Sometimes I imagine what Pauli Murray the person would have made of Pauli Murray College. When I imagine her, it’s usually not the distinguished legal giant and civil rights activist, but a scared teenager, a first-gen, a black girl from Durham, North Carolina, trying to talk her way first into Columbia University and then into Hunter College.
I want to make our college a place where that girl would have thrived, would have been happy, would have felt at once a part of the community and wholly, entirely herself. The challenge for all of us PauliMurs in these first years is how to make this immaculate, monumental, beautiful college — which my children rightly compare all the time to a palace — not only provide room for the real-life Pauli Murrays, but come alive with something like Pauli Murray’s verve and energy and sparkle.
I want to be clear that there might be a hundred Yale professors who have more of a right to be talking about Pauli Murray and her legacy. I’m nothing but an enthusiastic latecomer to this fan club, honored to represent the college named after her.
I have taken to saying that Pauli Murray is a role model for the now, but I might not have been clear enough as to why. It’s too easy to turn the story of her career as a civil rights activist, legal scholar and (posthumously) an Episcopal saint into a list of one laurel after another — as if it were the ultimate Yalie resume, in which she is either the first woman or the first African-American to reach some lofty milestone: Howard University’s first female J.D. (and valedictorian of her class), the first African-American to receive a doctorate in jurisprudence at Yale, the first African-American woman to enter the Episcopal priesthood.
But the thing about actually being a first is that it’s always a leap into the unknown. (The urge to collect laurels usually characterizes those further back in line.) Taken in the aggregate, in the context of the time, Pauli Murray’s career and life look much more defiant, suggesting someone unwilling to settle, even when — as in the case of her gender identity — self-knowledge and self-reflection did not relieve, but only increased suffering. She was brave. She took on risk.
Pauli’s real genius was for engagement. The Schlesinger Library’s collection of her papers stretches to an astonishing 58 linear feet, much of it correspondence, some to newspapers, but most of it to person after person: persuasions, conversations, ceaseless engagement. Over and over again, she — black, female, gay, easy to dismiss — continued that conversation with institutions too, no matter how tightly closed to her their doors were. (When Harvard refused to admit her because of her sex, she wrote back: “Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject.”)
That act of engagement was core to this firebrand who repeatedly found her way into venerable institutions, transforming them for the better: the prestigious law firm Paul, Weiss; elite universities; and finally, the Episcopal church. The ultimate stronghold of an institution with which she continued to engage and in which she continued to believe was of course American law itself. Pauli, the nimble, effortless writer — an accomplished poet and memoirist — might have her greatest, lasting impact in the 776-page “States’ Laws on Race and Color.” The legacy as a whole speaks to a dogged optimism, to keep on at the hard work of communicating, even after many would have lost hope in the power of words and ideas and goodwill.
Pauli once said, “I just want America to live up to its billing.” But she also said, “I must make myself worthy to be called an American.” The relationship between those two sentences is the part of her legacy I most want to form a part of our college: that we have the highest expectations of institutions, but that we also willingly and joyfully and tirelessly work so that our best institutions — including Yale — live up to our highest hopes and that we are worthy of them.
The first quotation on our college’s newly carved mace is something Pauli Murray said to a reporter: “This society is not hospitable to persons of color, women or left-handed people.” It happens that I share all three traits with Pauli, and we will all do our darnedest to make sure that Yale College is hospitable to all. And then I will be proud to hoist that mace — left hand held high — at Commencement this spring.
Tina Lu is the inaugural head of Pauli Murray College and a professor of East Asian languages and literature. Contact her at email@example.com .