Tag Archives: Black History Month

Her Name Was Pauli Murray

Debbie says:

I wrote a blog post about Pauli Murray in 2019. This weekend, I had the opportunity to see the new documentary about her, My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the team who directed RBG. The film was screened as part of the virtual 2021 Sundance Festival. I can’t find a current trailer or website for this film, though there are some reviews and articles.

I agree with Jude Dry, writing in IndieWire, when they say “While the film doesn’t transcend cinematic heights beyond that of a workaday biopic, it handles the more complex aspects of Murray’s story with nuance and conveys the Black queer trailblazer’s story with requisite reverence.”

Selecting a pronoun to use for Murray is difficult, as some of the people interviewed the film point out. Murray (1910-1985) didn’t live in a time when “they/them” was in any kind of common usage, but it seems like the best choice for someone assigned female at birth who never was able to settle into a female body, and spent decades and thousands of dollars trying to find evidence that they might have undescended testicles or other assigned-male characteristics.

Murray’s life story is extraordinarily complex and layered. Perhaps best known (though nowhere near well enough) is Murray the civil-rights trailblazer. The film begins this story by covering their first experience refusing to move to the back of the bus (a decade before Rosa Parks’ famous moment) and subsequent jail stay.

After providing a stunning split-screen image of Black children leaving a run-down unmaintained school, and morphing into an image of White children leaving a cheerful, affluent school, the film-makers bring in Murray’s law-school paper opposing Plessy v. Ferguson (the notorious Supreme Court case upholding “separate but equal”). They draw an unambiguous line between that paper and the eventual arguments Thurgood Marshall and his team used, to overturn Plessy and replace it with Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandates integration. Spottswood Robinson, Murray’s professor at Howard and a member of the Marshall team, told Murray that they had used her legal theories in crafting their brief.

Of course, the movie covers Murray’s mentorship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including a brief moment of RBG herself singing the praises of Pauli Murray. It also spends time on Murray’s quite deep and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which grew from Murray’s letters to President Franklin Roosevelt asking probing questions about Black rights, or the lack thereof.

Rather than center itself on racial issues and legal triumphs, the film spends perhaps an equal amount of time on Murray’s gender identity and presentation, and features a number of contemporary nonbinary voices, along with Murray’s own words in letters and other writings. The film-makers go to appropriately great lengths to clarify just how important gender was to Murray, and how valuable that part of their story is to people who have later carved their own path into a gender role and presentation they can be comfortable with.

Scenes in Professor Britney Cooper’s classroom at Rutgers are one device the directors use to context Murray’s importance in Black history. As Cooper teaches Murray’s accomplishments, we are reminded that while they certainly did not comfortably identify as female, they faced all of the obstacles and oppressions of being a Black female in their time, and what that meant to entering the professional legal world. Murray was turned down by law schools because of their race. They went to Howard University, and graduated at the top of their class. Then they were turned down from what was usually an automatic chance for top-rank Howard students to study further at Harvard Law … because of “her” sex.

Their attempts to get a law firm job after graduation prefigure those of Ginsburg and her classmates a few years later; Murray, without the connections and/or husbands of the Harvard women, opened their own law firm in California.

We are given a window into the stories of Murray’s major relationships with women, and a searing vision into the pain Murray experienced when their lover died. And we also get a later chapter of Murray’s life, when they became an Episcopal priest and explored yet another aspect of themself, astonishing many of their friends.

When I wrote about Murray two years ago, I closed with “I find it impossible to think about Murray without wishing I had known her.” That’s even more true since I saw the movie

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Lucy Parsons: A(nother) Black Woman Whose Name Should Be a Household Word



Debbie says:

Black History Month tends to concentrate on a few already-famous (male) icons, whom you can name as well as I can, rather than looking at the people who should be famous but aren’t.  I recently heard Brittany Packnett talking about Pauli Murray as one important example.  I wrote here in January about Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond, black suffragists who also fit that bill.  There are dozens of others, of course.

One of my favorite characters in all of American history is Lucy Parsons; Zaron Burnett III has a fantastic take on her in How a Freed Slave Wrote the Playbook for People Power. He backs his historical comparison up even further than this quotation shows:

As the top one percent conspired to grab tighter control over the business and politics spheres of the day, profits were prioritized over people. Legislation was passed by store-bought politicians. Gross inequality made the country’s other problems fester like a neglected wound. To complicate matters, tensions were heightened on the ground level by a growing backlash against the waves of immigrants arriving on the nation’s shores. Xenophobia and bigotry were on the rise. This happens when people feel financially insecure. It’s one of the surest indicators that hearts will turn cold, prejudiced. It reliably divides people.

Onto this anxious scene burst a young, wildly charismatic woman of color, equally intelligent and beautiful. She proclaimed economic inequality morally wrong. An avowed socialist, she crisscrossed the country making her case for a better, more equitable United States. Of course the rich and powerful despised this moralistic young woman who seemingly came out of nowhere, gifted with a devastating magnetism that she wielded like a weapon in her fight to advocate for a better country. They tried to dismiss her. That failed. They tried to make her look foolish in the press. That, too, failed. She would not be denied. She had a moral fire that burned within, radiating from the inside out. This radical brilliance paired well with her flair for publicity.

The year was 1886. The woman was Lucy Parsons.

The comparison to AOC is amusing, and dead on target, but not as interesting as Parsons herself. Burnett walks us through her role as the mother of nonviolent resistance:

My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.

He interrogates her attitudes toward race, which were perhaps less disturbing in 1886 than  they can feel in 2019. The daughter of a slave, Parsons was light-skinned and married a white man, and seems to have been content to have been identified as “Spanish-Indian.” Her biographer, Jacqueline Jones, has done enormous work to clarify Parsons’ actual history, and the results of her research can be found in Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical. He then links these issues to a discussion of the contemporary role of identity politics in radical politics.

Parsons and her husband Albert were involved in the political tensions leading up to the Haymarket Affair. Albert and six other men were sentenced to death because some unidentifiable person on the edge of the demonstration threw a bomb; Albert was eventually executed. Lucy had fought tirelessly for his release and was very public about the government’s refusal to let her and her two children say goodbye.

She lived another 60 years and she never stopped fighting for justice, socialism, and an equitable society. When she died, as Burnett points out, “American women” had had the right to vote for 22 years, but it would be 22 years more until black women gained that right in any degree of actuality.

Burnett sets forth the “playbook” she created, and he does it well.His comparisons to AOC and other rising women of color are apt. However, Parsons herself shines through this article, as she did in life, holding the reader’s interest and making us want to know more — and to do more.

Help make her a household name; talk about her every chance you get.