Shirley Chisholm: ‘They will remember a 100-pound woman’

The tiny glittering black woman stood utterly at attention. She wore a suit of stiff brocade that fitted her shoulders so snugly it gave her a faintly military air. There was, in fact, something about her that suggested the Salvation Army. Perhaps it was only her stiff shoulders, or perhaps also her frequent references to the Lord. Then, too, she had a way of drawing herself up even straighter and stiffer in her moments of intensity, looking then totally charged with inspiration, a small quivering ramrod of righteousness.

“I’m here to tell you tonight, yes, I dare to say I’m going to run for the Presidency of the United States of America!” she uttered at the climactic center of her speech. When she said the word “dare,” she fairly squinted with indignation, and, propelled along now by her own anger, she told her audience she was out to prove to the public “that other kinds of people can steer the ship of state besides the white men …”

“Regardless of the outcome,” she continued, more slowly now for emphasis, “they will have to remember that a little 100-pound woman, Shirley Chisholm, shook things up!”

The small and hyper-tense black Congresswoman from Brooklyn was speaking to some 1300 of her supporters in a ballroom of the Americana Hotel three weeks ago. The occasion was the first fund-raising dinner for her Presidential campaign, and she had drawn to it just about everyone of importance in Brooklyn and Manhattan politics, including John Lindsay. A night of glory for her, the dinner raised some $60,000 and demonstrated her considerable drawing power in this city.

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But before another week was out, her still unofficial candidacy would appear to be shaking up Shirley Chisholm every bit as much as it was shaking up the male politicians she so longed to unnerve. For she went at the end of the week to a conference of black elected officials at Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, where she was made to feel only barely welcome. The few female politicians in attendance did react warmly to her, but the black male congressmen, who appeared to be calling all the shots, were almost openly contemptuous of her.

Thursday evening (November 18) a cocktail party for the visiting black politicians was held in a large room in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill. It was a gathering of black celebrities, who, like their white counterparts at such affairs, basked in the smiles of pretty girls, looked around to see who else of importance was present, and generally gave off that ineffable air of people who have made it and know it. Success seems to break down all philosophical barriers at Washington cocktail parties, and on this evening, at least, success had gathered in the same room black men as disparately oriented as the Nixon and Kennedy officials who showed up at the first Kennedy Center party.

So Robert Lee Grant, the tall, handsome black Republican who was fired last summer from his HUD job for shooting his mouth off against Agnew, stood easily in the same room with General Chaffee James, the black Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense whose job it is to tell the Pentagon’s version of the news to the press. General James was the kind of man who could sound respectably militant on the color question (“I think there are two blacks we can do without, that first one and that only one”) and the next moment sound like General Turgeson on the subject of his son’s 400-plus bombing missions in Vietnam. If you circulated around the room and listened to the talk, you could become quickly disillusioned about the salvific powers of black skin in America­ — that is, if you were white and liberal and secretly convinced that the blacks just had to be better. They had suffered too much at our hands. But there wasn’t much of the halo effect of suffering floating around that room in the Rayburn building. And there was to be a notable absence of halos among conference members during the next two days, an atmospheric condition which you had to be able to sense in order to understand what was really going on between Shirley Chisholm and what has come to be known as the black political caucus.

Omens of Mrs. Chisholm’s problems were evident at the cocktail party. When cornered and asked about her, Congressman Lewis Stokes (the brother of Carl Stokes) shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and uttered mock groans. Congressman William Clay of Missouri said, “Who’s Shirley Chisholm? You don’t represent The Village Voice, you can’t represent The Village Voice!” And he, too, laughed. Mrs. Chisholm was to be dealt with by the cruelest of all insults — she was to be ignored.

She herself soon around at the party looking as if she was having a good time. She was wearing a more functional woolen suit this time, again with the square-shoulders of a Salvation Army uniform. Women approached her in an almost endless stream, some of them just shyly shaking her hand and walking away, the bolder of them saying things like “We have admired you from afar all the time.” A vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women told me Mrs. Chisholm was extremely popular with black women. And for the next two days she did have an extraordinary way of dividing every gathering of blacks quite neatly along strict sexual lines.

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Indeed if there had been a larger proportion of women among the 300-odd blacks who attended the conference that weekend. Mrs Chisholm might have gotten the the endorsement of the black political caucus. As matters stood, however, she was treated to chilly courtesies, being asked to sit on the dais at one luncheon to introduce a speaker, and being given the moderator’s seat on a panel discussion of childhood and early development.

The latter assignment royally peeved her, and she stood up in the first Friday morning session of the conference to let the assembled men know she couldn’t understand why she had been left off the important political panels when she was the only serious Presidential candidate among them.

“For over 21 years this has been a part of my life,” she said, quivering with rage. “They’re always plotting and planning for me, but Almighty God has burned me up… Shirley Chisholm is the highest elected black woman official and, for those of you who don’t know it, the Democratic National Committeewoman from the State of New York. You’d better wake up!”

Her outburst made the evening news and a New York Times headline the next day. It did little to change her status with the black male congressmen.

The conference itself produced little news, and though there were closed discussion sessions, nothing conclusive was decided beyond the vote to hold a black political convention sometime early next year. There were sessions on techniques for designing districts to preserve black Congressional seats, sessions which made the whole black caucus seem like a tardy and futile effort, for it was generally agreed that redistric­ting plans should be ready and presented to the courts by the end of the month, wherever legislatures were gerryman­dering blacks out of their seats. (But one reporter thought even court efforts would yield small gains for blacks, the courts themselves being frequently political provinces.)

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Thus the interesting drama of the conference was the unspoken game of tug-of-war between Shirley Chisholm and the center of the male congressmen’s group, which appeared to be somewhere close to wherever close to wherever the Stokes brothers hung out. Ever since the black Congressional caucus had been meeting with other black politicos and civil rights leaders (a series of meetings, regional and national, which began several weeks ago), reporters had been hearing rumors that the male congressmen had wanted to run Carl Stokes as the black Presidential candidate. But Julian Bond, who had attended some of the meetings, had told people he was for running locally popular blacks in each of their various states. And by Friday night of the Washington conference, Lewis Stokes was to say the same thing.

