Who was Pauli Murray?
How many of you know the name Pauli Murray? Until I read Rosita Stevens-Holsey and Terry Catasús Jennings' MG biography, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist, released this February, I had never heard of this incredible woman.
This book, written in verse for ages 10-14, tells the story of Pauli Murray, a activist for Civil Rights and Feminism before either movement was fully established. Born the child of mixed-race parents in Baltimore in 1910 but raised by an aunt in Durham, North Carolina, Pauli Murray never fit in.
Bright and perceptive, she “saw injustice and unfairness with uncommon clarity. And she didn’t accept it.” Instead, Pauli Murray tackled injustice with all the force of her determination. Despite poverty, she graduated from Hunter College, taught for the WPA Education Project, and wrote articles pointing out injustice.
Pauli Murray, 1944
Her activist heart sent her on a quest to change the Jim Crow laws that held back her race at every turn. She entered Howard University School of Law and graduated top of her class, ahead of all her male peers. A paper she wrote while at Howard became the basis for arguments in Brown vs Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that finally toppled those laws, though Pauli never received credit for it.
Despite a prize for her exceptional scholarship, she was barred admission to Harvard because of her gender. So she tackled gender laws along with Jim Crow laws. She went on to get a master’s in law from Boalt Hall of Law in Berkeley, California, and a doctorate from Yale University. She was a participant in President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and a founding member of the National Organization of Women. (NOW)
Pauli Murray battled poverty, discrimination, racial and gender barriers. And she never gave up.
This moving and inspirational biography tackles difficult issues head-on, while creating a vivid portrait of an incredible woman. The free-verse form makes it easy to read and allows the authors to return again and again to the important themes of Pauli Murray’s life.
Interview with Author Terry Catasús Jennings:
|Terry Catasús Jennings|
Julie: You’ve had a big year! You published the Definitely Dominguita series, Pauli Murray’s biography, and have a picture book, The Little House of Hope, coming out this month.
Terry: Julie, thank you so much for hosting me on the GROG Blog. I’ve been very fortunate. All these projects have been in the works for a while, and then their paths converged.
Julie: I was surprised I had never heard of Pauli Murray, even though as a middle school teacher, I taught both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. How did you learn about Pauli and come to partner with her niece, Rosita Stevens-Holsey, to write this book?
Terry: I discovered Pauli Murray during research for The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960-1990. The more I learned, the more I felt her biography needed to be made available to young readers. While I could do justice to her story as a feminist, I could not do justice to her story as a Black person, so I wanted a partner. My research led me to the Pauli Murray Center, and through them, I tried, at first unsuccessfully, to find Dr. Murray’s family. Then I went to see a play about Pauli Murray at Howard University. There was a row of seats reserved for the family, so I introduced myself. When I said I was looking for someone to work with me, Rosita raised her hand. She’s a teacher! And she was already working to promote her aunt’s legacy. What could be better than that? The partnership has been as productive as it has been delightful.
Julie: Why did you choose middle grade readers as your audience?
Terry: I wrote the story, with Rosita’s help and concurrence, so it would be accessible and engaging to an audience beginning with fourth grade. To me, that’s when young readers can understand the damage and humiliation of the Jim Crow laws, the struggles of women in the workplace, and the rights given us by the Constitution. I hope that anyone above the age of ten can enjoy this book and garner new knowledge and understanding from it.
|Pauli Murray, Lawyer|
Julie: Why did you choose to write the book in free verse?
Terry: Pauli just seemed to flow in verse. There were earlier prose versions, including a picture book, but none of them seemed to have the heart that Pauli Murray demanded. At one point, I started writing verses, and then it flowed. At first, our agent wasn’t crazy about the verse version, but then Courtney Fahey from Little Bee Books became interested. She liked verse and fell in love with the project. I felt writing the biography in verse would honor Dr. Murray, who was herself a poet. Our aim was to tell her story in a respectful way that would be accessible to young readers. And for folks with a little more age and a little less time, verse provides a way to learn about a transformative individual in an easy manner.
Julie: What do you love about this book?
Terry: There are certain passages I love. The verse about Pauli’s mother knowing her life might last no longer than a whisper on a windy night. The imagery of Pauli being prickly and a thorn in the side of those in power.
|Pauli Murray, 1967|
Julie: Thanks so much, Terry, for sharing your passion for this subject and for introducing us to this amazing woman!
*Watch for next week’s Grog blog post with a sneak preview of Little House of Hope and Part 2 of my interview with Terry.