How to Be an Individual—& courageous lawyer Pauli Murray

Respect, Contempt, and Individuality

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of aspects of the life & work of lawyer & civil rights activist Pauli Murray.

I believe that every person’s personal happiness and our collective future depends on this great, true explanation of individuality being known: Eli Siegel, poet, critic, and founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, writes in his essay titled “There Is Individualism”—

Individualism is the whole world rightly in ourselves, and welcome there. It is reality working with a sweet lack of interference, through us….It is the self thriving on what it has to do with, making beautiful what it has to do with.

The way I saw individuality, and the way people usually see it, is wrong and hurtful. I associated it with being different from and better than the millions of other people in the world, who I thought were mostly dull and foolish. I was trying to be an individual, I learned, by separating myself from the world and having contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

It is this wrong notion of individuality that makes for the ordinary pain men and women have every day—and also great brutality between races and nations.

I’m grateful I met Aesthetic Realism and, studying in scholarly and exciting consultations, my desire to respect other people—to understand them and be fair to them as the true means of taking care of myself—was encouraged and my contempt criticized. I saw I was related to every human being and every thing through the structure of the world that is in us, through studying this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Aesthetic Realism makes possible the individuality everyone hopes for, which Mr. Siegel describes in his essay as “the self thriving on what it has to do with, making beautiful what it has to do with.” This education will lessen human cruelty while enabling true originality, art, and kindness.

Tonight I am proud to speak about how it changed my life, and about aspects of the life of Pauli Murray, a courageous American women who lived from 1910 to 1985. Her life shows that what makes for true individuality is not contempt, but respect for the world. Born in Baltimore—in the segregated South—she and her family, as black persons, suffered from the contempt of white for black that was enforced by law. Like apartheid in South Africa, they were separated by force from what every human being needs and has a right to: their full relation to the world.

Pauli Murray, as a lawyer and activist, had a key role in the ending of segregation and the coming to be of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her autobiography, titled Song In A Weary Throat, written in her 70s, shows the keen feeling in her that all people are related and should be equally respected. She was an important individual and we can learn from her life.

What Does Our Individuality Depend On?

In the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #115, Mr. Siegel explains:

Only through liking the world, through seeing it as akin to oneself can we see ourselves with the lively individuality we hope for. The worst unconscious tendency in man is to think that the less he respects in existence, the more he has made a case for himself. Honest respect for something else, honest gratitude to something else, Aesthetic Realism sees as the most beautiful, largest achievement of man.

There was a powerful impulsion in Pauli Murray to know and have respect, even as she met a great deal early in her life that gave her reason to despise the world and its people. She was born into what she calls “our segregated world,” in which her parents, Will Murray, a school teacher and principal, and Agnes Murray, a nurse, endured daily insult and oppression. Her father, she writes: “had to carry on his duties as a teacher of Negro boys and girls in the face of a racial ideology of black people’s inherent inferiority, which…doomed the entire race to a permanently degraded status.”

When she was three, her mother, only 35 and pregnant with a seventh child, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. “Our family was shattered,” she writes, “my father…too sticken to cope with the future of six children.” She was taken by her Aunt Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, also a school teacher, who lived in Durham, North Carolina.

Mr. Siegel writes in “The Child,” a chapter of his book Self and World, sentences so deeply comprehending, which I love. There are these, which I believe describe Pauli Murray:

Children are really desperate to see the world as pleasing. The desire to see the world as good and beautiful, is intensely strong…. But of course, children, like all beings, are changeable by what they meet.

And what occurred with her shows how strong the desire to like the world can be. She was taken at age 4 to her Aunt’s first grade schoolroom each day; because of her age she was not allowed to take part, but at the end of the year she surprised everyone by joining a reading lesson, saying “I can read, Aunt Pauline.” By second grade she was reading the Bible to her grand-mother and the Durham Morning Herald to her blind grand-father. Eventually she read all the books in the house, including Chamber’s Encyclopedia and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery.

“Every time you read a book,” Mr. Siegel writes in the Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters:

someone else’s feelings meet yours, and mix with yours….books are a big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise.

Early and as her life continued, Pauli Murray wanted to know how other people felt about things, and saw them as worthy of deeply affecting and changing her.  This, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is the first step in respect and authentic individuality.

Tragedy was to occur also with her father, very much encouraged by segregation—such a terrific cause of anger and hopelessness, and incitement to contempt in people who were forced to suffer its degradation. Three years after she went to live with her aunt, Will Murray, because of “depression and violent moods,” was committed to a state mental institution; when she was thirteen she learned he had been cruelly teased and later beaten to death by a white  hospital attendant. She is courageous as she writes about this, and she tries to understand what her father went through—the drive in him to disprove “racial inferiority,” that kept him up so late studying every night; the rage he must have felt.

