Love, Ambition, and “Invisible Footnotes” in the Life and Writing of Pauli Murray

  • Doreen M. Drury
Part of the The Critical Black Studies Series book series (CBL)


African American lawyer Pauli Murray applied for a research job in 1952 with an international law project based at Cornell University. Her potential employers thought highly of her qualifications, which, in fact, were exceptional. Few women and fewer black women still had attained Murray’s academic and professional standing. She was a graduate of Hunter College in New York and the Howard University School of Law, and she held a master’s degree in law from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1945, the National Council of Negro Women recognized her as “one of the twelve outstanding women in American life for the year.”1 In 1946, Murray served as deputy attorney general for the state of California, the first black woman to hold such a post. Her first book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was published in 1951. Yet Cornell did not hire her for the position. A university administrator wrote to Murray, according to her posthumously published autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, “[T]here were some questions concerning your past associations which … might place the University in a difficult situation.”2


Black Woman Gender Nonconformity Male Hormone Hunter College Black Feminist 
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  1. 1.
    Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 297.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    On radical black women’s gender critiques see Dayo Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  5. On social and political connections between gays and the Left, see Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 15.
    See Cheryl D. Hicks, Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy A Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999);Google Scholar
  8. Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. and Hazel Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 738–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 21.
    Two books have been especially helpful in my understanding of Murray’s engagement with medical science: Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. and Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).Google Scholar
  12. My analysis of Murray’s engagement with medical science differs from that presented by Nancy Ordover in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    See, for example, Henry Rubin, Self-Made Men: Identity and Embodiment among Transsexual Men (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (New York: Harper Brothers, 1956). All page references appear in the text and refer to the 1987 Perennial Library edition of Proud Shoes (New York: Harper & Row). Hereinafter designated in the text as PS.Google Scholar
  15. 31.
    My analysis is informed by Claudia Tate’s Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In contrast to Murray’s encoding of her concerns, Rebeccah Welch notes that by the early 1960s Lorraine Hansberry’s “sexuality worked to expand her understanding of the interrelated nature of oppression” and that she “explicitly framed ‘homosexuality’ as a ‘question of human rights’” (emphasis added) in “Spokesman of the Oppressed? Lorraine Hansberry at Work: The Challenge of Radical Politics in the Postwar Era,” Souls 9, no. 4 (2007): 318n54.Google Scholar
  16. 64.
    Jean M. Humez, “Pauli Murray’s Histories of Loyalty and Revolt,” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (1990): 333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 66.
    Robin D. G. Kelley interprets Murray in the tradition of Anna Julia Cooper, Alice Walker, and many other black feminist and womanist theorists. Referencing the work of Patricia Hill Collins, Kelley puts it this way, “This radical humanism … has been a consistent principle of black feminist thought.” See Robin D. G. Kelley, “Identity Politics and Class Struggle,” New Politics 6, no. 2 (1997): 89.Google Scholar
  18. See also Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 42.Google Scholar

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© Shaka McGlotten and Dána-Ain Davis 2012

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  • Doreen M. Drury

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