In any case, Shirley Chisholm had definitely out-maneuvered her male colleagues, spoiling any chances for multiple black candidacies, locally based, and embarrassing them by making the rift between her camp and theirs very public. The whole point of their effort was to bring a solid bloc of united black delegates to the Democratic Convention, to bargain on plat-form issues of importance to their constituents. Perhaps as a result of their efforts, the National Democratic Committee chair­man, Larry O’Brien, had met with Congressman Charles Diggs (the leader of the black Congressional Caucus) and promised him blacks would get 20 per cent of the action in 1972 — whatever that meant. (The 20 per cent was a figure derived from the percentage of blacks who voted for Humphrey in ’68)  O’Brien later made some grand gestures to a group of female leaders (Mrs. Chisholm included), which may mean that by the time he is through dealing with factions, he’ll have promised away a good 200 per cent of “the action” before the convention. (A ‘youth caucus’ is expected to go begging to O’Brien in a few weeks.)

Throughout the conference, Mrs. Chisholm told people she had decided to run in response to the urgings of various individuals and groups. One source, an aide to a powerful New York Democrat, told me he thought she’d decided to run largely because she resented the way the male black leaders had ignored her in their initial efforts to build a national black political caucus. But she had been invited to a large meeting they held in Chicago several weeks ago, and she’d declined the invitation, sending a representative who asked the group to support her candidacy. Imamu Baraka (LeRoi Jones) is reported to have said, in response to this appeal, “Don’t women have race, too?”

When I asked her in Washington who some of the individuals and groups urging her to run were, she got quite indignant.

“I don’t have to reveal my strategy to you!” she snapped. “They’re groups of women, groups of young people, Chicanos. That’s all I want to say.” (She rattled off the same list of groups to a soft-spoken black student reporter.)

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What may really have decided her is something her most trusted political adviser discovered in Brooklyn before she ran for Congress in 1968: there were approximately 3000 more registered females than registered males in the black assembly districts of her Congressional district. Her ad­viser, an old statistician and experienced pol named Wesley Holder, told me he didn’t know whether this kind of sexual demography was the same nationally in black districts — but it may be an educated guess that it is.

There is no question about her appeal to black women. At a reception she held Friday night the weekend of the conference, one man approached her with a warm offer of help for her North Carolina campaign. “My wife is so impressed with you,” he said. He was not alone.

And she can turn on young crowds with her blazing, intense oratory. At the September voter registration rally in Pittsburgh where Lindsay was less than triumphant, she was interrupted by wild cheers and got a hearty standing ovation when she’d finished her talk.

These powers failed to move her black male colleagues, however, and during a reception she held for conference participants Friday evening, she was challenged on her dealings with them. Some of the questions put to her appeared to be drawing blood. She stood, surrounded by the admiring and the curious, answering their question and ultimately taking off into an impromptu speech.

Someone asked her a question about her strained relationship with the black male Congressional leaders.

“This is very, very distressing to me,” she said. “As of this moment the black elected officials have not really come up with their strategy. Meanwhile, people are moving, and the essence is time. This is politics! … In good conscience, I can’t hold back.”

She put in a special word of praise for Ronald Dellums, the freshman congressman from California (he was to make an unsuccessful bid for a Chisholm endorsement in a closed con­ference session later that evening), then she got angry again. Her body quivering, her voice fiercely lowered, she said, “How many of them assembled here do not already have a commitment someplace and still talking about a black thing?” She apparently wanted that to sound like more than a rhetorical question, but she never named a specific conference member who might be committed to another candidate.

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A man asked her whether it wasn’t true that she had been “initially asked to write the black agenda?”

“I don’t care to get involved in those details,” she answered quickly. “I was invited to the big meeting they had out in Illinois, but they knew I couldn’t go because I was in Texas and New Mexico collecting delegate votes … Because I am a woman, because I am black I’ve always had to do that work.”

“Was the caucus involved in your decision?” asked the same man.

“Not involved,” Mrs. Chisholm curtly replied. “Further question,” she said impatiently, turning her head away from the man. Then she appeared to think she ought to expand her answer. “My candidacy first developed from many, many people,” she said, asserting once again that she’d been urged to run by several groups six months ago.

After several additional questions, she warmed to the group and made her impromptu speech. She held her audience spellbound, skillfully alternating the rhythms and tones of her words, at the end looking truly possessed, with her arms drawn in, her eyes shut tight, and her voice deadly serious. She was moving and appealing; her feminism compellingly drew upon the sympathies of her almost solidly black audience, people who knew only too well the cruel pinches of discrimination. But there was a high strain about her, and a constant hint of paranoia. She sounded as if she knew she’d never capture the black caucus and as if this had been a great hope she was having trouble relinquishing.

“I can withstand the abuses, the insults,” she said passionately, “but I’m not gonna let anybody cover me up in a dirt hole.” Then, growing gentler, she said, “My brothers, if you can’t come along with me, I ain’t mad at you. But please, for God’s sake, you know my record. Don’t becloud the picture. Don’t lie!

“When people go out and say, Shirley Chisholm, she may become a captive of the women … and when you hear brothers saying you can’t talk with her, that’s because I’m a different breed of politician. I don’t wheel and deal morning, noon, and night. I am truly unbought and unbossed.”

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“Unbought and Unbossed” is the title of her autobiography. It’s a phrase that does not totally fit her politics. For her trusted ad­viser, Wesley Holder, is on a small scale a very competent political boss. He was borrowed from Brooklyn in 1958 to help J. Raymond Jones and Adam Clayton Powell win a difficult Harlem race. And Holder himself says proudly that “Shirls” makes no major decision without consulting him. Holder handles her Brooklyn office, dealing with most constituent problems and maintaining a policy of non-involvement in local controversies.

There are some indications that Mrs. Chisholm is closely allied with the Lindsay camp, although one certainly couldn’t say that means she has been bought by Lindsay at this point. Lindsay was the chairman of her fund-raising affair at the Americana three weeks ago. And Mrs. Chisholm will, in turn, be a sponsor of a $25-a-head Barry Gottehrer testimonial dinner in mid-­December, which should raise money for Lindsay’s campaign. One Lindsay aide told me that the Mayor’s and Mrs. Chisholm’s organizations in Brooklyn were synonymous. (This aide also spoke highly of Holder, recalling the days during the 1969 mayoral race when Holder would get all the local Lindsay people holed up in his unventilated office, drinking straight bourbon. By the time such meetings were over, said the aide, “I’d agree to everything he said.”)

And Mrs. Chisholm is considered a pragmatist on Capitol Hill. She is reported to be quick­-witted and effective in committee meetings. Mrs. Chisholm made startling news, of course, when she first arrived at Congress and refused her appointment to the House Agriculture Committee. Since then, however, she repor­tedly made her peace with the House leadership. And though she now denies it, it is widely believed on Capitol Hill that she voted for Hale Boggs as majority leader in exchange for an appointment to the House Education and Labor Committee. That vote was done by secret ballot, so even Boggs’s people can’t prove she voted for him, but Washington reporters recall that she didn’t deny it at the time. (In Washington more recently, she angrily told me she had never voted for Boggs.)

Among reporters she is described as a politician who does not do her constituent homework. But she does so much public speaking that such criticism may just be clever speculation. She gets $1500 per speech, and her schedule during the week I followed her fortunes was so packed that her staff told me to interview her between sessions of the conference. (She was always too busy to stop for an interview with The Voice, although she found time for CBS.)

One reporter who is most critical of her — although reluctant to lash out at her in print — is Dick Oliver of the Daily News. In 1969, Oliver was assigned to look into the case of Lance Corporal Ronald V. Johnson, a black Marine who had been convicted for allegedly raping an Okinawan girl. Ultimately Oliver’s investigations got Johnson a new trial and he was acquitted, but along the way, Oliver and Johnson’s supporters found it difficult to get Shirley Chisholm interested in his case — ­though Johnson’s home was in her district.

In the fall of 1969 a Daily News political reporter approached Mrs. Chisholm at a news con­ference to ask her whether she’d seen the stories about Johnson. She told the reporter she was too busy to get involved.

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In early 1970, when Johnson was scheduled to have his second trial, his attorney began to fear he would be hit with a drug charge because the military authorities were so angry with him. The at­torney called Oliver who in turn called Mrs. Chisholm’s office. She was out of town, but her staff did give Oliver permission to say she was upset about Johnson’s predicament. And as Johnson’s case looked better and better, said Oliver, Mrs. Chisholm began to champion it more strongly. “When we needed her, we didn’t have her. But later on, when we didn’t need her, she was there,” Oliver said recently.

Now Mrs. Chisholm is thought of as a staunch defender of blacks in the military. She recently sent one of her aides to Germany to in­vestigate racial problems among American GIs there.

Shirley Chisholm is a mixed bag. She can be calculating and manipulative; she can sacrifice principle to expedience; she can be courageous and moving; she can be hysterical one moment, sharply, dazzling rational the next.

She has announced that she will enter the Florida, North Carolina, and California primaries, the last of which makes no sense for a black who wants to contribute delegates to a black caucus at the convention. Whoever wins the California primary takes all the delegates to the convention; thus California blacks would do better to ride on the slate of a strong black candidate.

At this point, Mrs. Chisholm’s candidacy is obviously troublesome to her black colleagues in Congress. And though reporters find her good copy, they can’t understand why she’s running. It may be sheer ego; it may be her tenacious feminism that has motivated her. But this is the reason I overheard her telling a cluster of black women at the conference: “After this is over, I’ve done my thing for America … This is my legacy for the folks. Somebody has to have the guts to show the others we can do it.” ❖


Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century.

With Aretha passing this week at the age of 76, I thought of her scene in 1980’s Blues Brothers, a vastly underrated musical comedy that visually centers everything good about this country around the art and personal struggles of roots musicians like Aretha, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.

Aretha — lithe and gorgeous in her waitress uniform — portrays the hardworking owner of a diner who performs a forcefully kinetic version of “Think” to warn her man not to leave his job in the kitchen to rejoin the ragtag Blues Brothers Band. Aretha (reportedly frustrated in her lifelong desire for a movie career) acts her ass off, giving this cameo role layers of depth and verisimilitude that director John Landis could not have anticipated. Her onscreen transition from solicitous waitress to battle-ready matriarch is a switch every black woman learns to flip to protect herself and her family. With every shoulder roll, emphatic shout, and perfectly enunciated ad-lib, Franklin — with three fierce customers/backup singers bearing witness — demands respect, cooperation, and common sense from the feckless men who threaten her domestic tranquility. The symbolic setting is an immaculate blue-collar work space in which Aretha looms larger than life, ruling with regal physicality as she brings one of the few songs she actually wrote to vivid life. It was electrifying for me to watch her compress all the dignity, delight, and despair of being black, female, and working-class into that one brief performance. It prefigured every Destiny’s Child hit, every riot grrrl anthem, and every female-empowerment video ever broadcast on MTV. The scene tells a universal story in some of its particulars. But also a profoundly black story.

The truth is, Americans born or transplanted into a United States reshaped (but not completely redeemed) by the civil rights decade of the 1960s no longer operate from the same intergenerational memories of fighting the kinds of embedded racism that American blues and black gospel evolved to combat or transcend. Despite the malicious intent of Jim Crow–era segregation, it unintentionally helped black leaders better organize, protect, and uplift future generations by keeping black wealth and genius circulating within predominantly black enclaves. It’s worth remembering that before civil rights organizations decided to focus on persuading whites to like, respect, and hire us, black Americans dedicated more of our resources toward cultivating neighborhood institutions and helping one another. In fact, before federally mandated desegregation, black American talent and entrepreneurship was almost wholly devoted to promoting black socioeconomic networks and self-reliant black excellence. From the late 1800s through the early 1970s, black newspapers, fraternities, and colleges groomed the self-aware black elite that ultimately produced social change through the agency of catalytic individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and…Miss Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin performing at a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden

Aretha Louise Franklin was born into an educated, religious family in 1942 — one year before a series of “hate strikes” by white autoworkers refusing to ply their trade alongside newly hired black mechanics touched off violent race riots that tore Detroit apart. Aretha’s brother Cecil, a college history major, once asked their preacher father why he moved his growing family from relatively progressive Buffalo to a church serving a city seething with racial tensions. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, a persuasive “singing minister” who infused his sermons with practical advice and philosophical metaphors, reportedly responded: “My job was to tend to the spiritual needs of the black community…but I also saw the need to raise everyone’s political consciousness.…Moral justice and social justice cannot be separated.”

