Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Proud Shoes, Indeed

What's on your summer reading list?

Well, besides the utterly fascinating (NOT!) 800 page Blue Book (which is Maroon, but so what) that contains the reports for the Episcopal Church's General Convention, I have recently reread Proud Shoes, a wonderful biography/history of the family of the Rev. Pauli Murray. I was asked to write a book guide for it recently (one of my previous lives was as a writer of book guides), and went back to read it again as part of the process. Reading a book to write on it is a different activity from reading for enjoyment, though I have to say I did enjoy it maybe even more this time than I did back in the 1980s when I first read it.

Pauli was born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland into a family that blended northern free blacks and southern children who were part slave, part master--thanks to the peculiarly accepted and shunned practice of white men going down to the slave shacks and raping women. We have lots of other names for it, but, stripped of euphemisms, that is what happened. If this sounds like Murray was attempting to cash in on the Roots phenomenon of the 1970s, you need to know that the book was originally published in 1956, and unlike Roots, it does not fill in known history with fiction - no Chicken George in sight. Murray does not go back as far, staying with her grandparents and great grandparents for most of the story.

What you get, instead, is one of the earliest books to examine in detail the challenge of color in the black community, specifically they way that lighter skinned blacks enjoy privileges within both the black and white communities that darker skinned black do not, but also suffer some consequences in terms of loss of community. Also of great interest is the way the South moved from hopefulness for blacks in the post Civil War period to the tragedy of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

One of the things that make the book so wonderful, though, is the sense the reader gets that this family, told with all the warts showing, continues to triumph and maintain hope even in the midst of setbacks. Like when the grandfather gets shot during the war and continues to lose his sight even as he establishes classrooms all over the south; years later he must fight for a pension because the army won't acknowledge that the injury occurred while he was a soldier. Or the great grandmother who is separated from her husband because the master wants her for himself. Or the brothers who fight the elements to prove their trade as brick makers and, for a time, are more successful in Durham than the Duke family.

And if this story is not sufficient for you, check out Pauli's autobiography (yes, we were on a first name basis before she died), Song in a Weary Throat. Pauli's life is American history that you have never heard before, unless you are one of the lucky few. An orphan at the age of three, this family combined its efforts to raise her in Durham, North Carolina.

Her life includes the following: she refused to attend a segregated school in the south (she graduated from Hunter College in New York); she was then rejected for entry to UNC graduate school due to race, a school sitting on land given to it by her family; she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat long before Rosa Parks; while studying law at Howard University, she organized a successful lunch counter sit in in 1943, well before other such demonstrations; when she applied to Harvard Law School, she was rejected because of her gender, later attending the University of California at Berkeley.

Let's not forget co-founding the National Organization for Women or becoming the first African American woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. She celebrates her first Eucharist in the Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; the Chapel is next to the university and is the place her grandmother, born a slave had been baptized. Oh, and did I forget to mention she was the first woman priest to celebrate in the entire state?

Yes, I admit she's one of my heroes, made no less so from having met her in the last few years of her life as I was heading off to seminary. At that point, she had returned to Baltimore, the home of a father she could not remember.

So, if you need a sense of triumph in your life or a perspective that reminds you where the difficulties you face fall in the scheme of things, check out both of these books. And in a few weeks I'll be able to tell you where to get the book guide (because I know everyone reading this has a book club you'll want to discuss these books with).

1 comment:

Jane R said...

How blessed you are to have known her.

There is a commemoration of her life in Durham on July 1. You probably know about that, but perhaps some of your readers don't.

Click here for information.

There was a beautiful commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray a few years ago at Chapel of the Cross with the PB presiding.

Haven't read one of the books and will put it on the summer list! I do have a collection of her writings (sermons and essays) which I like to pull out every so often.

She is one of my inspirations. I remember hearing about her when she was still alive.