s History Month and it’s an opportune time to consider the role of trailblazing women in this country, especially those who may not necessarily be household names today, but who nonetheless had a huge impact on the generations who followed them.
Women like Shirley Chisholm.
In 1972, Brooklyn-born Chisholm made history as the first African American candidate to run for president of the United States. She was also the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and in June of that year, became the first female to appear in a United States presidential debate.
But Chisholm, who was also the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress in 1968, never really gained the traction needed to succeed in her presidential bid. The Democratic political establishment largely ignored her while her Black male colleagues did little to support her, feeling, as many did, that she was trying to jump the line ahead of them on the road to higher office. Even the feminists who should have been united behind her were divided on Chisholm’s candidacy and in the end, Chisholm garnered only 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and George McGovern became the party’s nominee.
But still, she was a political powerhouse.
As a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, she paved the way for those who did succeed in reaching higher office in the decades that followed, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.
On Saturday, March 28, in conjunction with the East Hampton Library and other East End libraries, New York City-based performer, playwright and teaching artist Ingrid Griffith will present a filmed performance of “Unbossed & Unbowed,” a new one-woman show about Chisholm, which she also wrote. Griffith, who has been living at her East Hampton home since the pandemic began last spring, will take part in a live Zoom discussion about the piece afterwards.
The name of Griffith’s play is taken from Chisholm’s slogan in Congress — “Unbought and Unbossed” — and she finds Chisholm to be an inspiration, not only because of her political ambitions, but also because of the fact that Chisholm’s background mirrors Griffith’s own.
Both Chisholm and Griffith were raised in New York, but they both spent large portions of their childhood in the Caribbean. For Chisholm, it was Barbados where she and her siblings were sent to live with their maternal grandmother as young children so their parents could spend more time working in New York. When Chisholm returned to Brooklyn at the age of 10, she spoke with a West Indian accent that would remain with her the rest of her life.
For Griffith, life began in Guyana, the country of her birth. She came to New York with her parents at the age of 12, and the family settled in Wyandanch, where she struggled to fit into a new society. Griffith’s experience as a child coming to this country from the Caribbean is the basis for “Demerara Gold,” her award-winning solo show about a Guyanese girl’s immigrant experience, which she has been performing for the past several years.
“I’m drawn to tell stories about the immigrant experience, about being an outsider and daring to be one’s self,” said Griffith. “I’m interested in social norms and cultural barriers that keep girls and women down, and in stories that promote and celebrate girls’ and women’s empowerment.”
Because of her experiences as a newly arrived immigrant (and an adolescent) in the U.S., Griffith says she understands what it must have been like for Chisholm to return to Brooklyn after having spent so many years living in a strong female-led Caribbean household.
“I remember not blending in and she didn’t either. Her dad was from Guyana, my homeland. I know that Caribbean culture, the whole family dynamic — you’re in, but you’re out,” said Griffith. “I saw this woman and I felt I was in awe of her. There was so much about her that reminded me of my great aunt in Guyana.”
Griffith also feels that it was Chisholm’s strong connection to her Caribbean heritage that may have given her the confidence in her abilities to pursue the nation’s highest office at a time when there were few role models of color, let alone women, leading the way.
“I think that’s part of living in Barbados or Guyana,” said Griffith. “People of color are the prime minister, an aunt is a doctor, a mom is a teacher. You know people who are doing things. You don’t think, ‘Because I’m dark skinned, I can’t do that.’ That whole idea that I’m not enough, or that’s not for me — that was never a thought growing up.
“Where I’m from in Guyana, there were woman leaders in government before there were any in America,” she added. “There’s so much that gets into the psyche of who we see as authoritative figures. When it’s people that look like us, that gives us confidence right away.”
Conversely, Griffith recalls that by the time she became a teenager and young adult living in New York, she had begun to doubt her own abilities and grew fearful of what she might be able to accomplish.
“I got shaky as a person and my sense of self-worth crashed,” she said. “Should I be applying to college? People like me felt they were behind and going backwards. I’m in my 40s and the issues we’re still dealing with — women’s positions, disenfranchisement — were the same things we were dealing with 50 years ago.”
Griffith readily admits that when she set out to write “Unbossed & Unbowed,” she didn’t know much about Chisholm, who looked and sounded like someone from the Caribbean, and she was intrigued to learn more.
