What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? Reflections on the Legacy of Shirley Chisholm


Last week, I was privileged to pay tribute to the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm during an unveiling ceremony of the new US postal stamp bearing her likeness in Brooklyn, New York, a district she represented for seven terms. Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, and the first African American to run for the presidential nomination of a major party. A trailblazer who conquered challengers and challenges, America stands on her shoulders regardless of our political leanings or racial and gender persuasions.


As I got up to speak, while mentally reflecting on the “Unbought and Unbossed” accounts of the Congresswoman’s exploits as recounted by Congressman Charlie Rangel who served with Shirley Chisholm, and the Reverend Al Sharpton who worked on her presidential campaign, I was reminded of Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. The book is an allegory about constructive and destructive ways to deal with change.

In the book, Johnson posed a compelling question that Shirley Chisholm answered by her record of accomplishments, a question that haunts me each time I face a challenging decision: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

What prompted a Brooklyn-born child of immigrants, an educator who failed on two previous attempts to run for the State Assembly to think that she could run for Congress and beat an incumbent? What made a Congresswoman, barely in her second term who chronically faced down questions about her right to be in the Good ‘ol Boy’s Club believe she could become the President of the United States?

Answer: She conquered her fears. Shirley Chisholm blazed a path with style and finesse that revealed a glimpse of what could be accomplished if we didn’t allow our fears to dictate our choices. And though she was unsuccessful as a presidential candidate, who’s to say her candidacy didn’t pave the way for Jesse Jackson’s (1984, 1988) and Al Sharpton’s (2004) runs. Would we have an African American president today had she not run in 1972? And would Hillary Clinton be the consensus favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president had Shirley Chisholm not thrown her hat into the ring? The Bible says we reap what we sow.[1] America is reaping what Shirley Chisholm sowed 40 years ago.

A week doesn’t go by without asking myself this question to validate whether a decision I’m about to make is based upon what is right or my fears. Similar to one of the characters in the book, I’ve learned to brush aside my doubts and push past my comfort zones. When I do, I’m liberated to dream, aspire, and perform.

What about you? Is there a life pursuit that you put off because you’re afraid to blaze a new trail like Shirley Chisholm? She showed us that we’re not willing to succeed unless we’re willing to fail. What opportunities are you avoiding because you’re afraid of failure, or afraid of upsetting some social order? Is there a promotion, a job, a course, a major, or a college that’s on the opposite side of your seemingly impermeable wall of fear? What quality of life would you have if you too brushed aside those fears? Anticipate your satisfaction on the other side?

And what’s the worst that could happen if you do fail? Perhaps a future president may be inspired by your loss. That’s not so bad, is it?

[1] The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians 6:7

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • I felt my heart beating faster as I read this. I wanted to shout and say, “Yes! I can do this. I can overcome any obstacle.” I’m reminded me of a quote from a favorite author of mine. “There is no limit to the usefulness of one who, by putting self aside, makes room for the working of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, and lives a life wholly consecrated to God. If men will endure the necessary discipline, without complaining or fainting by the way, God will teach them hour by hour, and day by day.” Desire of Ages 250

  • Dr. Vincent Malfitano

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