Chirlane McCray is an American activist, writer and poet. As the wife of New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, she is also the First Lady of New York City since 2014. Born into a middleclass African-American family and raised primarily in an all-white locality, she suffered racial abuse both in and outside school. But instead of being subjugated by such torments, she found courage to stand up to her tormentor, writing poems as an outlet for her anger. Later she graduated with B.A. degree and started working in publications before moving to politics, working in press offices, writing speeches for the Mayor and Comptrollers. As the First Lady of New York City, she chairs Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and works on mental health and substance abuse.
Childhood & Early Life
Chirlane McCray was born on November 29, 1954 in Springfield, Massachusetts into an Afro-American family that had migrated from Barbados and St. Lucia. However, from her maternal grandmother’s surname, Quashie, she believes that part of her family had originally come from Ghana.
Her father, Robert Hooper McCray, a World War II veteran, was an inventory clerk at a military base while her mother, Katharine Clarissa Eileen née Edwards, was an assembly worker at an electronics factory. Both of them periodically suffered from depression.
She was born eldest of her parents’ three children; she has two younger sisters named Cynthia and Cheryl. From her mother’s previous marriage, she also has a half brother called Reginald Jackson.
In 1964, the family moved to Longmeadow, near Springfield. Here they had to face extreme racism with the white residents circulating a petition that they leave the area. Once she returned home from school to find their house scrawled with racist graffiti.
In school, where for a time she was the only Black student, she had to face intense racism and endure bullying by her white classmates. They also mocked her, often contorting their mouths to make their lips look big. All these happened in front of their teachers.
Outside school, she was excluded from boy-girl mixers. Once a white construction worker spit on her while she was riding a bike. There was little help from her parents, who had their own battles to fight. The only friend that she had was her Spanish teacher, Michael McCarthy.
Not one to take all these humiliations lying down, she began to pour her anger into poems. Sometime in late 1960s, she wrote a column in the school publication, in which she called out on her classmates for the cruelty they had inflicted on her.
With their house filled with books, she developed reading habit early in her life. She also received books as Christmas gift. She discovered Black writers like Toni Morrison, which convinced her that she too had a story to tell.
In 1972, she entered Wellesley College, where she found social acceptance for the first time. But it was quickly turned into rejection when a classmate found her in an intimate embrace with another woman. The discovery shocked many of her dormitory mates.
The rejection by her friends sowed the seeds of social and political activism. In 1974, she became a member of The Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist organization that looked into the issues relating specifically to the Black lesbians.
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In 1975, after earning her BA degree, Chirlane McCray attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course. Thereafter, she moved to New York City, where she got a job as a low-level editor, writer and market researcher at a women's magazine called ‘Redbook’.
Concurrently with working for ‘Redbook’, she continued with her social activities, being acutely aware about the condition of black women in a big city like New York. Eventually, she started an organization called ‘Black Women in Publishing’.
In 1979, she wrote a 5000-word article in ‘Essence’, a monthly lifestyle magazine with African-American women as its target. Entitled, ‘I Am a Lesbian’, it tried to dispel the myth that there was no gay in Black community and also to assure Black lesbians that they were not alone.
While writing articles, she also continued to write poetry, trying to bring about a social change through them. Some of these were later published in 'Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology' (1983). But very soon, she realized that publishing was not her cup of tea.
In early 1990s, she found a job with the New York City government’s press office, eventually being appointed a speechwriter for Mayor David Dinkins, serving in this capacity possibly till December 1993. Thereafter from 1994, she served Carl McCall, the New York State Comptroller, as his speech writer.
During the tenure of President Clinton, she worked for the New York Foreign Press Center as a public affairs specialist. Thereafter, she served Bill Thompson, New York City Comptroller, possibly from 2002 to 2004.
In 2004, she left Thompson’s service to join Maimonides Medical Center, where she served possibly till 2009, trying to promote a culturally sensitive environment and make it attractive to a wider clientele. Thereafter, she worked briefly for the public relation department of the City Group, but could not fit in.
As First Lady of New York City
On January 27, 2013, as her husband, Bill de Blasio, announced his candidacy for Mayor of New York City, Chirlane McCray took up a new role, accompanying him on his campaign. She also edited his speeches and helped in interviewing staffs.
In January 1, 2014, de Blasio was sworn in as the Mayor and with that McCray became the First Lady of New York City. She now had her own staff and a larger role to play.
In February, 2014, she was named as the chairperson of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. Immediately, she began to work mainly on three issues, the chief among them being mental health. The other two are immigration and youth work force.
On November 23, 2015, McCray launched ‘ThriveNYC’, a $1.2 billion dollar initiative, with the aim of improving the city’s mental health and substance abuse services. A year later, she announced the formation of the ‘Cities Thrive Coalition’ with aim of launching a more consolidated nationwide mental health system.
By 2017, the movement she started expanded to 200 cities. Not one to sit still, she continues to work on the project, lobbying with Congressional lawmaker, arranging for more funds, gathering signature, lecturing at seminars, thereby trying to change people’s attitude towards mental health.
Family & Personal Life
Early in her youth, Chirlane McCray identified herself as a lesbian and continued to do so till 1991 when she met her future husband, Bill de Blasio, at that time working as an aide to David Dinkins. They got married in 1994. De Blasio is an Italian-American.
The couple has two children, a son called Dante and daughter called Chiara. In 2013, Chiara suffered from depression and drug use, which has since been addressed.