Born in the Deep South, the Reverend Franklin used his ministry to support both labor organizer A. Philip Randolph’s and the Reverend Dr. King’s political agendas. As King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference transformed a 1954 bus boycott into a national crusade for equal rights and justice, Aretha’s stature within the black community rose alongside her father’s, with both becoming associated with the core leadership of the movement. Aretha’s inspired singing at rallies, at fundraisers, and on the radio during the increasingly turbulent 1960s and ’70s affirmed both her blackness and her activism as virtues. It was a civic responsibility she shouldered proudly.

During the 1940s and ’50s, independent black record companies (often housed in back of neighborhood record stores) sometimes pressed spoken-word albums for famous traveling preachers, as well as singles by gospel and r&b acts. After moving from Buffalo to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the mid-’40s, Reverend Franklin partnered with the nearby owner of Von/JVB Records to release both his best sermons and the earliest recordings featuring his daughters. All of Aretha’s four full siblings were musical, her two sisters frequently joining her in the studio or on the road. But while the Reverend Franklin deliberately steered his other children toward college degrees, leaving them music as a part-time pursuit, Aretha was allowed to focus exclusively on music.  

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A Memphis-born, Detroit-bred musical prodigy who was improvising complex chords and riffs on the family piano at seven, Aretha was also a shy, somewhat introverted middle child. At the age of ten she lost her mother to a heart attack, and high-profile friends of her father’s, including gospel star Clara Ward and blues great Dinah Washington, became mother figures who nurtured and encouraged Aretha’s talent. She would grow up to cover tunes made famous by both women. Miracles co-founder Smokey Robinson, a childhood friend of Aretha’s brother, told biographer David Ritz that they would be listening to Sarah Vaughan records at the Franklin home, only to be surprised by a still preadolescent Aretha matching Vaughan note for note. “Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer,” Robinson recalled, “yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Raised by her charismatic father to accompany him on piano and sing during church services, at twelve Aretha joined her dad on the road as part of his popular “traveling religious service.” When celebrity guests like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine dropped by to spend time with the reverend, he would proudly wake Aretha up to sing for them. In this way “Ree” achieved early recognition as one of the best of a whole generation of r&b singers who learned to move a crowd by channeling the Holy Spirit. But unlike many gospel singers who switched to “worldly” music, Aretha didn’t suffer the usual “shunning” by gospel fans when a former musical minister chooses to sing about anything other than God. In 1972, when Aretha and the Reverend James Cleveland recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace for Atlantic, she insisted the music be part of an actual worship service in a church, just like she and her dad used to do. Perhaps Ree got a pass because her father was still bringing people to Jesus; perhaps it was because of the spiritual aura that surrounded even her songs about passionate love and heartache.

At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was successfully shopped by her father to John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had previously signed Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. Born with perfect pitch and the spooky ability to learn any song or mimic any vocal delivery by ear, Aretha had already been a strong draw on the national gospel circuit for five years. Among her many early mentors was Cleveland, a master choir director who expanded her knowledge of arranging and production techniques. Ironically, her ability to do so many things so well was to delay Aretha’s rise to secular fame. Able and willing to go in multiple directions, she couldn’t decide exactly how to market herself. At first, she and her father were certain that, since Columbia was already home to Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis, it would prove the perfect launching pad for an emergent Queen of Pop Soul. But they had failed to consider that an old, established label like Columbia might be slow to understand the changing tastes of a growing youth market.  

Seeing her as an artist with Nancy Wilson potential, Columbia had Detroit’s teenage powerhouse recording mostly standards and cabaret blues material, with arrangements too sedate to appeal to hormonal postwar teens already consuming savvy Motown dance hits and sexy doo-wop. So after eight albums in six years that earned critical acclaim but negligible public response, Aretha left the home of Mahalia for Atlantic Records, the rocking house that Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Drifters, and a deal with Stax Records had built.   

In the age of Auto-Tune it can be hard to imagine a time when all live singers were expected to have perfect tonal control of their own voices; yet this was what church training sought to instill. Vocal technique was used to facilitate communication and rapport with the audience. Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato — even lyrics and emotional intensity — according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require. Gospel went beyond the more cerebral sonic explorations of jazz to connect with primal levels of instinct and psyche that would subsequently infiltrate pop music via the sister genres of r&b and rock.

Franklin, with her husband and manager Ted White, signs with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler on November 21, 1966.

Black life in America has always generated its own soundtrack. Different styles — from circle shouts to work songs to jump blues — were spread first through live performance, then via various fixed and electronic media, as a way to give voice to our collective trials and triumphs as a people. Under the severe restrictions of slavery, which only slightly loosened and shifted after manumission, black music needed to serve as both protest and catharsis, allowing us to vent the most complex and nuanced emotions — ideally, as soon as they were felt. This is why first gospel, then r&b, became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. And why Aretha, with her church training, became acknowledged as “the voice” of that movement. Released in 1967 with a sound that wedded the poppy verve of Motown to the sultry syncopations of Stax and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, Aretha’s titanic Atlantic debut served to further consolidate and strengthen the collective dream of a successfully integrated United States.

Aretha’s particular musical gift was a deeply intuitive form of interpretation that made her recordings of “Spirit in the Dark,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” sound impossibly intimate and omniscient. As with her cover of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha didn’t have to write a song in order to make it her own. Her vocal performance implied not only that she understood what her listeners were feeling, but that she somehow also understood everything any listener would ever feel. This is an illusion, of course, but one so convincing that the bewitching appeal of it never fades. It is perhaps this almost telepathic rapport Aretha can build with her listeners, as she adds layers of meaning to each phrase, that facilitates spiritual healing in church settings. It is certainly one of the factors that lifts her best recordings above those of her peers, and from there, beyond category.

