My reading has been flowing back and forth between James Baldwin and Pauli Murray. I’ve had Murray’s autobiographical book, Proud Shoes (1956) on my shelf for months, and now find her telling of family history fascinating in detail and pathos. You almost get the sense she’s telling the Racial History of America, and in a deeply personal way, she is.
The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was involved in Civil Rights in the 1930’s and s/he (there was a gender fluidity in her) coined the phrase “Jane Crow” to describe unjust laws faced by black women (s/he was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women). S/he became an Episcopal priest late in life (1977), becoming the first African American woman in the U.S. to be ordained an Episcopal priest.
The following selection from chapter seven of Proud Shoes appears in the context of Murray’s description of the color-line categories imposed on Black people after the Civil War (depending on “black blood,” designated black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon).
As Murray starkly explains: “Complexion had the greatest single value” among mixed-blood people.
“Being intensely human, the near whites of a family exploited and boasted of the advantages of a white skin. At home they were the family showpieces, the ones to whom most deference was given. Away from home they had easy access to a white world from which the others were shut out and faithfully reported back the details of their fine treatment. Having a power of choice, they could throw off the burden of color and walk anonymously as persons, being accepted literally upon face value. A white skin has been a cruel weapon in the world at large but infinitely more cruel in the intimacy of family relationships.”
For more on Pauli Murray and her legacy see the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, located in Durham, NC