Miss Murray describes “the raw wound of bitterness” she felt after this. But she also, it is clear, wanted to be grateful for good that came to her. She writes gratefully of the effect many people had on her in her 1980 autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, including very much her aunt who brought her up.

Early Individualism

People have gone by an unconscious assumption, and I did, that they will establish “individuality” by having contempt for other people. This is the most stupid, dangerous thing we do, and it begins early. My mother was the first person over whom I asserted what I took falsely to be my individuality: trying to manage her, exploiting any weakness I saw or imagined, and then triumphantly feeling I could dismiss her. This made me feel strong and superior. Her feelings were simply, I later saw, not real to me.

I remember with shame yelling at Jean Huntting more than once that she was stupid. In my 20s when she telephoned me, I would continue watching television while I pretended to listen to her. This is contempt. It is also, I’ve seen, representative of how many daughters and sons are with their parents. And though usually more hidden, my contemptuous ways continued with others, who I didn’t grant depth and feelings like my own.

In school, while acting well-mannered and shy, and wanting to be liked, inside I could be ruthless–if I wasn’t impressed by how a person dressed or how well-off or educated they appeared to be, I dismissed them as inferior and unimportant. I remember feeling that certain races and nationalities were likely less intelligent than my own; I liked the feeling of superiority it gave me.  Contempt, Mr. Siegel describes as “the imbedded, continuous temptation of man,” and it was imbedded in me.  I am ashamed that my friends and I made fun of girls and boys we didn’t think were “refined” enough for us–one very lively girl, Melissa, who was black, because we thought she dressed poorly and misbehaved.  I didn’t give a damn for her feelings, or have any desire to know what her life was like. I’m very grateful that in 1973 I met Aesthetic Realism.  What it teaches about how to see all people is utterly kind and exact–and so desperately needed.

Since our parents are the first representatives of humanity and the world we meet, for our lives to succeed they must be used as a beginning point to see all people with respect. This is what women everywhere need to learn in order to be the individuals they hope to be, and what women are learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations now.

Eli Siegel taught what it means to see every person as entirely individual by seeing what they are in relation to.  “I should like you to be proud of how you see your mother,” he said to me in a class in 1975, and he asked, “When does she annoy you most?”

NH: My mother used to tell me what to wear.  She had a way of telling her opinion that was very emphatic.

Eli Siegel:   Do you think this had a source in something?  It was like that somewhat with Charles V [1500 – 1558, who was Holy Roman Emperor]. He was assertive, and he went into a monastery.  One, there’s a desire to assert oneself, and two, there’s a desire to call oneself names and to be very critical.

Mr. Siegel saw my mother with a depth I had never granted; he was explaining a fight going on in her that represented the motions of reality itself—assertion and retreat.  In another class Mr. Siegel asked me, “what has been the purpose of your thought about her?” and he said:

Thought about a mother is exactly like thought about everything else.  It should be to see a thing for what it is in itself, and how it has to do with other things.  Your purpose is knowledge, not to do a comfortable job for yourself.  To see a person or thing is to see it in relation.

As I learned to see my mother more truly, I realized how uninterested and cold I had been.  I began to want to know what she experienced growing up, and hoped for when she married my father. I wanted to be kinder and have a strengthening effect on her.  I was learning what it means to respect another person.

Individuality and Relation

Early in her autobiography Pauli Murray quotes a “study” published the year of her birth, 1910, in a Columbia University text, titled “Social and Mental Traits of the Negro,” that is sickening to read: “The Negro…has few ideals…little conception of the meaning of virtue, truth, honor, manhood, integrity.” This is blatant, vicious contempt—which Eli Siegel explained is the cause of all racism.  He defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It is, he wrote, “the vile, cruel, unfeeling presence in the nature of man.”  He showed that contempt caused slavery. And slavery was one of the most horrible assertions of false individuality—of one human being’s supposed superiority over others—that has ever been.  Though slavery was abolished, the same unfeeling, cruel contempt continued in segregation and continues now. Yet contempt can change, when people really see what it is, and that it does not strengthen them—it weakens them to have it.

In 1922 when Pauli Murray was 12, Eli Siegel was living and working in the city where she was born, Baltimore.  He was 20 years old when he wrote “The Equality of Man” which was published in the Modern Quarterly—I think these are some of the greatest sentences ever written, and are instrumental in ending racism:

And I say it is wrong, to say that any one’s mind is inferior, until it has been completely seen that it has been given all the nourishment, care and training that it needs or could get….men have not had an equal chance to be as actively powerful as they might be.  And if they had been given an equal chance to use all the powers they had at birth, they would be equal.  – Eli Siegel, from The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, 1922-1923

This has never been said before with the clarity and conviction Mr. Siegel had, and one of the reasons is that people have felt if everyone is truly equal, their very basis for individuality is threatened.  In Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel proved gloriously how false this is.  Segregation was supposedly “separate but equal,” but in fact was an ugly attempt to separate many people from their right to the wealth and goodness of the world.

