Here’s a little tale about public education, public policy, and a postage stamp. In January of this year, these three seemed to converge, but in truth, they passed like trains in the night.
Several years ago a designer who works with the U.S. Post Office wrote to me about the possibility of using my AWTT portrait of Shirley Chisholm for a stamp in the Black Heritage series. I was delighted, but as time passed and no more mention was made, I forgot about it. In December of 2013, a woman who organizes new stamp dedications for the U.S.P.S. called to tell me that a dedication of the Shirley Chisholm stamp would be held at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, New York, on January 31, 2014. I was invited. I asked if I could bring the original portrait because the stamp did not include Shirley’s quote, and I thought people would want to read it:
“. . . Prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them. . . . Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.”
Or, I should say, to be honest, I suspected that like many of our social justice icons, Shirley Chisholm was being honored but some of her real concerns ignored. I wanted people to see how tough she was.
This tale has two parts – the elegant dedication ceremony and the time I spent the day before in a local high school.
Borough Hall, like many government buildings, is a rather plain granite block structure on the outside but boasts an ornate third floor auditorium with a high domed white and gold ceiling that bursts like an extravagant 4th of July firework until it meets the beautiful, oak-relief carved walls about 20 feet above the floor. The space surprises and delights with its sumptuous beauty. The stamp dedication program was as extravagant as the architecture – gorgeous music by the Renaissance Steel Chamber Ensemble, a Color Guard featuring soldiers from all military branches, a rainbow of ethnicities and equal representation for at least two genders and, presumably, sexual preference. The Color Guard, though, was the first suggestion that the program might not have found total approval with Ms. Chisholm. She ran in 1968 against the Vietnam War and refused to vote for expanded military budgets. The MC was a Tony-award-winning Broadway actress, Anika Noni Rose, who may play Shirley in a proposed movie.
The stars of the ceremony were Congressman Charlie Rangle from Harlem and The Rev. Al Sharpton. I had never seen them up close. Both project enormous charisma, intelligence and humor. They spoke without notes and told charming anecdotes about their long personal relationships with Shirley. There were many other excellent speakers – from the Post Office, the United Negro College Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, and local politicians from Brooklyn. All stressed the same theme: Shirley Chisholm changed this country’s history – racial history, gender history, political history. Each of them talked about how he /she was affected by Shirley. The word “trailblazer” was the centerpiece of everyone’s speech. Again and again we heard Shirley’s campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.” No doubt remained that Shirley Chisholm became a primary carrying beam of the architecture of American democracy. And there was the equal sense that everyone already knew this.
The day before the stamp event I spoke with a group of senior and junior high school students at the School for Democracy and Leadership, a themed high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which had been in Shirley Chisholm’s district and is only a couple of miles from Borough Hall. All of these students were African American, all smart and outspoken, and all taking part in an excellent program called Operation Breaking Stereotypes (OBS), founded by Connie Carter. Connie also directs Americans Who Tell the Truth’s education programs. The student body of the School for Democracy and Leadership, despite many positive attributes is, like so many poor, inner city schools today, an example of ongoing de-facto segregation.
I told the kids stories of some of the people I’ve painted who I thought might have direct relevance to their experience; Barbara Johns, LeAlan Jones, Claudette Colvin. As I always do, in order to set up Claudette’s story, I ask the students to tell me about Rosa Parks. They couldn’t. On the one hand, I was not surprised; I see this a lot. But, on the other, I was appalled. They couldn’t even place her in the correct century. A few weeks earlier I had talked at Wilson High School in Washington, DC. In a class of 50 juniors, not one kid could tell me who Rosa Parks was. And, of course, that’s just one name, one story. Frederick Douglass, W.E. B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Sojourner Truth were equally unknown. Does that matter? And if it does, why? Does it matter that, in a school called Democracy and Leadership, the students could not tell me what “civil disobedience” means?
At Americans Who Tell the Truth we think this historical ignorance is of critical importance. Knowledge of the people who struggled to be included in the promise of our democratic ideals with such courage and perseverance is essential for knowing who we are as Americans – white or black. Often the only means of achieving the goal of expanded democratic rights was civil disobedience. It is important to know that. Knowing those stories gives us – individually and collectively – the courage and the permission to be better citizens in our own time. Knowing what Shirley Chisholm was up against helps explain the opposition to social justice in our own time – the forces of power and special interest wealth are the same. Just as we need to know the legacy of the struggles for justice, we need to know the legacy of the opposition to it. Basically, if we don’t know who we are and don’t know our historical context, we are easily manipulated by people who would have us believe, as George Orwell said, War is Peace and Ignorance is Strength. Before I left the Crown Heights school, I told the students about the postage stamp dedication and asked if they knew who Shirley Chisholm was. Not one did.
Having been at the School for Democracy and Leadership in Crown Heights changed the way I perceived the stamp dedication ceremony. It raised a lot of questions. If Shirley Chisholm has so changed our history, why isn’t that history being taught? Is it the Post Office that is supposed to be carrying the burden of educating our children? Why wasn’t this event being held in a high school instead of the Borough Hall? Why weren’t students invited? Did all the dignitaries who spoke passionately about the importance of Shirley Chisholm realize that nearly all the students in the surrounding schools would have no clue what they were talking about? If the dignitaries did realize that, was the event merely a photo op?
One thing I realized was the importance of the work we do at Americans Who Tell the Truth. A number of things are incompatible with historical ignorance. One is democracy. Another is personal and community identity. Another is citizenship. And another may be hope. If young people don’t know how our forebears overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to justice, how can we expect them to hope to overcome enormous obstacles today? How can we expect from them anything but cynicism, despair, and denial?
At Americans Who Tell the Truth we try to fill in these important historical gaps, to help young people discover role models for justice and find a voice to engage the world around them.