Elle Documentary Spotlights Professor Zinga Fraser’s Scholarship on African-American Women

The director of Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College also recently received the prestigious American Association of University Women Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Zinga A. Fraser Ph.D. has been very busy. As the director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism at Brooklyn College, and assistant professor in Africana studies and women’s and gender studies, who is also working on a groundbreaking book about black congressional women in the post-civil rights era, she is a deeply committed academic. But she’s also incredibly popular. Her expertise was called upon to solidify the foundation of a new Elle documentary, Braided: An American Hair Story. The film takes an in-depth look at the politics surrounding black beauty, specifically black women’s hair. Fraser was featured alongside Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o, chart-topping rapper Young M.A., actor Karrueche Tran, and author Ayana Bird.

In the documentary, Fraser discusses the rich history of black women’s beauty politics as well as the societal challenges surrounding black women’s hair. “There is a certain kind of demonization of black women’s and black girls’ hair choices,” says Fraser, “a demonization that is at odds with how non-black women and girls are treated even when they adopt styles created specifically by and for black people. Think of the Kardashian women, for example. When they sport these styles, whether braids, cornrows, or dreadlocks, they become desirable and trendy. But when black women and girls wear these same styles, which they created, there are significant negative consequences that span from the suspension of adolescent girls from school to the firing or demotion of black women from the armed forces because their braided hair style violated the dress code.”

Braided, part of Elle‘s new push toward digital content, was produced by Lenise Angel. Elle sought out Fraser because of her reputation, prestige, and scholarship, which revolves around black women’s history and politics.

In honor of her work, Fraser was recently named the 2017–18 American Association of University Women (AAUW) Postdoctoral Fellow—the first African-American woman at Brooklyn College to receive the distinction. Distinguished Professor of Political Science Jeanne Theoharis received the award in 2009. The fellowship, which dates back to 1888, is one of the oldest and most prestigious fellowship programs in the world exclusively for women. It supports scholars who are completing doctoral dissertations, conducting postdoctoral research, or finishing research for publication. Fraser is currently at work on her book, Sister Insider/ Sister Outsider: Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan Black Women’s Politics in the Post-Civil Rights Era, which compares and contrasts the political lives of Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm ’46 and Barbara Jordan. It will be the first comparative study of black congressional women.

“I am honored to have received this prestigious fellowship, which will allow me to complete this most important and timely work on black women’s politics,” says Fraser. “This work hopes to transform not only how we understand the political lives of Chisholm and Jordan, but also understand the ways in which black women help us to reimagine democracy in the United States.” Fraser suggests that “while recent media attention has highlighted the consistency of black women voters, black women representatives and voters have been an essential political subgroup within the Democratic Party for the past 40 years.”

Elle.com video producer Lenise Angel (left) and Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism Zinga A. Fraser Ph.D. on set for the Braided: An American Hair Story documentary.

Fraser became director of the college’s Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s activism in 2015. The project is a repository of women’s grassroots social activism in Brooklyn from 1945 to the present. Its archive consists of documents and other materials, including oral histories from people who knew or worked with Chisholm and from the extraordinary diversity of women’s activist organizations in Brooklyn since 1945. Housed in the Brooklyn College Library, it is a resource for students of all ages, community activists, public policy experts, scholars, and the general public. The archive aims to expand the understanding of women’s place in history and of the significance and consequence of social activism itself.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s historic election to the U.S. Congress. In honor of that milestone, Fraser is planning a very special event for Shirley Chisholm Day, which is typically celebrated on Chisholm’s birthday, November 30.

“We will host a conference and events on the significance of Chisholm’s anniversary as well as black women’s current political activism and work,” she says. These activities will bring together scholars, students, faculty, community leaders, and organizations throughout Brooklyn and New York City.”

A noted scholar on the intersections of gender, history, politics, and race, Fraser earned her doctorate in African-American Studies from Northwestern University; a Master of Arts from the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. In addition to her academic accolades Fraser spent a significant amount of her time in politics and the non-profit world. She previously worked for the former Congressman Major R. Owens, the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, and served as the U.S. Policy Program Coordinator for the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization, where she developed a policy agenda to address human rights issues for women and girls in the U.S.

Fraser designed a course at the college entitled “Race, Gender and Inequality” that examines the historical construction of race and gender and how those differences contribute to structural and institutional inequalities. “Today more than ever we need a firm analysis of how marginalized groups navigate formal and informal political spaces,” she says.

Fraser will be featured in an upcoming USA Today article with Congresswoman Maxine Waters on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm in American politics. The article will also examine the history and influence of black women in politics.


Contact: Ernesto Mora | 212.662.9939 | emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu