“This society is not hospitable to persons of color, women, or left-handed people.” ~Pauli Murray
Last fall and spring, a debate raged at my Divinity School alma mater. It was about the racist and heteropatriarchal traditions of the institution, but it came to be embodied in a video of a young black woman, furious over an email sent by the wife of her residential hall leader. The email stated that racially insensitive Halloween costumes should be permissible because undergraduate students are old enough not to be coddled by their institution. She explained that her residential college was her home and that she should be made to feel safe and cared for within it.
Yale University houses its undergraduate students in residential colleges. The residential colleges serve as dorms, libraries, and dining halls. The colleges are named for people (mostly white males) who have played a major role in the life of the University. A professor is assigned to each residential college as a resource to students, and they live there with their family. These professors have historically been called “Masters.” When I first arrived at Yale as a graduate student, I was disturbed by the idea that the people who were supposed to be resources to and advocates for students were being called their “Masters.”
The video of the angry college senior, who, no doubt, captured the fury of generations of under-represented students who have studied on Yale’s campus sparked debate on campuses all over the country. The debates were about faculty hiring (and tenure) practices, the treatment of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities on campuses, and institutional practices and traditions. On many campuses, these conversations were bottom up. They involved the time, resources, patience, and flexibility of everyone from grounds and maintenance staff to students to faculty and university staff to university deans and presidents. At Yale, many changes happened (or failed to happen) behind closed doors. However, some student and staff actions were seen by the world.
One of the more heated debates which has persisted for decades was about the possibility of renaming Calhoun College. Calhoun College was named in 1932 for John C. Calhoun who received his B.A. from Yale in 1804. In addition to being one of the nation’s leading politicians in the eighteenth century, Calhoun was an ardent slaveholder and was one of the architects of the South’s plan of secession from the Union. From the time the college was named, it was controversial because, while Calhoun was a well-known graduate of the school, he was neither a founder or patron, and with his deep connections to the system of slavery in the United States, it seemed unwise, and even immoral, to honor him. In April of 2016, after sharing the names of the two new residential colleges that were under construction, Yale President Peter Salovey defended the decision not to rename Calhoun College, a decision that was protested by members of the undergraduate population. Salovey’s defense was that we need to know and grapple with our history, both the good and the bad.
In part, Salovey’s defense makes sense. We do not overcome racism, or any other form of insipid hatred that exists in our world today, by choosing not to talk about or even remember it. We must remember the mass genocide perpetrated on this country’s indigenous people, we must remember the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we must remember the disgusting Internment Camps of World War II, we must remember the laws that have worked to destroy the lives of women, transpeople, and gay and lesbian people in this country and do better today!
But considering the reality, that Yale as a university through not tenuring faculty of color (especially female faculty of color), by neglecting the needs of the impoverished city that surrounds the campus, and by being unresponsive to the needs of marginalized students through its curriculum and traditions, Salovey’s argument does not hold up. The University has not made the changes necessary to make the campus hospitable to all people. Even with historic ghosts like Calhoun haunting the campus, Yale has still forgotten. Salovey’s comments, while perhaps well-intentioned, were misguided. If students are struggling to remember the horrors of the American past, maybe they should be required to take at least one course in one of the school’s ethnic studies departments as part of their undergraduate coursework. Students of African descent arriving on Yale’s campus do not need a reminder of the horrors of slavery. I don’t blame these students for their frustration. When I was applying to colleges, I remember my father throwing away any mail I received from Colleges and Universities that bore the names of George Washington or Robert E. Lee in their name. I cannot imagine my father eagerly dropping me off his freshman daughter to live at Calhoun College. In February, Yale finally made the change. Overriding his April 2016 decision, Salovey announced that Calhoun would be renamed for Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist who earned her MA (1930) and Ph.D. (1934) in Mathematics. She also served as a rear admiral in the US Navy.
Perhaps the only laudable aspect of the entire college-naming controversy was that it forced the University to more deeply consider the names it gives to the new buildings on campus. One of the new residential colleges will be named for Anna Pauline Murray (Pauli). Born in 1910 in Baltimore, MD, The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was a lawyer, civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, and Episcopal priest (the first black woman the Episcopal church ordained). In 1933, Pauli graduated from Hunter College and she graduated as the valedictorian of Howard Law School in 1944. Each year, the valedictorian of Howard Law School was invited to apply (and was usually accepted) to do graduate work at Harvard Law School. Upon receiving Pauli’s application, they wrote to her to say “You are not of the sex to be entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” We do not know whether an admissions committee read her application, but we do know it probably qualified her for a program which her gender apparently did not entitle her to enter. Six years prior in 1938, Pauli had applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina (she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents in North Carolina) and received a rejection letter because “members of your race are not admitted to the university.” Throughout her life, Pauli learned that while she might otherwise be qualified to do a given thing, her race or her gender, or both, disqualified her.
