Looking straight ahead: A portrait like no other on Capitol Hill

A portrait of former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y.

A portrait of former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y.  (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

The portrait bounds out of the frame at you.

On the first floor of the U.S. Capitol, by the Hall of Columns wedged close to a backdoor which leads to the office suite of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), hangs a portrait like none other on the Capitol grounds.

It is a depiction of the late-Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African American woman elected to Congress. The image of Chisholm isn’t like any other on Capitol Hill perhaps because Chisholm was like none other in Congress.

Kadir Nelson created Chisholm’s portrait. It reveals Chisholm standing somewhere on the National Mall against an aqua sky. The U.S. Capitol squats behind Chisholm, its ivory dome jutting upwards. But Chisholm’s lean frame in the foreground towers over the massive Capitol. Her angular physique pierces the blue, dwarfing the Capitol. She’s outfitted in a white and blue smock festooned with a busy, nearly-rococo pattern. Women’s dresses never seem to have pockets. But featured prominently in this painting is an outsized pocket with a white, embroidered flap spilling over the hip.

And then there’s Chisholm herself.

The Congresswoman’s gaze penetrates the canvas, locking eyes with you. Looking straight ahead. A glint of light reflects on the left lens of her cat-eye glasses. Chisholm’s neck cranes upwards, her dark hair whipped into a perm. Her mouth is fixed. Her arms are crossed. But her right index finger is raised.

It’s that index finger which is the most-prominent feature of the portrait. It’s as if to say “hold on, there.” Or “wait a minute.” Or, “did you even bother to think about….”

And that may very be the quintessence of Shirley Chisholm as she stares at you from that Capitol portrait.

President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 Americans this week. The medal is the highest-civilian honor in the U.S. This year’s winners include Barbra Streisand, Willie Mays, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) and Chisholm. The President awarded the medal to Chisholm posthumously as she died in 2005.

“I wouldn’t take any guff from anybody,” Chisholm said in a 2003 NPR interview.

Kadir Nelson’s portrait of Chisholm in the Capitol radiates that very attitude of Chisholm. And it’s true – because you probably don’t become the first African American woman elected to Congress by taking guff. She said she ran for Congress “in spite of hopeless odds” and “to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo,” she said.

“Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life,” said President Obama at the Medal of Honor Ceremony. “Shirley Chisholm had guts.”

“Shirley will forever be remembered as a fearless fighter for social justice,” said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) who served with Chisholm. “Shirley used to say: ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining.’”

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn and educated at what she later called a “strict” British-style school in Barbados. Her parents believed the academic rigor would benefit their daughter. Chisholm later credited the curriculum for helping hone her sharp debating and writing skills. She returned to Brooklyn for high school. Chisholm earned her undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College and a master’s degree at Columbia. Before entering politics, Chisholm taught and ran nursery schools, becoming an expert on education policy.

Chisholm won election to Congress in 1968 and served seven terms. She also became the first African American woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. She captured 152 ballots, losing to eventual nominee Sen. George McGovern (D-SD).

It wasn’t long until Chisholm strayed onto President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”

But Chisholm didn’t only have to fight a Republican administration. She sometimes had it out with members of her own party on Capitol Hill.

Chisholm came to Congress representing a poor, urban district in the middle of Brooklyn. The Democratic leadership appointed her to – of all things – the House Agriculture Committee. But remember that part about not “whimpering and complaining?” Chisholm embraced the incongruous committee assignment. She helped create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). After all, Chisholm represented poor, sometimes malnourished families in Brooklyn. In many ways, the Agriculture Committee assignment was a natural fit for her. But only because Chisholm capitalized on the bizarre political hand she was played. It was a shrewd maneuver by Chisholm – one which epitomized her political deftness.

Chisholm again demonstrated her political acumen in 1972.

The Congresswoman certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye with Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) on issues of race. But Chisholm visited Wallace in the hospital after a 1972 assassination attempt on his life as he too sought the Democratic Presidential nomination. Wallace later helped Chisholm net the backing of southern Democratic lawmakers to advance a minimum wage bill.

“I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing,” Chisholm said, whose campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Interestingly, Chisholm said she often faced more discrimination in politics because she was a woman, not because she was black. She noted that “men are men” and stick together.

Chisholm eventually made it off the Agriculture Committee, heading to the Veterans’ Affairs panel. Chisholm remarked she had more veterans residing in her district than trees, despite the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” She backed the late House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) for his leadership role over fellow Congressional Black Caucus founding member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). As a result, Chisholm secured a position on what is now the Education and Workforce Committee.

“There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right, they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people,” said the President this week.

Mr. Obama is right. That portrait of Chisholm in the U.S. Capitol does just that. It doesn’t veer off to one side or another. She simply stares straight ahead, the Capitol behind her, that index finger lifted as if to say “ah, ah, ah. You know better.”