Opal Tometi, Co- Founder of Black Lives Matter
I often reflect on the diversity and beauty within Black communities.
And this Black History Month, I’ve been thinking about all the courageous Black women who came before me and paved the way for so many of us. One who comes to mind is Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Her life and legacy truly inspire me and all the work that I do.
While many people may know her, as someone schooled In Arizona,I wasn’t familiar with her story until I went to college and watched a documentary on her life in my free time. Now that I live in Brooklyn, I’ve come to learn a lot more about the impact of her leadership. And her historic campaign to be the first Black candidate to become the Democratic presidential nominee in the 1972 elections.
Although she didn’t win the nomination, she absolutely made history in so many ways. We know her locally because of her work as a congresswoman, but she inspired the nation. And quite frankly, she inspired the entire world. To me, Shirley Chisholm was one of the most inspiring examples we have on record of an unapologetic Black woman standing in her knowledge of self and her leadership. She inspired so many people with her courage and vision. And her incredible campaign slogan: unbought and unbossed.
Even with all that, what I find fascinating and often under-celebrated is that she was a woman of Caribbean ancestry.
And being that we are here in Brooklyn, I feel like we need to delve deeper into stories like Ms. Chisolm's to have a fuller appreciation of who she is, what she did for our people, and what her work really meant in the trajectory of Black history and the ongoing Black liberation struggle.
Shirley Chisholm’s mother and father were from Guyana and from Barbados, respectively. Although she was born in the United States, she lived in Barbados for many years during her childhood. She was known for sharing how her time back in Barbados really informed who she was - her sense of pride, dignity and worldview. While living in Barbados, she saw Black people all around. She saw how they took care of each other, how we had a variety of businesses and how we held different political offices. All of this was very normalized for her - and even as a child, this bolstered her confidence and gave her vision for her future contributions to our communities.
Her story resonates so personally for me because my parents have roots in another country that informs my sense of connection and world view. My parents are immigrants from Nigeria, and I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. I was able to visit Nigeria in my adolescence, but beyond that, I was raised in a very tight-knit Nigerian community in Arizona. I was able to learn about our culture, our traditions, our history through fellowship. It kept me deeply connected with my people. It also gave me an unapologetic pride in who we are as Black people. Period. Looking at the ways in which Shirley was grounded in her own heritage, it gives me a lot of encouragement.
Looking at the life and legacy of Shirley Chisholm as one of the people who had a real pan-Africanist world view—one that was concerned with Black people no matter where we are, how we identified nor how much money we had and her legacy is what I pick up on in the work that I do.
I have the privilege of leading the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), the nation’s first National Immigrant Rights organization for people of African descent. We’ve been around for about 13 years and I’ve worked there for eight. And served as director for six. We started in Oakland, CA, but since I joined from Arizona, we’ve relocated our headquarters to Crown Heights and opened additional offices in Atlanta, Miami, DC and Los Angeles. At BAJI we believe that the immigrant Black struggle is connected to the racial justice struggle and we believe that African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, Afro-Latinx community members have something to contribute to this world and to our contemporary social justice movements.
In addition to the work I’ve done with BAJI, I’m one of three founders of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter began as a platform and then evolved into a chapter-based network. Beyond that, because injustice has impacted our communities for so long, people are rising up under this same banner and so now we have what’s known as BLM — a 21st century human rights movement comprised of hundreds of organizations and millions of people that are transforming our world. The beauty is that BLM originally began as a loving affirmation to our people and invitation to join a movement that was started by our ancestors. We are part of the longstanding righteous fight for freedom and justice.
BLM is standing up against violence inflicted on our communities and the pervasive anti-Black racism in the United States and around the world. In creating Black Lives Matter, we’ve foregrounded the Black experience saying, enough is enough. We demand an end to the extrajudicial killing of unarmed Black people and that racial justice be the standard in every sphere of society. Black Lives Matter is our mandate beyond just what’s happening in the criminal justice system or what’s happening with the police. The movement has to do with our education system, housing, immigration system, etc. It has to do with dignity of Black queer, trans, disabled and undocumented among us. And building on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm and many others, we must create a multi-racial democracy that works for all of us, and we can’t have one unless Black lives matter.