Pauli Murray VS the Proud Boys

by | Feb 2, 2021

I have been working on a biography of Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985) for middle-grade readers for several years now. Dr. Murray was a remarkable human being who confronted white (male) supremacy all her life as a civil rights activist, lawyer, poet and Episcopal priest. Dr. Murray thought she should have been male, though she used female pronouns. It was her very “in betweenness” that helped her come up with some of her most creative legal arguments.

In the course of my project, however, I have often asked myself, why would young readers care about all that Dr. Murray strived for in her remarkable life? How is this relevant to today’s young readers?

January 6 provided one answer. In these scary and confusing times, Dr. Murray’s story helps us understand that this is only the latest chapter of our country’s history of bigotry and racism.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I saw this line on Facebook shortly after the January 6 invasion of the Capitol, and it sums up this entire, awful moment.

In trying to understand this segment of our population that invaded the Capitol on January 6, I keep coming back to the fact that these white men [the vast majority of the mob were white and men], whom I’ll label “Proud Boys” [though there are many stripes and groups represented], feel aggrieved, but they are the ones who have the power, the ability to walk past a police officer (or take a selfie with them) without being sprayed with mace, beaten and hustled into an unmarked van.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

They proudly posted videos on social media of themselves defacing federal property, threatening elected officials and assaulting police officers. Yes, at least some insurrectionists will be brought to justice, but I’ve seen charges of criminal trespass with a one-year sentence. A slap on the wrist at the most.

Terrorists like those who stormed the Capitol want to keep all the privileges they’ve enjoyed and they don’t want to share them with those they deem “other,” including those of different race, national origin, gender identity or religion. These bigots and bullies seem to think this is a zero-sum gamed: they have privilege and power and they will not share.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Those of us who believe in the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to de-militarize the police are asking for a more equal society, one in which EVERYONE has the right to sleep in their own homes without dying in a hail of bullets, the right not to be shot by police when their hands were up, the right to not be murdered by a cop with a knee on their neck, for the right to be seen as individuals with their own hopes and dreams and lives and loves. We are asking for things all Americans, all people want: affordable, safe housing, steady employment, stable and sane government.

We want merely to have an opportunity to make our way unimpeded by bigots and bullies.

Domestic terrorism and bigotry has always been a dark part of our history: lynching of Black people (once with a rope and a tree, now at the hands of rogue police), dragging deaths of gay people, firebombing of mosques and abortion clinics. Trump has fanned the coals of hatred into a bonfire, but the coals were always burning.

Dr. Murray at the prestigious MacDowell Colony for writers. She and James Baldwin were the first Blacks to be admitted.

In her efforts to secure the rights of those who were not white and male to live their lives, to live up to their full potential, without the institutional weight of white male supremacy on their necks, Dr. Murray was pushing against the same attitudes that enabled the terrorists to enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and then leave it with virtually no interference.

When the law failed her, which it can do, when people disappointed her, which also happens, and when she felt like giving up, Dr. Murray turned to poetry to convey her frustration and anguish. Her poetry turned her frustration and anger into a thing of beauty.When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

You can feel discouraged, if you like, when you realize that we have not achieved all that Dr. Pauli Murray set out to do. But I choose to feel optimistic. We ARE making progress, at least those of us who are paying attention. We are, at last, talking about the flaws, not just in ourselves, but — more importantly — in our systems. As loud as Trumpolites howl, those of us who believe in a more just society are confronting our past and trying hard for “a more perfect union.”

We cannot give up. Dr. Murray never did.

Dr. Murray left her tenured academic position at Brandeis to become a female Episcopal priest before women were admitted to the priesthood. She helped change that.

I also want to give a shout out to the movie, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” which recently aired at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a marvelous rendering of Dr. Murray’s life and full of interviews with the late RBG, and also feminist scholar Brittney Cooper (Rutgers University) and many others whose words I had read but whose voices I had not heard before. Kudos to the film makers, Betsy West and Julie Cohen. I urge everyone reading this to try to watch it!

Alexandra the Great book cover

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