Despite her troubles, Pauli persisted. What always stands out to me in the life of Pauli is that she did not fit into any specific categories. She did what no other black woman had ever done because she did not think of herself as belonging within the limits of the black female identity. More than any woman who had been active in the struggle for Civil Rights before her, Pauli refused to conform, and that refusal gave her freedom and persistence that no woman before her had. Pauli is remembered as having once said, “I wanted to be an American – without the hyphen.”
In her book, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, my former professor Dr. Glenda Gilmore writes that when, in 1940, Pauli took a bus to North Carolina with her friend, Adelene McBean. Somewhere around Petersburg, VA, the women moved into the whites-only section of the bus and, inspired by some reading they had done about Gandhian nonviolence, accepted peaceful arrest. Pauli was excited by the whole thing. She believed that she and her friend would be a useful test case for the NAACP and wrote to them, asking them to take her case, and they agreed! When they arrived to see the two women in prison, they decided not to represent them. There are conflicting accounts of why the NAACP dropped the case, but Gilmore’s book makes it clear that their decision was inspired in large part by Pauli’s appearance. She was dressed in what the social standards of her time would describe as male attire. Pauli’s gender nonconforming ways made her an outsider in the black activist community, and her blackness made her an outsider to the predominately white world of academia she so desperately sought to enter!
The rejection of the world did not stop Pauli from working. She was part of the milieu of LGBT black folks who fought for equality in the middle of the twentieth century. As an African American community, we have chosen to only remember those leaders in part. Either we remember them but we conveniently choose to ignore their sexual identity, or, as has happened far too often with women like Pauli, we forget them altogether. After thirty plus years of civil rights leadership, Pauli received her doctorate of juridical science from Yale Law School in 1965; she was the first African American person to do so. During her time at Yale, she authored the pioneering article, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” In the article, she explained that she found that the language that was used to discriminate against black people, that they were physically and intellectually inferior, had also been used to discriminate against women. She also explained that both women and black people suffered from the stereotype that they were “contented” and did not want equal rights. The article was groundbreaking for its assertion that “If laws classifying persons by sex were prohibited by the Constitution, and if it were made clear laws recognizing function, if performed, are not based on sex per se, much of the confusion as to the legal status of women would be eliminated.” For example, her article explained that alimony would be provided to the partner who did not have income. Such a precedent would also benefit same-sex couples in the future. Those of us who consider ourselves to be students of the Women’s Liberation Movement in this country will probably note that Pauli’s 1965 analysis makes her an oft-uncited scholar of Gender Studies.
If her career had ended there, Pauli would have already taught us more than enough through her persistence, her dedication to her academic pursuits, and her conception of her race and gender. But, Pauli also had her faith. I was raised in Alexandria, VA. The Virginia colony was home to the first Episcopal Churches and the National Cathedral (an Episcopal Church) is in Washington, DC. I attended an Episcopal Day School for most of my secondary school education, and I interned for one summer at a well-known Virginia Episcopal Church. When I think of the Episcopal Church, think of their racial sins. They were the church attended by the likes of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. I think of slave owners praying atop boats that transported millions of African enslaved people to the Americas. But, I also think of their sweeping liturgy, their beautiful sanctuaries, their melodious hymns, and their historic struggle against the Roman Catholic establishment in Europe. The Episcopal Church is at once a beacon of liberty and a symbol of injustice. It is also the faith tradition that Pauli called home. In 1973, Pauli entered the New York General Seminary to prepare for the priesthood. As had been the case in many of her previous endeavors, Pauli knew she would not be allowed to enter the priesthood because of her gender. In a clear affirmation that they understand that God calls people, regardless of gender, the Episcopal Church voted in 1976 that no one should be denied entry into the priesthood because of their sex. A gender-nonconforming black woman became a priest in the Episcopal Church.
Pauli did that, and that, and that! Nothing could deter her from dusting herself off and trying again. What aspects of Pauli’s life inspire you? Will you stop trying to squeeze into the social boxes society tries to force you into and instead run into the arms of a Savior who sees you and loves you anyway? Will you strive for that next degree even in a program that was never meant to receive someone like you? Will you try again even when you believe the answer will be a resounding no? She did that so you can do you! Onward! See you next Monday.