'Her legacy is incredible': behind the Shirley Chisholm 'anti-monument'


When it was announced in December that Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, would get a statue in New York, many echoed the sentiment she stood for: “It’s about time.”

Now, the artists have been selected to memorialize her legacy. Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous have created a design for the corner of Prospect Park – not far from where Chisholm once lived – for a new monument entitled Our Destiny, Our Democracy.

Chisholm is now the first woman to have a public monument in her honor in Brooklyn, and is the first commission in the series commissioned by She Built NYC, which will fund five sculptures of pioneering New York women. Set to be installed in Prospect Park by 2020, it signals a new era for the city, which has 150 statues of men but just five of women.

Chisholm, who was born and bred in Brooklyn, was elected to Congress in 1968 and launched her bid for US presidency in 1972. She once said: “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.”

Jeyifous, a resident of Brooklyn, said: “Her legacy is so incredible, her run for presidency was so bold, she made space for marginalized communities in a political process that actively discourages their involvement and continues to discourage their involvement.”

The idea for this non-traditional monument – which breaks the bronze ceiling – features Chisholm alongside the shape of the Capitol Hill building near her heart. The monument will be at the entrance to Prospect Park at the corner of Ocean and Parkside Avenues, by the Parkside Avenue metro stop.

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Olalekan Jeyifous and Amanda Williams.



Olalekan Jeyifous and Amanda Williams. Photograph: Faye Penn

“A lot of photos of Chisholm feature the Capitol Hill building in the background, so we thought it would be interesting to invert that role where she is in front of the Capitol building, in order to say not only [do] we have the right to participate in this process, but we should,” said Jeyifous. “It’s something we strive towards and as citizens in this political process of justice and equality.”

The duo are still deciding on the colors for the monument (right now, they plan on using gold- and green-painted steel). They have received messages from the public regarding their color choice. “People ask us, why does she have a yellow afro?” said Williams. “But nobody is asking why she has green skin.”

The duo call this an “anti-monument”. The goal was to push the boundary of what a 21st-century monument is. “General monuments, which are usually around the confederacy, show men on top of horses holding swords, this idea of the lone masculine figure – they’re problematic in terms of why they’re being commemorated anyway,” said Jeyifous. “Challenging that idea of celebrating one individual, Shirley was about bringing people along, supported by a staff of women.”

He added: “We added recognition markers of women who came after her as well.”

For the generation of women to come, Williams, a mother of two, said that “there are people yet to be born which are part of her legacy.

“Monuments are usually static and in a fixed moment in time, but this is a way to honor she wanted to go down in history as someone who inspired change and participation.”

Shirley Chisholm monument



Photograph: She Built NYC

When Chisholm, played by Viola Davis in an upcoming biopic, ran for president, her campaign was underfunded (a budget of $300,000) and she was largely ignored by the Democrats, many of whom wrote her off as a symbolic figure. She received death threats and had to employ a bodyguard.

In a 1972 report in the Virginia newspaper the Free Lance-Star, Chisholm was called “one of the most outspoken politicians on the national scene”. She announced her run for presidency at a Brooklyn Baptist church, where Chisholm was quoted: “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”

Williams said: “She knew she wasn’t going to win the presidency, but it wasn’t about that. It was about asserting a right and shifting the conversation. It was about being following your passions and convictions.”

Williams, who is based in Chicago, met Jeyifous when they studied architecture together at Cornell University. They beat four other finalists, some who went the traditional bronze sculpture route, while others had a figure of Chisholm carrying a folding chair. (Chisholm once said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”)

Shirley Chisholm announces her run for president.



Shirley Chisholm announces her run for president. Photograph: Don Hogan Charles/Getty Images

Jeyifous said: “There has been a long history of black women at the forefront of movements, including Black Lives Matter, and for me, it’s the broad context of black women’s labor on behalf of everyone. Being acknowledged. She was so bold, that’s what resonates the most.”

It certainly resonates with the current political climate – Chisholm, who died in 2005 at 80, was not only a pioneering politician but helped more women to run in American politics, far beyond just Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Her legacy and boldness are important right now, when people don’t know what to do with their frustration and confusion,” said Williams. “This indirectly calls you to be brave, rather than do what is appropriate. We think it helps with that conversation, to force people to own and stand by it.

“What propels is inviting people to participate with what their agency can be,” she added. “We want it to invigorate people and hope it doesn’t leave people feeling hopeless.”



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