As the “civil rights decade” transitioned into the “black-power decade,” all music became more political. Singer-songwriters like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield produced protest and empowerment anthems. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From took Motown into the political arena. White pop musicians from Elvis to Joni Mitchell included anti-war and ecological themes in their set lists. Within this increasingly topical and diverse musical atmosphere, Aretha’s signature renditions of “Respect,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” were especially valued for their political subtexts as well as an ability to encourage fallen fighters not to give up hope. As a child in the Sixties and Seventies, I watched nightly news broadcasts in which political violence seemed to be everywhere, at home and abroad. People were frightened and angry. But the musical response to my trepidation was not the destructive rage of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but softer, sweeter, more constructive songs. Aretha’s choruses exhorted us to have courage, to endure. Lyrics like “Baby, baby, be strong/Baby, baby, hold on” would thread their way through “Lose This Dream” like the balm of Gilead. 

Throughout her career, Aretha moved effortlessly between overtly evangelical recordings like 1987’s double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, gutbucket soul, delicate Bacharach-and-David ballads, and provocative blues-rock covers, as if to show those who would come after her how it should be done. Will today’s stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé even attempt to replicate the diversity of Aretha’s catalog? Would their existing audience tolerate such a move? 

Fans line up for a concert by Aretha Franklin at the Apollo Theater in New York on June 3, 1971.

The creative intimacy and competitiveness of the pre-digital music scene was such that all the great bands and singers knew and admired one another. They made a game out of covering each other’s hits and vying for critical acclaim. Did Aretha envy Dionne Warwick’s and Roberta Flack’s pop singles? Did Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, or Gladys Knight ever strive to snatch Aretha’s crown as Queen of Soul? They were each talented and shrewd enough to keep us guessing with every new album and live performance.

No matter how far into secular music Aretha’s contracts with Columbia (1960–1966), Atlantic (1967–1979), or Arista (1980–2003) would take her, gospel would continue to characterize her sound, whether she was recording the Chic-influenced “Jump to It” in 1982 for writer-producer Luther Vandross or duetting with Whitney Houston in 1989 on an underground dance remix of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” produced by Clivillés and Cole of C&C Music Factory. Indeed, Aretha’s extraordinary ear and willingness to experiment led to many interesting singles that kept her sound relevant. She duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” in 1987, and with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in 2006. Her legacy of delivering pop, gospel, and r&b covers that blow the doors off the originals goes all the way back to 1967’s distaff take on Otis Redding’s “Respect.” And even in her later years, Aretha managed to astonish, taking both a 1994 cover of the Clivillés-and-Cole deep-house classic “A Deeper Love” and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the top of the Billboard dance chart.

In 1980, Clive Davis signed Aretha to Arista Records, one of the few major labels willing to invest in legacy soul divas despite the recording-industry recession of 1979 and the rising popularity of the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. This happened to be the same year Aretha’s performance of “Think” in The Blues Brothers put her golden pipes back on the radar of a teen audience. Protest music, which had been an organic and central part of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies, became a more random, scattershot affair for recording acts in the 1980s. Political songs were often created more to shock or provoke than to make people think and act in more conscious ways. For every trenchant rap like “The Message,” club track like “Beat the Street,” or ska broadside like “Ghost Town,” there emerged dozens of mindless ditties about little or nothing. Topical lyrics in general became darker and more bitter. Without a progressive social context or a community mobilized around higher ideals, entertainment becomes rather hollow. Soulless. (The Eighties were additionally tough on Aretha and the Franklin family, whose patriarch had been shot in a botched robbery and would remain in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.)

To update Aretha’s appeal, Davis resolved to integrate her approach to easy-listening standards on Columbia with the party-hearty stance she took toward gutbucket funk and soul on Atlantic. The resulting synthesis included a touch of Brill Building swing that managed to respect Franklin’s iconic position among older fans while hoping to catch precocious younger consumers. Interestingly, this was the same AOR fusion Arista successfully used to launch Dionne Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston in 1985.

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Near the end of the Eighties, as vocals and instruments couldn’t sound more robotic, the stylistic pendulum began to swing back toward Aretha’s richly human modes of expression. In 1991, TLC, an Atlanta girl group that featured two young singers and a rapper, asserted their feminism and sexual freedom with the same unabashed candor displayed on “Chain of Fools.” T-Boz, whose throaty contralto makes up in precision what it lacks in range, always reminds me of Aretha’s sly lower register. In 1988, Tracy Chapman’s first album harked back to the wry folk wisdom and compassionate insights of Aretha’s solo work on piano, while in 1990 Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love revived the unbridled passion that shaped Aretha’s early recordings on Atlantic. Neither the neo-folk singer nor the pop-soul princess shares Aretha’s timbre — only a recognizable portion of her unique sensibility. In particular, her resilience.

Mary J. Blige, as Puff Daddy’s favorite protégée, strove to voice the hopes and realities of her embattled generation as Aretha had done. But it was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello who came closer to having all the skills Aretha brought to the stage. Erykah Badu came out of Texas in 1997 with the perfect voice and attitude to reinvent r&b in her own spooky punk soul sister image: irreverent, sardonic, a woman in control of herself and her men, and completely indomitable. Badu is Aretha as she liked to see herself…unbreakable. Remember those busy runs toward the end of “Respect” and “Think,” where Aretha ad-libs all kinds of sass? The diva is in the details, and nobody can throw shade into a vocal aside any better. It’s a side of the singer people are often too worshipful to talk about, but it’s an important aspect of her inner strength. She’s survived enough genuine tragedy and heartbreak in life to be allowed to own her moments of bitchiness or depression. But like many women she chooses to tough it out, refusing to be portrayed as weak or vulnerable in any way.

