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The radical, fluid legacy of Pauli Murray


For filmmakers making a documentary about a person’s life, not a film based on or inspired by someone’s life is a challenge that must raise many questions. The first, how do you accurately condense a lifetime into 90 minutes? If the subject of the film is no longer alive, unable to speak with the benefit of hindsight or contextualise certain moments, the filmmakers have a responsibility. Again, it depends on the subject; what did they leave behind? What conclusions can be drawn? Pouring through archives wondering if, and where bias may lie? What do photos and interviews show? What do they not show? How do you know if you have gotten it right? Or rather, how do you know if you have gotten it wrong? And if the person who is at the centre of the story is no longer here, is it possible to get it right? No matter how much you may leave behind, nobody can tell your story better than you.

But that is part of the beauty and the magic of good filmmaking, as a viewer of My Name is Pauli Murray you fall head over heels with the film and its subject, Pauli. The filmmakers have considered and answered these questions and many more, you can be critical of a piece of art, and still understand the necessity, and urgency for a person’s story to be told.

It was in 2018, when they were making the documentary, ‘RGB’ about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that directors, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, found Pauli Murray. West and Cohen noticed Pauli Murray’s name on the cover of the first women’s rights brief Ginsburg had written as a young litigator before the Supreme Court. “A law journal article Pauli had written in 1965 was one of RBG’s inspirations for using the 14th Amendment as a tool to fight for gender equality,” says Cohen.

After RGB they began to research Pauli and were in awe at what they found; the first black deputy attorney general in the state of California, close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt – first lady of the United States. Although Pauli was new to them, they weren’t new to others. Pauli was being kept alive and celebrated in academic circles across the US, there was a centre in their name – The Pauli Murray Center – , Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had cited Pauli in her first Supreme Court Brief regarding the Equal Protection Clause and Yale had a residential college in their name. But who was Pauli Murray?

Poet, lawyer, professor, and eventually, Episcopal priest, throughout their life Pauli Murray, challenged injustice with a radical fluidity. Born in 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Pauli’s mother died suddenly and at 3-years-old the maternal side of Pauli’s family cared for them. After leaving school Pauli moved to New York City and graduated from Hunter College with a degree in English Literature. Amongst many achievements Pauli became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School, taught Law at Ghana School of Law and their book, States’ Laws on Race and Color described as the ‘Bible’ for civil rights litigators.

Pauli’s legal memorandum and law conceptualisations on race and gender are still cited today. Pauli’s significance is brought to life, using Pauli’s own voice as audio – Pauli had recorded parts of their autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, to send to a friend for notes – along with their diaries, letters, poems and photographs. Together with interviews with scholars, activists, students, and Pauli’s great niece and executor of their will, Pauli’s significance in the contemporary world is weaved together.

They also explain Pauli’s pain, their quiet struggle with their sexuality, gender, and mental health. Pauli mostly dated women but wanted to take on the ‘male’ role in their relationships. They wrote letters upon letters to doctors, asking for hormone therapy and an internal examination, sure they would find male sex organs. Pauli’s Aunt Pauline, who looked after them for most of their life called Pauli, “my little boy-girl”. It is unknown how Pauli would identify if they were living now, and Pauli never wrote about their sexuality or gender publicly, only in private letters and diaries. But My Name is Pauli Murray shows clearly that it was through this lens Pauli’s academia and activism were shaped and lived. Pauli developed one of the most important ideas of the 20th century: the boundaries of the categories of race and gender are not fixed; they are essentially arbitrary.

In 1940 Pauli and a friend were arrested for refusing to move out of the white-only section on a Greyhound bus in Richmond, Virginia. This was 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One of many moments of Pauli peacefully protesting Jim Crow, or Jane Crow as Pauli called it. How can America talk about gender and racial equity without talking about Pauli Murray? Is it because they were so far ahead of their time? Ahead of their time is how Pauli is often described in the film, it’s not a critique, merely an observation addressed as a compliment.

The ability to believe in and fight for a world radically different than the one you are living in, to see the world outside the social norms and stereotypes that are shoved upon us since birth is incredible. To view the world, especially in relation to gender and race, with a fluidity that many at the time could not comprehend, without the accessibility of the language we use today is brave. But at what cost? What does it cost this person to have lived in the wrong time, how does it feel to leave the earth having maybe not existed in the right time? Unable to live your life as truthfully, and as authentically as you may have wanted.

So often, we give people their flowers when they are no longer here to smell them, but we can see the seeds they planted, and nurtured in the world we’re living in today.

We don’t know what pronouns Pauli would have used, so throughout this piece Pauli is referred to as Pauli or they/their/them.


About the Tomiwa: Tomiwa Folorunso is a Nigerian-Scottish writer, cultural producer, and Cultural Studies MA student at KU Leuven. Her thesis explores the experience of contemporary Nigerian diaspora and their relationship with their homeland. In 2021 Tomiwa co-programmed ‘Welcome To’ at Glasgow Film Festival, a mixture of films and events challenging the belief that black people are not/can not be present in Scotland – temporally, metaphorically or ancestrally and ‘Welcome To The Afrofuture’ with Glasgow Film Theatre; an exploration of the alternative worlds that centre the many forms of Blackness. Tomiwa is currently producing a short film about Maud Sulter with Rhubaba Studio and Galleries (Scotland).

Tomiwa has written for gal-dem, the Herald and The National, and contributed to Monstrous Regiment’s anthology ‘So Hormonal’. She has been the sub-editor for Fringe of Colour Film’s Responses since 2020. Tomiwa was previously the Black Ballad regional editor for Scotland and in 2020, presented the BBC Radio 4 Documentary; The Art of Now: Black and Creative in Scotland. In her work, and life, Tomiwa is known for examining and navigating the Black Scottish experience and her work is concerned with connecting people, stories, and histories.

Connect with her on instagram and twitter


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