Catching Up to Pauli Murray

Susan Mullally
Pauli Murray at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Baltimore, 1981

Pauli Murray’s autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, first appeared in 1987, two years after her death. A young law professor, Pat Williams—today better known as the distinguished legal scholar, Nation columnist, and MacArthur “genius award” winner Patricia Williams—reviewed it respectfully for The New York Times. Yet she found Murray’s hopefulness in the face of her narrative of racism and injustice “to contain a certain pathos.” “The militance of my generational perspective,” Williams wrote, ran “counter to the persistent gentlewomanliness” of Murray’s tone and message. Murray’s day seemed to have passed. In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley appeared awestruck, yet puzzled by the story of a life so accomplished yet so little known. To his apparent surprise, he came to the “final pages utterly convinced that Murray was one of the great Americans of her time.” Yet neither his praise nor the availability of this prize-winning narrative of her life succeeded in making Murray into a household name.1

Now, more than thirty years later, Liveright has reissued what it calls a “rediscovered memoir” for a very different time. Since 1987, changing realities—the election of a black president and the major-party presidential candidacy of a woman, the shocking violence of Ferguson, Charleston, and Charlottesville, the tragic deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, the emerging struggle over transgender rights from gender-neutral bathrooms to the military—have challenged us to look anew at the issues of race, gender, and sexuality that defined Pauli Murray’s life. Since 1985, a steady scholarly interest in her has generated a growing body of research in the voluminous collection of her papers that she bequeathed to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. As a result, we not only must consider her life in a new generational perspective, we also know a great deal more about that life itself; we can now see the autobiography’s strategic silences and omissions.

Murray has come to seem not the dated gentlewoman of Patricia Williams’s review but rather a prophetic voice. Her words and actions on behalf of African-Americans and women propelled two of the most significant social movements of the twentieth century, at the same time that her questions about her gender identity anticipated the struggle for transgender rights that has emerged in the twenty-first. It is not so much that Murray has been “rediscovered,” but that she has come to be recognized in ways that make both her experience and her narrative about it take on new meaning and importance as the life of someone who made history by anticipating its directions, shaping its outcomes, and writing its stories.

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a nurse, both, in Murray’s words, “products of several generations of…

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