Remembering A Black Queer Saint – Revd Dr Pauli Murray
“It may be that when historians look back on twentieth-century America, all roads will lead to Pauli Murray…Civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality – no matter the subject, there is Pauli!”
– Susan Ware, Historian.
Black History Month can so often feel like a time when all the great Black people are dead. We should consider this month in particular, not only those who have made history who are still living, but also those whose legacies may not be fully known and whose lives, even though past, deserve much better prominence. Amongst the many black queer intellectual names we might recall this month, the names for example of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Audre Lorde – there is a too often forgotten name - that of Reverend Pauli Murray. Murray was a poet, writer, activist, labour organizer, lawyer and Episcopal priest.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910 and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Murray lived as one who worked diligently behind the scenes but who was prophetically ahead of her time. About two-decades before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Murray categorically refused to move to the back of the bus in Richmond, Virginia (a whole 15 years before Rosa Parks!), she organised successful sit-ins to desegregate restaurants in Washington, DC and four decades before the much celebrated Kimberlé Crenshaw (credited with the first use of term “intersectionality”) Pauli Murray insisted in all her work that the various identities and experiences she carried as a Black, Queer, Christian, African-American woman were indivisible – in fact, Pauli Murray continues to queer her legacy and our engagement with it by challenging the assumptions we might make about her identity, and indeed the centre of her work.
Some scholars consider Pauli Murray to be an early transgender figure in U.S. history and as a scholar and priest she was a pioneer in challenging the Church less publicly but mostly through her legacy and writings, to consider its understanding of sexuality, gender and priesthood at a time when the term ‘transgender’ did not exist and there was no social movement to support or help make sense of the trans experience. Pauli was heavily involved in political struggles which she influenced by her intellect and her legal background. Her writings were used by the NAACP to win the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 ended educational segregation in public schools, and she was appointed by the US President John F. Kennedy to the Commission on the Status of Women.
Beneath the intellectual prowess and political engagement was much humanity. Pauli’s first career was in law and her second in the Church – throughout both careers she wrestled with her identity and at one time when receiving hormone treatment identified as a trans man. Pauli experienced real heart break in her life, and most of her relationships were with women. Like any human being the ending of these relationships weighed so heavily upon her at times that she was hospitalized at least once for psychiatric treatment – as someone who is black and queer myself it’s hard to separate her struggles with mental health from her struggles against racism, homophobia, transphobia in a racist, misogynistic and homophobic Church and society. It’s remarkable that Murray’s legacy is not better known – when she first explored the vocation to priesthood it was impossible for women to be ordained to the priesthood, something we are reminded by in Pauli being the very first African-American woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Even more profound is that just following her ordination as a priest, Murray celebrated her first mass in the Church where her grandmother Cornelia was baptized as a baby born into slavery…it evoked memories of my own first eucharist in the Methodist Church in which my Grandmother worshipped when she arrived here from Jamaica but the same Church whose racism forced my Grandfather to join a Black Pentecostal Church which met in the Methodist Church’s Hall.
Our Black Queer lives and experiences overlap in a number of ways, and Pauli’s multifaceted legacy to us is that deep reminder of our interconnectedness, a challenge to live into our wholeness, and a call to remember our ability to persevere despite our struggles. Pauli was declared a saint by the Episcopal Church in 2018 alongside Thurgood Marshall and Florence Li Tim-Oi. Her feast day is the day of her death 1st July. In a Church and world in which the rights of trans folk are being challenged, and where racism is rife – we should all be encouraged to say:
“St Pauli Murray, pray for us unto God…”
Dark Testament Verse 8
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.
– Pauli Murray
(This article follows the current standard among most historians and uses “she-her-hers” pronouns for Murray — the same pronouns that Murray used whilst acknowledging that as scholarship continues and her papers, some of which were destroyed by family, are discovered - a fuller picture may give us more certainty on what’s appropriate.)
The Revd. Jarel Robinson-Brown
Vice Chair, Board of Trustees