Two years ago, the Knowles sisters put out two albums attempting to set new standards for contemporary post-hip-hop soul. Like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, they want to deepen the lyrical discourse. Maybe even discuss some kind of social revolution. To focus attention on mood and meaning, both Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table apply a skeletal approach to melody and harmony. But the feeling conveyed within the compressed scales and digitized atmospherics Solange uses throughout A Seat at the Table is as stark and moving as anything heard on Aretha’s first live album, Aretha in Paris. It’s almost as if both women studied the palpable acoustic space surrounding the tiny combo on that stage and found a way to re-create those aural textures in a digital setting. Lemonade, in its themes and ambition, may have reminded listeners of Lauryn Hill’s deeply personal 1998 opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or even Alicia Keys’s solo debut. But what I hear in all three productions are aspects of Aretha channeled through each performer. They are heirs to Aretha and the black church in the best possible way, in that they haven’t forgotten that healing comes from not being afraid to reveal your naked heart.

Slowly and quietly, the past few decades saw increasing numbers of younger artists drinking at the font of Aretha’s legacy: Cheryl Pepsii Riley released a moving version of “Ain’t No Way” in 1991, and both Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige managed to cut successful new duets with her. But leave it to the feisty septuagenarian to have the final say on who’s zoomin’ who, by cutting the 2014 concept album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which entered Billboard’s r&b chart at No. 3. Part tribute, part cutting contest, the album shows Franklin bringing all her emotional intelligence plus a shrewd sense of historical perspective to some of the biggest singles the original performers ever had. Adele, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington, and Sinéad O’Connor come together in this context as an intriguing gallery of idols and competitors.

Aretha’s reputation within the pop-music establishment is so undeniable as to render any accounting foolish. But the accolades are not why we love her. None of the presidential, civic, municipal, or international awards that came her way explain why this woman had the power to move us so much. I celebrate having been a witness to her life, and mourn her passing because she was special, and we may not see her equal again. Aretha didn’t give many interviews, nor did she explain herself much. But the quote that most reveals the inner thoughts and depths of feeling that fueled her ability to touch an audience came from an interview she gave Essence magazine in the 1970s:

“Being black means being beautiful,” Aretha said. “It also means struggles and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain, and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.”

Aretha Franklin prepares to perform during “The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2015.

Let Us Now Praise the Radical Women of New York

It has been six weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ever since, the nation’s thinkpiece writers have been working overtime, spilling untold barrels of ink in the pursuit of explicating, denigrating, or emblematizing her. Just this week, a piece at CNN seemed to lay blame at her feet alone for the failure of several progressive candidates in Tuesday’s special and legislative elections. The extraordinary focus on a neophyte nominee is in part due to the unusual circumstance of an incumbent being dislodged at all in America’s top-heavy system, much less by a very young woman of color. But critics keep returning to just one way in which Ocasio-Cortez has distinguished herself from the multitude of Democratic candidates this cycle: She identifies as a socialist. 

The word has been tossed around for decades as a slur against even the most bloodless, corporate Democrat; it was used so liberally on Fox News in the Obama years as to render the term totally hollow. Seizing the chance to fill this vacuum of meaning, Ocasio-Cortez — along with Cynthia Nixon, candidate for New York’s governorship; Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate; and the man who popularized the term with his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders — has reclaimed the label, affixing it to a slate of policies that make eminent sense to many Americans: socialized medicine, free college tuition, an end to cash bail.

Throughout her still-brief political career, Ocasio-Cortez has been dogged by a slate of tsk-ing pundits muttering about her policies being too far to the left — and potentially a liability for the entire Democratic party in the crucial November elections. But those who seek to paint a young woman drawing on the legacy of FDR’s social policies as a wild and dangerous radical ought to look just a bit further back. In all the multitudinous pieces seeking to understand the phenomenon of her candidacy, few have looked at the history of the city Ocasio-Cortez is from. New York has a long history of radical women who have stood at the helm of social movements, often in times of great social ferment. Is it such a surprise that again, on these steaming streets, in the second decade of a young century, women tired of a grift-raddled and regressive status quo have chosen again to take up the banner of progress?

A century ago, New York City was the primary residence of “the most dangerous woman in America”: a firebrand who preached a line far more volatile than free college. Behind her tiny wire-rimmed spectacles, her seething mind drew hordes into the streets. Down on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, a woman came to this country and made an indelible mark on it. Her name was Emma Goldman, and exactly one hundred years ago, she was in prison for preaching anarchy in the streets of New York.

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In 1885, at the age of sixteen, Emma Goldman stepped off a boat in New York Harbor, fleeing a father in St. Petersburg who had told her she had little more to learn than how to make gefilte fish.

She departed the city not long after, for Rochester, where she worked in a factory; but after the Haymarket riots and the subsequent execution of four anarchists, she fled the factory and her then-husband and returned to the city. There, in a tenement house, she fell in love; defended gay rights; published the radical magazine Mother Earth; and advocated for every woman’s right “to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”

She possibly inspired the mad Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. She certainly did plot with her lover Alexander Berkman to shoot and wound Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick during a spate of brutally repressed steel strikes.

She stumped so proudly against the First World War that a young J. Edgar Hoover had her deported to the Soviet Union. There she confronted Lenin about his censorship of the press; she left the Soviet Union brokenhearted, and traveled about the world for the rest of her life, never finding a settling-place. She returned just once to New York, in 1934, on a speaking tour. On the umber brick of the narrow building on East 13th Street where she once lived hangs a placard lauding her as an “anarchist and orator.” New York, after all, was the city in which she stood before a jury at her trial and said: “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”  

In the century since Goldman’s deportation, New York — with its welter of cultures, its bright slashes of art amid gray avenues, its ability to encompass great wealth and abject poverty — has played host to innumerable radical women. Anita Block, editor of the women’s page of the socialist New York Call, was the first editor in America to print Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, in 1911. Block was a theater critic at a time when, her instructors said, “no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” It was Theresa Malkiel’s chronicle of her experience working in textile sweatshops, 1910’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, that helped fuel public support for workplace reforms; she later became the first female factory worker to ascend to leadership in the U.S. Socialist Party, where she bristled at the sexist myopia of male socialists. After fleeing the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialist poet Sophia Dubnow-Ehrlich made her name in the United States as an aggressive agitator against the Vietnam War.

