Pick any piece of progressive litigation enacted in the United States over the last few decades, and chances are it was influenced by the work of Pauli Murray. Yet you likely don’t know their name. Murray was an activist, lawyer, poet, and the first female-identifying African American Episcopal priest. If one thread runs through their many lives, it’s that each was far ahead of its time. Years before Rosa Parks, Murray sat in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus with a friend. When denied a postgraduate position at Harvard, they coined the term “Jane Crow” and went on to write States’ Laws on Race and Color in 1950. Before ideas around nonbinary identities entered the common lexicon, Murray was struggling with their gender identity, pleading with doctors to find a “cure” for what might today be recognized as gender dysphoria.
As part of their fight for legitimacy before racist and sexist institutions, Murray documented their life in detail, and it is because of this extensive “receipt keeping” that historians and activists have rediscovered them in recent years. These records were invaluable for filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen when making My Name is Pauli Murray, which seeks to reclaim Murray’s place in history. Hyperallergic caught up with the pair ahead of the documentary’s release.
H: What is the need to resurrect Pauli Murray’s legacy in 2021?
Betsy West: This is the story of a person who profoundly influenced civil rights, women’s rights. Pauli was an amazing writer, a poet, someone who was gender nonbinary, and has never been recognized [by the mainstream] for the contributions they made to American society. When we learned about this extraordinary story, we wondered why we didn’t know about this person. So we were like, let’s dig in and see if we can make a documentary.
Julie Cohen: This is a person who was fighting battles for equality, often so far ahead of the times, in a way that feels extraordinarily relevant to struggles that are going on in our country today. It’s such a privilege, a revelation, and a joy to learn Pauli’s story. [They] played a fundamental role in our history, yet isn’t someone you read about in school textbooks!
H: So how did you learn of Murray?
JC: From Ruth Bader Ginsburg! When we made RBG, while doing research, we saw that Justice Ginsberg had put Murray’s name as a co-author in the first brief she wrote for the Supreme Court, fighting for gender equality. She wanted to credit Pauli for having come up with the notion that one potential way to fight for women’s equality was to use the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The idea RBG ultimately developed and led to victory was an idea that Pauli had in the mid-1960s.
H: You have another documentary on Julia Child, Julia, which just premiered at TIFF. Do you set out to reclaim the space your protagonists deserve in history?
BW: There are so many stories of women who have been ignored, sidelined, discounted. It’s frankly an opportunity for filmmakers to find these stories and tell them. We’re working on another story about a living woman who’s also quite a pioneer. Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s a fertile landscape.
JC: I think your word “reclaiming” is a good one. In some cases, it’s about adding a richer understanding to someone we already know.
H: How true was that in Murray’s case?
JC: It felt like perhaps even a greater responsibility because this is someone who many Americans aren’t even familiar with. But you know what? Pauli Murray is not someone we are discovering. Academics, particularly Black women academics, have been studying and writing about Pauli extensively for years. But in terms of the mainstream, there hasn’t been enough. Documentary can be used as a popularizer of history. It can reach a lot of people who can begin learning about Pauli.
H: I can’t help but wonder how you, as white women, held yourselves accountable while centering the life of a Black person?
BW: Firstly, we immersed ourselves in scholarship about Pauli Murray and in Pauli’s writings. And it was extremely important for us to have a diverse team, because like you said, there’s only so far we can go to put ourselves in these shoes. We had our wonderful producer, with whom we have collaborated before, Talleah Bridges McMahon, our editor Cinque Northern, and others. We were a small but very diverse team working on this story intently for a year and a half.
JC: The goal for all of us was to try to come as close as we could to telling Pauli’s story in Pauli’s words.
H: Pauli’s archives must have been an invaluable resource.
JC: Of course. The project would not have been possible if Pauli hadn’t had the foresight to save 141 boxes of papers. They weren’t just legal writings, but also personal diaries and journals. More than 800 beautiful, often intimate, photos of Pauli or taken by Pauli. There were more than 40 hours of audio tapes. Someone would come to interview Pauli, and Pauli would get out a cassette recorder and double record it and save them. It was like Pauli speaking to the future as eloquently as only Pauli could have.
BW: I liked what Cinque said to us. The film isn’t just in Pauli’s own words; we also tried to do it as much as possible from Pauli’s perspective.
H: We really owe so much to Black women archiving history like this. So many documentary filmmakers spend years in libraries chasing smoke.
BW: What is especially extraordinary is that Pauli’s younger life was impoverished, kind of peripatetic — moving from apartment to apartment and yet managing to keep all this material. In photographs from the 1930s, we see Pauli riding the rails during the Depression. I find those photos extraordinary. Pauli also saved the evidence of the struggle with their gender, so that people in the future might be able to read it and perhaps understand it better than Pauli’s contemporaries did.
JC: Despite all the struggles, there was this strong sense of importance and knowing that what one is doing and saying. ‘My contemporaries may not get it, but someone in the future is going to, so I’m going to just save everything.’ Pauli arranged for all of this to go to an archive at Harvard.
H: You have this way of weaving in criticisms of your protagonists. You did that with Murray, and with RBG and Julia Child too.
BW: People are not perfect, and I think a part of our approach is to find the humanity in our subjects. That happens through humor sometimes, and sometimes from places where they may have stumbled in some way. I think that makes the story more realistic. Obviously, we tremendously admire Pauli Murray, but we were also happy to explore those areas in which Pauli and a younger generation came to blows. Pauli was teaching at Brandeis and objecting to some of the language and the methods of the Black Power movement. We found that surprising and interesting. That gives the story some complexity.
H: You also complicate Pauli’s sexuality and the conversation around it. You retroactively apply a contemporary gender vocabulary to a time when the terms didn’t exist or weren’t widely used. Why did you do that?
JC: That certainly was a struggle for us. When we started doing interviews, we found that Pauli’s friends referred to Pauli (as Pauli had in life) with she/her pronouns. We came to understand how problematic that is for today’s trans and nonbinary community, for whom Pauli is an icon. We didn’t want to draw conclusions as to Pauli being a trans man or nonbinary. Honestly, there is no way of knowing. It had to be a conversation, so we interviewed ACLU’s Chase Strangio, who uses Pauli’s writings in their work. We spoke to Ms. Foundation’s Raquel Willis and activist Dolores Chandler. We decided to have them discuss Pauli’s pronouns in the film, because it’s something that’s on people’s minds today. We still don’t know how to answer that question.