In 1937 Miss Murray was a graduate of Hunter College living in New York City and among the thousands of jobless.  In a chapter titled “Saved by the WPA” she tells of getting a job with the WPA Worker’s Education Project, through which she learned she had a relation to many other people she hadn’t known she had:

I had never thought of white people as victims of oppression, but now I heard…white workers tell…of being evicted, starved out, beaten, and jailed when they tried to organize a union… .The study of economic oppression led me to realize that Negroes were not alone….Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation….and gave me an unequivocal understanding that equality of treatment was my birthright and not something to be earned.

 “For a Negro to act on this conviction,” she continues, “was considered almost suicidal in many parts of the South.” 

However, from the time in 1938 when she applied to her state university, North Carolina, for graduate study in law, knowing no black person had ever been accepted, she decided to fight segregation. Pauli Murray was to receive a letter that read “members of your race are not admitted.” And when President Roosevelt visited North Carolina University that year and “hailed it as a great liberal institution of learning,” she writes, “I sat down immediately and poured out my indignation”:

12,000,000 of your citizens have to endure insults, injustices, and such degradation of the spirit that you would believe impossible…. Have you raised your voice loud enough against the burning of our people?  Why has our government refused to pass anti-lynching legislation?

Though she was cautioned by persons close to her not to be so intense and outspoken, something was happening inside Pauli Murray and it was a turning point in her life–a decision that she as one individual needed to fight for justice for all people; a fight she had to believe could succeed in this world:

I had sullenly endured [the] indignities [of segregation, she wrote] when I could not avoid them.  Yet every submission was accompanied by a nagging shame which no amount of personal achievement in other areas could overcome.  When I finally …took a concrete step to battle for social justice, the accumulated shame began to dissolve in a new sense of self-respect.  For me, the real victory…was the liberation of my mind from years of enslavement.

Miss Murray was Class of 1944 at Howard University Law School, it’s president and the only woman. 

That year she proposed “a radical approach” in a Civil Rights class: that the “separate but equal” legal doctrine on which segregation was based, which had existed since the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court Decision, could be knocked down in its entirety.  Her proposal met with astonishment and disfavor from her professor and other students–it was “too visionary,” and “likely to precipitate an unfavorable decision of the Supreme Court.”  But her final paper that year proposed a frontal attack on the segregation doctrine.

Ten years later this “radical” 1944 Howard Law School paper, and her later book comprehensively researching and citing racial laws, were of vital use to the lawyers preparing for Brown v. Board of Education, the historic 1954 case in which the segregation “doctrine” was stuck down.  Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP lawyer, said her book States Laws on Race and Color was their “bible” in the final stages of the legal attack.  She asserted in her paper of 1944 the effect of “separate but equal”—”is to place the Negro in an inferior social and legal position” and “to do violence to the personality of the individual affected.”  And in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote these moving words:

To separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

In “There Is Individualism” I was so affected as I read these beautiful sentences of Eli Siegel, central to the truth of both Miss Murray’s statement and Earl Warren’s:

The critical question here is: Is relation something outside the self only; or is it as much a part of self as blood, bones, skin, personal memories?…The self is a wanting-to-have-to-do- with thing; and denying, corrupting, diluting its wanting-to-have-to-do-with is like stopping, interfering with, meddling with the growth of an infant.

As segregation hurt the minds and hearts of so many men, women, and children, insulted and denied their possibilities, so today, whenever we have contempt — for a mother, a classmate, a co-worker, people of another background or race — we are denying and corrupting our very own relation to the world as well as theirs, insulting our own possibilities as individuals.

Understandably, Pauli Murray had doubts and bitterness as time went on.  She was deeply troubled in the early 1980s, as indicated by the title of her auobiography, Song in a Weary Throat—that though important legal advancements had been made, there was still, as there is now, widespread racism in America.

And so I believe Pauli Murray was cheering with many others when on August 16, 2002, the city of Baltimore and state of Maryland celebrated “Eli Siegel Day” for his “great contributions to humanity,” by proclamation of Mayor Martin O’Malley and Governor Parris Glendening!

The knowledge exists to end racism and prejudice everywhere, and for every human being in the world to be able to have their full power as individuals, through the study of Aesthetic Realism, so beautifully, courageously come to by Eli Siegel—and it must be known now!