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Back Down the Chisholm Trail

Mark Reynolds

Before Michael Moore, there was Shirley Chisholm.

It was understandable that more folks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention last month in Philadelphia couldn't make the show. A lot of them, no doubt, had been checking out a hastily arranged screening for conventioneers of Fahrenheit 9/11 (a timely convenience for the delegates, or a not-all-that-subtle message to convention no-show President Bush?). Others were probably at the big comedy gala starring Bill Cosby (who did not take any new potshots at the African-American underclass, to the relief of the convention's PR staffers, more about that later). Maybe they just didn't see any of the flyers, or maybe they just chose to relax somewhere.

So it was left to a few dozen activists of various causes, persuasions and generations — older white women who were present at the creation of the women's movement, younger African American women seeking to drop some wisdom on the youth of today, veterans of struggles both personal and political, documentary fans — to applaud director Shola Lynch at the conclusion of Chisholm '72 — Unbought & Unbossed.

Lynch, a former Ken Burns assistant and first-time director, went digging in the crates of American political history to get this story. Born in New York City of West Indian parents, Shirley Chisholm worked for years as a teacher and community activist, slowly getting involved in local Democratic Party politics. She took the plunge in 1968 and was elected to the US House of Representatives, from Brooklyn. Her district included the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project. If being the first African American woman in Congress wasn't enough, Chisholm topped it four years later by deciding to be the first African American and first woman to run for President.

Chisholm '72, a festival hit that will air as part of the PBS series P.O.V. in early 2005, is the decidedly heroic story of that campaign, a moment all but forgotten now. It was treated dismissively from the start; Walter Cronkite announced her candidacy on the CBS Evening News with the quip, "another candidate has thrown her hat — or bonnet — into the ring." She was outspent by wide margins and didn't win a single primary. Only a couple of her colleagues in the otherwise all-male Congressional Black Caucus gave her any support. But Chisholm and her motley, multi-racial campaign crew hung in there, all the way to the convention that summer in Miami.

Political science buffs will have a field day with this film. Campaign commercials, like all other forms of advertising, were remarkably different back then. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a crowded field limping into the convention; parties consider it mandatory to settle in on a winner as soon as a front-runner emerges, all in the name of party unity. And it's likely that even Cronkite's catty remark would have paled next to the ribbing Chisholm would have endured from late-night comics today. Students of the women's movement will get a lot out of Chisholm '72 as well: a snapshot from those heady, bra-burning days when a woman could indeed dream of doing anything, even run for President, if, as Chisholm herself put it, she had "the balls" to do it.

But the most instructive aspect of Chisholm's story is how closely it foreshadows the political climate for African Americans today. Her campaign was hampered by sexism and racism (she survived a knife attack while campaigning), as well as by doubts about her "electability". Eight campaigns later, that very word is or would be thrown in the face of any African American running for President (really, anyone who doesn't come out of the center of either political party). Jesse Jackson challenged that notion mightily in 1984 and 1988 (Lynch said during the Q&A after the screening that Chisholm consulted Jackson's 1984 run). But "electability" still stands as code for "mainstream white America will never, ever vote for you." Just ask Al Sharpton. Or Dennis Kucinich. Or Ralph Nader.

Thirty-two years on, and our political clout, ultimately, hasn't moved an inch. Yes, we can now see people who look like us at the table with the President, but the notion of an African American actually being the President is still a dream in the distance. We have talented, passionate men and women who might make fine Presidents someday, but the mere thought of the pressure and scrutiny that a viable African American candidate would face has got to be intimidating beyond belief. Of course, fundraising would be an issue, too.

But the old saw "nothing ventured, nothing gained" takes on a different meaning in African America. Here, it's more like "nothing beats failure but a try"; the church folk will call it "stepping out on faith". Somebody's going to have to be crazy enough, or confident enough, or blissfully self-possessed enough, to believe that he or she has a shot. The planets will have to be properly aligned, no doubt, but the only one who's going to know when that time is, is the person who spends a lot of time gazing into the stars, seeing that dream in the distance.

Shirley Chisholm's campaign sparked no popular groundswell in the 'hood. No one outside New York City had heard of her, and she didn't have anywhere near enough money to buy some name recognition. Years later, Venus and Serena Williams get more play during Black History Month (and Women's History Month) than Chisholm ever could. But although that run was, in essence, her 15 minutes of fame (she would serve in Congress 11 more years after the campaign), there is something of a legacy that she can claim. A young California college student would get energized by working on the Chisholm campaign, and catch the political bug herself. Years later, that woman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Cal.), would cast the only dissenting vote in Congress against the war in Iraq. Now that's how to keep hope alive.

***

Back to the Cos (Billy Cosby), if only because everyone else with a computer and an outlet has already weighed in.

When I stopped by the NAACP convention's media suite the afternoon of Cosby's performance, a reporter from one of the local dailies was asking what to expect that evening. The PR folks were busy assuring the media that Cosby would be on his best behavior that night, and that he would not be assigning any more blame for the plight of poor black folks to poor black folks than he'd already done, at least not in the middle of their convention (which, judging by the level of media interest, would have damn near overshadowed the meeting). They'd been in discussions with him, they said, and he had told them that he would stick to his standup routine. There was, however, a sense that many fingers were being crossed all day long.

His salvos on the shortcomings of the 'hood — kids who don't value education, parents who don't value their kids, and so on — have generated more heat and conversation in African America than the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Was Cosby right to blame the poor? Why didn't he address the conditions that cause poverty? Should he even be saying this in public, where all the white folks who already don't like us can hear him?

If all Cosby wanted to do was spark an honest and needed debate, he's done that. But his comments struck a collective nerve with such over-the-top force (amplified by African American media and arguments in every corner bar and barbershop in the 'hood) that he himself has become the story, not the points he was trying to make. Now and for the foreseeable future, people will go to his appearances wondering which Cosby they'll get: the amiable father figure from The Cosby Show, or the crotchety grandpa waving his cane at a pack of disrespectful young hoodlums.

The last time someone was this mad and was so not going to take it any more, it was Howard Beale in Paddy Chayevsky's dark satireNetwork (1976). In that movie, you'll recall, viewers tuned in to hear someone articulate their frustrations, then as his rants edged closer to the precipice, they tuned in to see if this would be the night he'd finally lose it. I'm not suggesting that Cosby is doing a similar dance, but he risks letting the furor over his comments become a similarly twisted sideshow, which won't do justice to the points he's trying to make.

I can understand what you're feeling, Cos, and if you need to vent, then vent. But pick your spots, set them up carefully. Remember the dignity, respect and class that has helped you become such a beloved American, and has given every word you say such weight. Find or create the proper forum, public or private, that will be worthy of this necessary conversation you've started. Don't let your frustration get the better of you.

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