In 2018, amazingly, there are still female firsts to be had. The recently elected socialist Rashida Tlaib may be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, squaring off against Kansas’ Kevin Yoder in the fall, may be the first Native American woman in the national legislature — a lesbian, former MMA fighter, and radical departure from the Kansas norm by any measure, if not a socialist. But a trailblazer that preceded them by decades was born and bred in Brooklyn — the remarkable, indomitable Shirley Chisholm.

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Chisholm, whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, began her career as an early-childhood educator, then ran — and won — as the second-ever African American elected to the New York State legislature.  She was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, while the country was convulsed with heated protest against racism. Conducting her primary against a male state senator, William Thompson, Chisholm made inroads not just in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a majority-black neighborhood deeply desirous of a black representative. Thanks to a recent redrawing of the Congressional district, she had to conquer the hearts and minds of the white and Puerto Rican residents of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” signaled her independence from the formidable — and sclerotic — Brooklyn political machine. She conducted swathes of her Bushwick campaign in Spanish, distinguishing herself from predecessors, who hadn’t bothered.   

In the end, it was that grassroots organizing — and the support of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black women — that allowed her to triumph over Thompson and make history. “She can pick up the phone and call 200 women and they’ll be here in an hour,” her husband, Conrad Chisholm, said of her electoral army.

“I went out on the trucks, told the people we could all be liberated from the machine,” Chisholm said, describing her hard-fought primary campaign. She went on to serve seven terms in office.

Half a century later, Ocasio-Cortez faced a similar circumstance: a long-shot campaign against an establishmentarian with an iron-clad lock on the local Democratic Party and a full-throated endorsement from the Democratic machine. Crowley declined to debate her, instead racking up reams of endorsements from some two dozen labor unions and women’s organizations.

After her stunning upset, Ocasio-Cortez told off critics who dismissed the painstaking electoral effort she had mounted. “Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, affixing photos of a pair of ruined sneakers. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”

For New Yorkers, living in a city of corruption and patronage, idealism and protest, activism and regression, hustle might just be the only thing we all respect. One hundred years ago, Emma Goldman hustled across states and counties and cities across America to spread her message of labor and love; Shirley Chisholm hit the pavement to sell herself as the pioneer she was. Ocasio-Cortez, despite the sweeping scale of her platform, draws from a rich and variegated history of women who dared to dream big in this city — and who walked the long rough walk, in brogues and heels and sneakers and boots, on streets and avenues, in every borough — to make it work.


Free Angela Davis Director Shola Lynch: “Our history is being held hostage by corporations”

Director Shola Lynch has been mining the rich terrain of black American history for a while now, notably in the award-winning 2004 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the 1972 presidential campaign by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American and the first woman to mount a serious, credible run for the office, and most recently with last year’s Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners, her soulful, illuminating documentary about the activist icon’s notorious 1971 trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. (The DVD was just released this week.)

Where much official history (even that of radical movements) still places men at the locus of celebration and inquiry, Lynch’s ongoing artistic/journalistic project is the reclamation of the contributions black women have made to struggles for freedom. In a recent conversation, she spoke about black female agency, struggles to get her films made, and why Harriet Tubman deserves so much better than the tasteless caricaturing she recently received via Russell Simmons’s YouTube channel, All Def Digital.

Have you been able to follow any of the social media conversations sparked by #solidarityisforwhitewomen or #blackpowerisforblackmen? If so, what is your take on those hashtag conversations, the fact that they’re still even necessary in the wake of the work and activism of people like Ms. Chisolm, Ms. Davis, and countless others?

Actually, I’ve been more in tune with the recent Russell Simmons controversy over the parody Harriet Tubman “sex tape.” I guess that is the only way he could imagine Ms. Tubman being empowered to be an antislavery freedom-fighter–that sex, in the end, is a woman’s best and only weapon. The good news is that he’s now talking about putting funds into a Harriet Tubman movie–and I’ve been developing one. How about it, @UncleRUSH?

But to answer your question more directly, I think these types of discussions will always be necessary as long as we are divorced from the powerful stories in our past. Each generation tends to think they have a leg up on the previous one. In some ways that’s true, with technological changes especially. In other ways, it is just not. We have so much to learn from reclaiming our history through the lens of our agency. Things have changed, but as the lessons are lost, we have to re-remember them. I definitely feel that way about both Chisholm and Davis. I was drawn to those stories because they erase some of the perceived invisibility of my group: black women. What I admire about both of them is that their lack of agency by their race and gender station didn’t even occur to them–well, at least not enough to stop them.

Given the research you did for both your films, I’m wondering what you might have learned about organizing, strategic vision, coalition-building, and weathering political and legal setbacks that can be applied to activism now in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Stand Your Ground Laws, stop-and-frisk policies, statistics that show that every 28 hours a black person is murdered by a policeman or vigilante

That you have to be strategic and meet people where they are in their mindset. The tragedy of the Zimmerman verdict is that it was more of an indictment of Trayvon Martin. Martin was on trial, too. The prosecution did not address that well for the jury; in other words, [they] did not meet the jury where its mindset was regarding race and class as opposed to where it should have been. It is like me making a film that confuses people and then blaming racism or the audience for its confusion, when in fact I would be responsible for not doing my job well.

How do  you, as a filmmaker whose content is about politics and political figures, and whose films are therefore political, define your work and yourself in relationship to the kind of work you do? I ask because I realize that I opened the interview with questions that are somewhat presumptuous–that because your films thus far have strong political content and social commentary and are centered on iconic black women activists/politicians, that you could be a political analyst in a larger sense, when that may have nothing to do with how you see yourself.

I’m an armchair commentator, like any good New Yorker/Harlemite, but only when I know the facts. With my films, my job is to unearth as much of the truth as I can. I like facts. I like investigating. Which brings up one of my pet peeves about Free Angela: I’ve had reporters assume–as in, not ask me–or accuse me of making some kind of Angela Davis puff piece. Come on. While I realize that it’s inconvenient to be a black woman who makes a film about a black woman–who turns out in the end to be innocent–immediately I become suspect, as though I can’t be objective. Come on, people!