“I knew she was congresswoman, I didn’t know she ran for president,” said Griffith. “I saw a documentary in 2005 by Shola Lynch about the campaign. After I saw it, I thought, ‘I want to play this woman. I can do this part.’”
But when it came to finding a theatrical piece about Shirley Chisholm, she soon realized there was no part to play.
“If there’s a story you think should be told, you need to write it,” said Griffith, who set out to do just that and began her research at the Brooklyn Public Library where Chisholm’s papers are kept. She also spent time at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
“I would go there every week, four or five hours every Friday, and listen to tapes of her, and radio interviews and take notes,” Griffith said. “I wanted to know about her personal life. I wanted to weave the personal into the public and understand what she gave up to have a career in social activism.
“I learned she was in Barbados for seven years and was the oldest of four girls,” said Griffith. “I didn’t know she was married. I thought she was a spinster, and I knew she was a teacher as well. I learned everything through the research process.”
Chisholm, in fact, had begun her career in early childhood education, and when she was in Congress, became a strong advocate for social initiatives like Head Start and nutrition programs for the poor. Griffith came to understand in her research just how skilled Chisholm was when it came to building support and organizing around a cause.
“She was part of NOW [National Organization for Women] and every Black organization. She was trying to build a coalition,” Griffith said. “It took numbers and that’s why she was involved in every organization empowering Black women and men and other minority groups.”
When asked why she thinks women and people of color didn’t ultimately line up behind Chisholm’s presidential candidacy when the time came, Griffith sees it as a matter of politics. She notes that in order to gain political backing in one realm, often the support of another cause or candidate has to be sacrificed.
“Everybody has an agenda and they step in line. Politicians said if you don’t endorse Chisholm, I will do the thing you want,” Griffith said. “People tend to trade away a bargaining chip. That’s what politicians do and you have to understand the bigger picture. Nobody will take the issues you’re fighting for if you’re endorsing Shirley Chisholm.”
It also may be that Chisholm was a woman who was way ahead of her time. Someone who set out to break down barriers during an era in which those barriers were still much too formidable and high — and the allies were often suspect.
“Yes,” agrees Griffith. “I think people saw her as being half-crazy because she was so forward thinking. She was connected to groups like the Black Panthers. They felt she was doing what they were doing, but in a different way. They were socially conscious, taking care of Black children and speaking up for their rights and forming a coalition to be heard and taken more seriously.
“She said, ‘I don’t care who you think they are, I’m trying to do something for people of color. If you look at what they’re doing, you’ll see they’re endorsing me and I’m taking it.’”
Ironically, Griffith had just completed “Unbossed & Unbowed” last year and was starting to share it at playwriting festivals when the world came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19. In March 2020, she participated in Conch Shell Production’s “Hear Her Call Caribbean American Women’s Theater Festival,” where she received the “Outstanding Playwriting That Inspires Social Change” award for “Unbossed & Unbowed.” Then she decided to relocate to her home on the East End to ride out the pandemic and she has been here ever since.
“I had intended to go to performance spaces and had scheduled three in March and June of last year when suddenly, everything stopped,” said Griffith, who, in July, pre-recorded a performance of “Unbossed & Unbowed” at her home in Springs for a virtual festival. That is the version of the play that will be screened this weekend through the East Hampton Library and she is happy for the chance to share it with an audience who would normally have to travel to a theatrical space in order to see it.
Ultimately, she feels like we can all learn a lot from the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80. After having spent so much time researching and writing “Unbossed and Unbowed,” and discovering how to literally inhabit Chisholm on stage, Griffith has come to understand a great deal about herself as well.
“I’ve learned a lesson about being daring and being yourself — to be you totally,” she said. “I think that’s a big deal for me as an outsider and a woman. There’s something about owning who you are that’s so important and having that voice.
“Find a way to make a difference in the world and get involved,” she added. “Give everyone a chance to find their potential to make your life better — it’s about the community.”
“Unbossed & Unbowed,” starring Ingrid Griffith as Shirley Chisholm, is a free virtual event and will be followed by a Q&A over Zoom with Griffith on Saturday, March 28, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Offered by East Hampton Library in conjunction with other local libraries, register by calling 631-324-0222 ext. 3 or visit easthamptonlibrary.org or your library’s website.