The United States was said not to be ready to elect a Catholic to the Presidency when Al Smith ran in the 1920's. But Smith's nomination may have helped pave the way for the successful campaign John F. Kennedy waged in 1960. Who can tell? What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924-2005)
On January 25, 1972, when Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm formally announced that she would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, she was paving the way for Jesse Jackson in 1984, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton in 2004 and now Barack Obama in 2008. Barack Obama seems to stand a chance of becoming president of the United States of America even though he is not a “wealthy, good-looking white male” because of Shirley Chisholm’s foresight, sense of pride and confidence. In the public address following her announcement to seek the Democratic presidential nomination Chisholm said, "I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. 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. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people." In her book “The Good Fight” published in 1973, Chisholm wrote: “In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that's never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. The next time a woman runs, or a black (person), a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe he or she will be taken seriously from the start. The door is not open yet, but it is ajar." If the African American contender, Obama was not taken seriously when he entered the race he is definitely being taken seriously now, especially since the Iowa state upset.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30th 1924. Her father was Guyanese and her mother Barbadian and as immigrants to the USA faced some financial hardship which prompted them to send their children to Barbados. In 1927, the St. Hill children were sent to Barbados to live with their maternal grandmother and returned to live with their parents in Brooklyn seven years later. When Chisholm became a politician, her parents being immigrants was an issue for some African Americans who thought that she was not “black” enough. Obama whose father was Kenyan has faced similar challenges from some sections of the African American community. An article written by a “black American” defines being black in America as someone who is the descendant of enslaved West Africans in America (she even excluded people who immigrated from the Caribbean). The esteemed journalist and author who has written articles and books about “blackness” appeared on a television program where she defined Obama’s status in America as an “African African American.” Not surprisingly the white host of the television show made her theory the brunt of his jokes for the few minutes she appeared on the show. Enslaved Africans were not only taken from West Africa, many of us in the Diaspora, including the USA have ancestors who were from the Congo, Angola and many other places on the continent. The first enslaved African whose presence in Canada is documented was a six year old child (who was given the name Olivier Le Jeune) kidnapped from Madagascar and sold in Canada in 1628. The trading (selling and buying) of kidnapped Africans taken anywhere, whether it was the Caribbean, South America, Central or North America and even Europe makes it nonsensical for anyone to declare that to be “black” in the USA one has to be a descendant of enslaved West Africans.
Like Obama, Chisholm was 47 years old when she sought the nomination of the Democratic Party in her bid to become president of the USA. They were both virtually ignored by the established African American organizations and some of the people who are considered leaders of the African American community. In Obama’s case some of those “leaders” are supporting Hilary Clinton and one was brazen enough to claim that Bill Clinton has as much claim to being “black” as Obama. The elderly African American leader reportedly said; "Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He's probably gone with more black women than Barack.” What a shame that Bill Clinton is being given “black” status in 2008 by an elder in the African American community based on how many African American women he may have “gone with.” One would think that this kind of debasement of African American women which was rife during slavery would have no place in the conversation of a leader of the community in the 21st century. Since this comment was made there has been a deafening silence from the leaders of the community, even those who have been very vocal questioning Obama’s candidacy. Obama has proven that he is the better person and has not responded to the provocation.
Bill Clinton and by extension his wife may be considered “black” by some in the African American community because of some dubious criteria but those same people have either forgotten or have chosen to ignore some of the racist policies of the Clinton administration. A Justice Policy Institute study showed that through both of Clinton’s terms as President the rate of incarceration for African American men (which was 2,800 per 100,000 as Reagan left office) increased to 3,620 per 100,000. Clinton also adopted law-and-order rhetoric to pass laws that negatively impact on the lives of racialized people, “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). “The Effective Death Penalty Act” limits appeals in death penalty cases and expanded the number of crimes that could lead to a death penalty sentence. “The Anti-Terrorism Act,” the forerunner of Bush’s USA PATRIOT Act prohibits fundraising for vaguely defined "terrorist" organizations and made it easier for the American government to deport legal immigrants. The Clinton administration aggressively expanded their economic power globally at the expense of racialized people in developing countries by using free trade and international institutions like the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. During his 1992 campaign for the Democratic nomination, Clinton was quoted in the Miami Herald: "I think the president (George Bush) played racial politics with the Haitian refugees. I wouldn't be shipping those poor people back." After being elected President, Clinton said in a radio address to the Haitian people: "Those who do leave Haiti for the United States by boat will be stopped and directly returned by the United States Coast Guard."
While some of the elders in the community may consider the Clintons “black” some of the youth are aware of the hypocrisy and are not shy about speaking out. Author, activist rapper Sista Souljah speaking on the Today show said about Clinton. "I think he is like a lot of white politicians -- they eat soul food, they party with black women, they play the saxophone, but when it comes to domestic and foreign policy, they make the same decisions that are destruction, destructive to African people in this country and throughout the world."
As a presidential candidate, Chisholm had to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in order to participate in a televised debate with McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. Barack Obama did not have to file a complaint with the FCC to participate in debates with other presidential hopefuls because Shirley Chisholm won that fight more than thirty years ago. However, Obama and other African Americans were reminded that the door is still not wide open for an African American seeking the highest office in the USA and that the pre Civil Rights era has not disappeared. When she reacted to Obama’s victory in Iowa, Hilary Clinton proved that she knows she is not black and she is well aware of her power as a white woman in America. She proved that a white woman’s tears in the USA can still spell trouble for an African American man even if he does not end up as “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”