Lights, Camera, Biography: The Perfect Book to Read if You’re Planning to Watch Netflix’s “Shirley”

Today, March 22, is the release of the new Netflix film, Shirley, with Regina King starring as Shirley Chisholm—the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman and Black major-party(Democratic) presidential candidate. If you’re planning to watch this biopic, you may want to add Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics by Anastasia C. Curwood, which is available in paperback April 23rd, to your to-be-read list.

Continue reading to enjoy a short excerpt from the book.

book cover for Shirley Chisholm by Anastasia C. Curwood


As a girl, the two female public figures Shirley Chisholm looked up to most were Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, both of whom she met at least once—and both highly influential in the histories of U.S. Black feminisms. Late in life, Chisholm would credit Roosevelt, Bethune, and her grandmother Emmeline Seale as the three women who had the most influence on her: “influence in terms of the things they said to me.” Although the exact occasion remains unclear, Chisholm recalled that Roosevelt was present at an awards ceremony when the high school–aged Shirley accepted a prize. As Chisholm told the story, the First Lady complimented her intellect and exhorted the teenage Shirley to “never give up.” Bethune, on an unspecified occasion, gave similar advice. These women also modeled womanhood that encompassed outspoken self-determination and, in the case of Roosevelt and Bethune, a deep engagement with public life. Roosevelt, a lifelong reformer and the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asserted women’s rights to participate in politics and media. Bethune was a builder of institutions and an advocate for Black women and men inside Democratic politics. Bethune and Roosevelt shared with Chisholm the belief that the government ought to work in the service of the people, including women. Bethune in particular, as a president of the National Association of Colored Women and the founder of the National Council of Negro Women, represented an intersectional and pragmatic advocacy for Black women that informed Chisholm’s Black feminist power politics. Bethune’s emphasis on reforming government and institutions to support those with little power and wealth would become bedrock within Chisholm’s own thinking. Years later, Chisholm would successfully sponsor a bill to erect the statue of Bethune that stands today in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park.

With a foot in two lands, Chisholm observed women’s financial independence, how to maintain dignity in the midst of racism and poverty, how to succeed in school, and how to challenge authority.

But it was from Emmeline Seale, her Barbadian grandmother, that she learned the value of family, and of independence, both of which shaped her politics and her political vision. Shirley Chisholm’s Black feminism grew organically from her family and place of origin. She was born in the United States to Barbadian parents and spent six years of her childhood on the island of Barbados. With a foot in two lands, Chisholm observed women’s financial independence, how to maintain dignity in the midst of racism and poverty, how to succeed in school, and how to challenge authority. Her Barbadian grandmother taught her to be fearless about doing what she thought was right. Her Barbadian mother showed her single-minded tenacity. And her Barbadian father nurtured her intellect and her political education. Six years as a child in Barbados imparted a simultaneous identity as Black and immigrant, and Chisholm saw common threads between both throughout her life. Having been raised by self-determined women, she thought every option could and should be open to her regardless of sex.

But Shirley did not passively absorb the dictates of the adults in her life, no matter how much she respected them. Shirley’s temperament, even as a young child, was opinionated, self-assured, and confident. Her feisty personality appalled her mother and some family members even as it delighted others, such as her father and maternal grandmother. This would be the case throughout her life, when some thought her too egotistical and self-aggrandizing while others admired her temerity and took inspiration from it. Young Shirley encountered her world with the conviction that she had the ability to make change, a belief that persisted well into her adult life. What she learned in girlhood built her sense of assertiveness over her own future.

Praise for Shirley Chisholm

“A well-rounded portrait of the late politician, who, half a century ago, helped set the tone for contemporary Black and feminist politics . . . Curwood deftly reveals Chisholm’s complexities and sometimes secretive nature as well as her tenacity in political struggles . . . A model political biography that all modern activists should read.”—Kirkus Reviews (*STARRED* review)

“A vivid biographical assessment of a remarkable woman, Anastasia Curwood reminds us of Chisholm’s legacy & makes her absence on the current political scene seem even more profound.”—Foreword Reviews (*STARRED* review)

“Readers will be left with a greater understanding of [Chisholm’s] impact on the U.S. political landscape and the personal and political toll of her efforts; they’ll also develop a deeper understanding of the work to close inequality gaps that remains.”—Library Journal

“Curwood has written a definitive and absorbing biography of Shirley Chisholm that details her life and work, as well as her unparalleled influence on feminism, politics and activism.”—Karla Strand, Ms. Magazine