Black revolutionaries you need to know: Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray. Image courtesy UNC University Library.

In the fall of 2013, I spent an afternoon in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard getting pretty intimate with Pauli Murray. Really, it doesn’t get much more intimate than reading a person’s personal diaries and medical records. Typically, when someone documents something and then gives it over to a public archive, it’s because they want the world to see it. Yet I consider myself privileged to have accessed these papers. I know that just because an archive is public, it isn’t necessarily easy to access. Most public archives are housed at colleges and universities and require a lot of effort to get to and to navigate, especially for folks unfamiliar with or historically alienated from these types of institutions.

Most people see the value in Pauli Murray’s papers because they allow them to bear witness to her brilliance as a civil rights activist, a lawyer, a feminist, a poet, a priest and a saint. People see those parts of her and identify with them deeply. Scholars, and intellectuals, religious folk and Black folk want to lift her and all of her amazing accomplishments up and claim her as their hero. And I can understand that. We all want our heroes.

But these aren’t the parts of Murray that I identify with most. I identify with her turmoil. I identify with the turmoil of someone who was trying to live life as a complete being—with an integrated body, mind, and spirit—in a society that was constructed to crush her every step of the way.

In a letter to her Aunt Pauline in 1943, Murray wrote, “I don’t know whether I’m right or whether society (or some medical authority) is right. I only know how I feel and what makes me happy. This conflict rises up to knock me down at every apex I reach in my career. And because the laws of society do not protect me, I’m exposed to any enemy or person who may or may not want to hurt me.”

In pursuing her academic career, one institution after another rejected Pauli Murray on the basis of her race or her gender, including The University of North Carolina. And when she did gain entry to some institutions, her academic and professional career was constantly threatened by the friction between her gender identity, her love for women, and society’s absolute inability to accept her way of being. That inner conflict would land Murray in the hospital on more than one occasion in her life.

I don’t know how Murray identified because she is not here for me to ask, but, as a trans, gender non-conforming, queer person of mixed race myself, sitting in front of her medical records and notes—written in her own hand—sitting in front of those years of turmoil, I thought, “Oh, this is a feeling I know well.”

In life and in death Pauli Murray was and is a controversial figure. There are people and institutions that would lift her up for all of her gifts to civil and human rights work, but would be very uncomfortable with and perhaps even adamantly opposed to honoring and allowing space for her struggle with her sexual orientation and gender identity. What does it mean, to make a person’s turmoil irrelevant? What does it mean to claim so many of a person’s accomplishments and to write books about so many aspects of a person’s existence in this world, only omitting the one aspect that we don’t understand or that makes us uncomfortable?

What I find truly amazing about Pauli Murray is that through all of the rejection and turmoil, she accomplished so much of what she set out to accomplish in this world, while remaining authentically and unflinchingly herself—even finding love. She spent 20 years of her life with a White woman named Irene Barlow. They took care of each other in health and in sickness, until death separated them. Even then, I’m not sure that death succeeded in that. They are together under the same headstone along with Irene’s mother and Pauli’s two aunts; chosen family.

The author. Photo courtesy Dolores Chandler.

I am not someone who finds it easy to connect to a sense of legacy or ancestry. It used to be that when I heard people talk about their ancestors, I just sort of nodded my head as though I understood. I certainly did not feel connected to my biological family’s ancestry. It’s just not something that we talked much about. But, being a part of a community of queer and trans people of color, I’ve heard many talk about their chosen ancestors—those in whose legacy we walk.

I have no doubt that Pauli Murray is my ancestor and here’s why:

What Pauli Murray really did was fight to create the kind of world in which every part of her could live. That, I think, is her legacy. And in one way or another, that’s what we queer and trans folks of color are all trying to do.

In a 1967 letter to the National Organization of Women, criticizing the organization for its negligence regarding the issues of women of color and poor and working class women, Pauli wrote, “Since, as a human being, I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another, I must find a unifying principle in all of these movements to which I can adhere.…This, it seems to me, is not only good politics, but also may be the price of survival.”

Pauli knew that her liberation could not come at the cost her self-fragmentation. And we know that too. We know that this is what the fight against HB2 in North Carolina is about. We know that centering the voices and experiences of queer and trans people of color in this fight is a simultaneous act of love and resistance that demonstrates to the world that we will not be broken. That is the legacy of Pauli Murray in which we walk whether we know it or not. It is a legacy of courage and resilience, of love, ferocity and liberation.

As queer and trans folks of color, our ancestors and our history are often hard to come by. We know that we have existed for forever but the world tries so hard to erase us or to explain our existence away as an anomaly or aberration. One of the ways in which society does this is by robbing us of our ancestors, and with them the knowledge that queer, trans, gender non-conforming folks of color have always been here. Remembering that truth is integral to the fight for our liberation.