June 03, 2021


Shirley Chisholm Dared: The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress. By Alicia D. Williams. Illustrated by April Harrison. Anne Schwartz Books. $17.99.

     A book so insistent on providing uplift that it practically floats off the table while being read, Alicia D. Williams’ Shirley Chisholm Dared is a sanitized hagiography of the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and first black person of either gender to seek to be a major party’s candidate for President. Chisholm was a remarkable woman with the good fortune to reach for a political career at a time of major upheaval and change in the United States. She attributed her success at communicating with her constituency to her early education in what she called “the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados,” where she lived from ages five to 10 because her overwhelmed mother, unable to care for her in the U.S., sent her and her two sisters to live with their maternal grandmother.

     That is a story both of tragic inability to care for children and of the value of a no-nonsense European-style education, but it is not the story of Shirley Chisholm Dared and, indeed, not in accord with contemporary reinterpretations of history – or the current emphasis of children’s books. Williams writes cloyingly that Chisholm (born Shirley St. Hill) is sent to Barbados because her mother thinks she “needs room to run,” and is brought back to the U.S. because her parents “miss their daughters’ laughter bouncing off the walls.” There is no mention of Chisholm, throughout her life, considering herself a Barbadian-American, although that fact and her West Indian accent were significant elements of her thinking and self-presentation.

     The focus here is the notion that Chisholm essentially did everything she did entirely because of her strong personality – and that young readers who also “dare” can, by implication, succeed as well. That is a good, solid, common and unexceptionable message in picture books, but it does gloss over rather more of Chisholm’s life than need be. In school, Williams writes, Chisholm sits in the front of the classroom because “that girl is daring!” In her high-school years, “That young lady is rebellious!” When seeking a job, “That woman is persistent!” And so on. Certainly daring and persistence – and even a touch of rebelliousness – can be useful in life, but without Chisholm’s formative commitment to a strong traditional education and her willingness to work hard and long for what she wanted, her personality characteristics alone would not have had the effect implied in Shirley Chisholm Dared.

     Chisholm’s political accomplishments were real and important, and should not be minimized. But their context should not be minimized either. She became the first black woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 – and the year matters, having long ago been dubbed the “Year of the Woman” because a record number of women ran and won seats that year in national and state elections (in large part the result of major societal changes at the time). And the election of a black person from the reapportioned, largely black district where Chisholm lived was never in doubt: she won by defeating James Farmer, a black man who was well-known as a civil-rights leader but who ran as a Republican in a very heavily Democratic area.

     Children’s books have neither the time nor the inclination for nuance, so the simplification of Chisholm’s many accomplishments in Shirley Chisholm Dared is scarcely surprising or unexpected. But Williams bends farther backwards than is really necessary. For instance, the book shows Chisholm’s 1949 marriage to Conrad Chisholm – which resulted in the name by which she is known – but never refers to her divorce and remarriage; and even though that topic is included in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, it is glossed over by Williams blandly writing that “though he fully supported Shirley’s political passion, they divorced in 1977.”

     The pleasantly stylized, rather flat-looking illustrations by April Harrison carry the story along well and will be key for many children to enjoyment of the narrative. And certainly Shirley Chisholm was a woman of many accomplishments and multiple successes, and one with a lasting and respected legacy. So a touch of hagiography in a book like this is quite understandable. But Chisholm was a woman whose gifts came to fruition partly because of the times in which she lived – a few years earlier or in a different geographical/political environment, they would have evaporated. Williams sums Chisholm up in four exclamatory words on the book’s final page: “Daring! Rebellious! Persistent! Troublemaker!” But if Chisholm was all those things – all of them positive traits as presented here – she was also more: intellectually gifted, traditionally educated, strongly supported by her two West Indian parents. Children who think the four summary words used by Williams will be enough to bring them success – or were, on their own, enough to bring success to Chisholm – will likely, unfortunately, get life lessons over time that will show them that personality traits, in and of themselves, are scarcely enough to make waves effectively.

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