A family portrait too real for Kenya?


Nobody could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the black, queer, gender-neutral civil rights activist who lived from 1910 to 1985.

Few people have done so much to make the world fairer than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue in the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ + people from being fired from work because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, many people don’t know who Murray was.

My Name is Pauli Murray, a new documentary that is showing in select cinemas and streamed on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The captivating film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG”, the popular documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“RBG” is good documentation. Even better, however, is the 131-minute “My Name is Pauli Murray”.

To convey the complexities of Murray’s life in such a brief document would strike many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.

Using recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of Murray with one of her dogs, to Harlem in the 1930s, and interviews with Murray’s family and biographers – the film takes you into Murray’s world.

To say Murray was a Renaissance woman is not banal. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist, and educator. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends for decades. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her writing friends. Murray and Baldwin were the first black writers to be invited to the prestigious MacDowell writer colony.

In her 60s, Murray left her temporary teaching position at Brandeis University to attend a seminar. She was the first black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.

It doesn’t stop there! An article Murray penned as a student at Howard Law School was a key element of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy for overcoming racial segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Murray as she argued against sex discrimination in the Supreme Court.

While she was still alive, Murray was silent about much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But due to the time she lived in, Murray couldn’t speak openly about their relationship.

Murray felt like he was the wrong gender – like a man in a woman’s body. Murray kept that a secret too.

In “My Name is Pauli Murray”, Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and she”. A non-binary activist refers to Murray as “she”.

Murray has a well-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time that a Yale College was named after a Person of Color or an (open) LGBTQ + person. In 1965, Murray became the first African American to earn a doctorate in law from Yale.

In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Home Office, Murray’s family home in Durham, NC, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

When you watch “My Name is Pauli Murray” you are overwhelmed by Murray’s resilience and performance. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested against racial segregation on buses.

“I lived to see my lost causes found,” says Murray.

It’s hard to humanize an icon. But the filmmakers don’t put Murray on Olympus.

As a child we learned that Murray wanted to wear pants. During the week it was okay, said her aunt Pauline, but Murray had to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Although few understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my young girl”.

Murray and Barlow never lived together. Yet you can feel their intimacy from the letters they exchanged. They called themselves “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters from the Peanuts comic strip) and wrote about the longing to “share” Brahms ‘Fourth Symphony and the New York Times’ crossroad puzzle.

My Name is Pauli Murray lets you talk about Murray and how you can honor her legacy. That would have made Murray happy.

About Sonia Martinez

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