Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 58-61
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"To Write Like Never Before"
Pauli Murray's Enduring Yearning
Some day the poet and warrior
Who grapple in my brain
shall lock in final contest
And I will be ground under. 1
Fascination and quiet delight is what I would expect from Pauli Murray if she could read this forum. I also suspect that she would be especially curious about my decision to comment on what was, without a doubt, her deepest yearning—to become an accomplished writer. Although she is known primarily for her contributions as a human rights activist whose intellectual energy lit the path for the modern-day civil and women's rights movements, it was writing, in particular poetry, that held center stage in her heart. And, it was her lifelong struggle to find the time, financial wherewithal, and courage to write that is capsuled in the aptly titled poem "Conflict."
Pauli Murray's love of literature and writing began in a household where her father, William H. Murray, a teacher and an aspiring poet, regularly secluded himself in his study to write. After her mother, Agnes died and her father was unable to care for his six children, Murray went to live in North Carolina with her maternal grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald, and her mother's oldest sister, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, who became her adoptive mother. There, Murray, the only child in a household of elderly adults, established a ritual of withdrawing to the parlor where she would lie on her stomach in front of the fireplace surrounded by books and papers in a reverie reminiscent of her father. Among her frequent companions were a 1907 edition of Paul Laurence Dunbar's works and the NAACP journal, The Crisis, which published literary works, as well as news features and reports of Association activities. 2
In high school, Murray's literary abilities found expression in a series of short stories and editorials that were published in the school newspaper. By the time she graduated from Hunter College in 1933, she had authored an essay, "A Working Student," for the school magazine, and a poem, "Song of the Highway," and a short story, "Three Thousand Miles on a Dime in Ten Days" that would be published in Negro (1934)—a massive anthology of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Nancy Cunard. Murray also attracted the attention of several influential black writers and [End Page 58] editors. Among those she admired and came to know were the poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes; Elmer A. Carter, editor of the National Urban League magazine, Opportunity; and journalist Ted Poston.
Despite this auspicious beginning and her obvious talent, the question of whether to devote her life to writing frustrated and frightened Pauli Murray for several reasons. First, there was the emotional pull towards activism that was rooted in a compassion for people, her personal experience of discrimination, and an impulse to challenge prejudice whether it was directed at people of color, women, or the poor and vulnerable irrespective of their background. She described this inclination in a letter to the writer Lillian Smith, who became a friend and mentor in the 1940s: "I'm really a submerged writer, but the exigencies of the period have driven me into social action." 3
Second, there were ever-present financial and health concerns for herself and her elderly kin that temporarily sapped creative energy and thwarted the best-laid plans for sustained writing.
Third, there was Murray's reverential view of what it meant to be a poet that fueled feelings of self-doubt. "Poets," she wrote in tribute to Countee Cullen and Stephen Vincent Benet, whose example and support inspired her, "are prophets [who] see and feel intuitively the 'shape of things to come' long before people . . . are able to comprehend them." 4 She often said that lawyers (the professional class she joined) respect facts, whereas poets respect the truth. Given these extraordinary standards and the conflict she felt about her life purpose, it...