I read that it took you ten years to get  Free Angela  made. Is it true that it took that long? How much time was necessary just for the research, and how much for filming and actually putting the film together?

It took eight years to make Free Angela. My husband and children have never known me not working on the film. This has been a hard film to make for so many reasons. One, funding. A third of the budget came from France raised through producers there, De Films en Aiguille. And believe it or not, BET put in a significant amount, specifically Loretha Jones, who came in when I had half the budget raised to give us what I thought would be enough to finish. That was 2010. At that point, I could be in production in earnest. In January of 2012, when the cut was nearly locked, we realized we needed to raise even more to cover the cost of licensing the archival footage. While the archives worked with us on rates–I can say with certainty that our history is being held hostage by corporations–our partners gave more, the Ford Foundation and Canal Plus especially, but it was still not enough. I started sending what I called the “Hail Mary” e-mails to anyone who had ever said, “I can help you raise funds for Free Angela.” A friend from around the way in Harlem answered the call. She connected the project with her friend Jada Pinkett Smith. She contributed some finishing funds and really helped promote the theatrical release.

Or to answer your question another way: If I had been fully funded from the beginning, the doc would have taken four to five years.

How much time was spent convincing Ms. Davis to participate in the film? What finally won her over?

It took nearly a year to talk Angela into it. What finally convinced her? Not me, but my work. She finally saw Chisholm ’72 and said, “I thought I knew that story.” But she said it in a way that made me realize that there was so much about [Chisholm’s] story she couldn’t know, and finally wanted to know.

I’m really interested in the construction of  Free Angela, because I think one of the reasons it works so powerfully is that it almost plays like a fiction thriller. Even folks familiar with the case are on the edge of their seats as the trial unfolds. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to construct the film’s narrative?

First of all, I believe the narrative element is important in docs, too, especially historical docs, because if I say “historical doc” you’re probably already tuning out or falling asleep. There is extreme prejudice that a doc will be important but boring. The best ones never are. They are also tremendously well-told stories. More specifically, for Free Angela, the construction works because the story is actually a political crime drama, and that is how the people that lived the story experienced it. The construction works because it’s authentic.

The use of Max Roach’s music in  Free Angela was a subtle but masterful stroke of commentary. How did you come to choose it? Was it difficult securing the rights?

The music is a really important part of the storytelling. Every time I start a project, I pick a song to listen to obsessively when doing the conceptual work. For Free Angela, it was “Triptych” from the album Freedom Now Suite. It’s something about Max Roach’s drums and also Abbey Lincoln’s voice–and that scream. That musical, melodic, horrifying, painful scream captures the social, political, and cultural turmoil of the times, which are manifested in the crime that happens on August 7, 1970. It is painful and confusing for everyone involved. Lincoln’s voice captures that perfectly.

The Max Roach estate was amazingly kind to us. I cannot thank the family enough for sharing the song with Free Angela.

It is also important to note that “Angela’s Theme Song” and the rest of the music were composed by Vernon Reid especially for the doc. His guitar hits all the notes of her personality, from the hard to the soft. In fact, Vernon helped me find Angela’s sweetness. He is a tough-guy rock star, but also extremely intellectual and surprisingly sentimental. Sorry, Vernon! I hope I’m not ruining your rep. I think he nailed the music.

Watching  Chisholm ’72  and Free Angela back-to-back recently, I was struck by the overlap of the moments when they were each breaking down barriers and rewriting the rules of possibility for not only people of color, women of color, but for the country itself. In your opinion, what are the similarities in their characters, politics, and approaches to political life?


The similarity is their strength. I don’t mean the typical strength assigned to black women, to endure victimization. It is the exact opposite. Chisholm and Davis share the ability to never see themselves as victims. They only exist to themselves as active agents in their lives, and as a result history. Whether we agree with their politics, seeing this dynamic at work in the context of nuanced storytelling is, I hope, inspiring.

What did you learn about each woman that you didn’t already know?

Their sense of humor. Both Chisholm and Davis have a great sense of humor. In fact, it wasn’t until the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival that I realized how funny, as in absurd, some parts of Free Angela are. The audience laughed out loud. I hesitate to say this because the doc is definitely not a comedy.

What would you want viewers to take away from the films–about the women, about the eras in which they were doing such risky and dangerous work?

I don’t think either Chisholm or Davis saw their actions as risky or dangerous, just necessary. They were called by a situation to stand up or shut-up. They both chose to stand up. 

As Free Angela made its way in the world, what surprised you or caught you off guard in conversation about the film? What annoyed you?

I didn’t know how funny parts of the film are, as I already mentioned. I’m annoyed that some reporters assume that, as a black woman, I can’t be objective about telling the story of another black woman. One reporter even accused me of hiding a critical fact around the guns. That is just nuts. It would be far better for my career if all my research unearthed that she was guilty; it just didn’t turn out that way.

Are you working on anything right now? Are you at liberty to talk about it?

I’d like to get the Free Angela book project off the ground. There are so many newly unearthed facts that I’d like to add to the narrative. But don’t worry–it’s nothing that changes the narrative or outcome of the doc, but only makes [things] more clear.

My next movie project will be re-imaging Harriet Tubman. I’ll make a short experimental doc to research and write the script for the action movie, which I’ll direct. Tubman’s power is that she could cloak herself in invisibility. In other words, she literally used others’ low expectations of her against them. She used her powers to liberate herself but then also thousands of others from bondage. She was truly a legendary antislavery freedom-fighter. We should remember her that way. Incidentally, there is a love story in there, too.

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“I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people,” Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announced with her usual rhetorical fire during her 1972 bid as the first black woman to run for president. Shola Lynch’s valuable doc traces Chisholm’s campaign, ending with July’s Democratic convention in Miami. Abundant archival footage of other contenders—Edmund Muskie’s breakdown in New Hampshire, a loopy Hubert Humphrey ad—skillfully reinforces Chisholm as a refreshingly quixotic populist, running on fervor and indignation. Enduring the betrayals and equivocations of both NOW and the Congressional Black Caucus, she warned all naysayers: “If you can’t endorse me, get out of my way.” In other words, move on.