Bad First Names

Alex Zhang

Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray
Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $29.95

John Fabian Witt et. al., Yale Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming
24 pages

THE BOYS ON THE STREETS began dealing out portraits of Abraham Lincoln as soon as he died in the spring of 1865. Booth shot Lincoln, the nation panicked, and mourners bought what keepsakes they could find. By the summer, portraits of Lincoln lined the windows of stores and living rooms. One of the most popular images showed Lincoln posing as a gallant abolitionist. In the picture, Lincoln’s right hand is wrapped around his robes, his left hand is leaning on a covered desk, an American flag is flowing onto the checkered floor, and three pieces of parchment are splayed across the table: ‘Constitution,’ ‘Union,’ and ‘Proclamation of Freedom.’ It was majestic, indeed.

Too majestic. ‘To be brutal about it,’ The Chicago Sunday Tribune revealed 45 years later, ‘this Lincoln picture is a fake.’ A scheming artist had chopped off Lincoln’s head from one portrait, found a painting of a man with a more muscular build, and pasted Lincoln’s head on top. The problem was that this other man was John C. Calhoun, former vice president of the United States and one of the nation’s most vociferous champions of slavery. Before Calhoun died in 1850, Americans had lambasted him over his support for human bondage. Frederick Douglass observed of Calhoun in 1848, ‘His iron heart is yet to throb for the first time in pity for the heart-broken slave, and his lips have yet to confess the first sting of a guilty conscience.’ Even Benjamin Silliman, Calhoun’s former teacher at Yale College, said upon learning of Calhoun’s death: ‘While I mourn for Mr. Calhoun as a friend, I regard the political course of his later years as disastrous to his country and not honorable to his memory.’ By the time of Lincoln’s death, Calhoun’s original portrait had barely seen the light of day. The fake, buffed-up Lincoln was selling. What was an entrepreneur to do?

Swaps like this can reek of presentism—the interpretation of the past based on contemporary values and concepts. And indeed, according to the Tribune in 1910, the portrait ‘represented Lincoln in the mood in which all the country loved to think of him at that moment. Serious and yet kindly, enveloped in the solemnity of statesmanship and yet human.’ But in another sense, the painting invoked Douglass’ and Silliman’s condemnations of Calhoun and could therefore instead be seen as criticism held over from Calhoun’s time. The essential distinction to make when talking about renaming (or repainting) may be the one between pandering to the present and correcting the past. One can change the historical record to make it sell better in the moment, or one can correct the historical record to account for prior misrepresentations and omissions.

In the half-century between Lincoln’s death and the announcement of the portrait’s fakery, thousands of former slaves were certainly correcting the historical record. They began taking up new cities, new vocations, and, just as importantly, new names. Slave masters had forced their last names onto their slaves, and newly freed African Americans were liberating themselves by taking on the names of their biological fathers. Wilbert changed to Wilbourn, Gorbin turned to Mabin, Smith became Barnett, Buchanan was now Jackson, Booker switched to Rollie. Former slaves were, no doubt, erasing records of their connection with certain captors, but they were also recovering the names that their captors had erased. The most important thing was this: the painter of the strong-looking Lincoln depicted what people wished Lincoln had been but was actually not; former slaves, on the other hand, were renaming themselves to better represent who they had always been.

Joining in on the flurry of renaming was Nelson Goucher. Born to a black slave and her white owner, Goucher became a waiter and a church sexton after the Civil War. He changed the family name to Murray, a name of prominence in Maryland. One of his descendants was grandchild Pauli Murray, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the first African American to earn a Doctor of the Science of Law degree at Yale Law School, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, a university professor, a poet, an ordained minister, the author of a book that Thurgood Marshall once called the bible of the Civil Rights Movement, the new namesake of a Yale University residential college, and, now, the subject of Barnard historian Rosalind Rosenberg’s new biography Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray.

Rosenberg’s is a special kind of biography. It avoids the trap of presentism, and yet it successfully recuperates the complexity of Murray’s identity by drawing on vocabulary of the present. In a preface on pronoun usage, for example, Rosenberg analyzes how the constraints of language in Murray’s time limited how Murray understood gender: ‘to use male pronouns for someone assigned female at birth in a time when that was not culturally possible...would undercut the immensity of the struggle in which Murray was engaged and the significance of her contributions.’ At times, Rosenberg defends Murray excessively, as if a guardian angel. But one is encouraged to overlook these moments and focus on the detail and context that Rosenberg extracts from letters, private journal entries, poems, and other writings. Besides, Rosenberg appears unafraid to reveal the secrets that Murray had previously omitted from her autobiography. The most telling sign of this is that Jane Crow reveals, with care, how Murray begged her doctors for male hormones — and how she tormented herself when they refused.

● ● ●

Around the time she was twenty, Pauli Murray decided, once and for all, that her parents had made a mistake. She was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore in 1910, the fourth of six children, to a mother who died bearing the seventh child, and a father who left for a mental hospital, forever, when Murray was seven. She bore the light tan skin of her parents’ mixed ancestries, but in the end she was seen as simply ‘colored.’ At the school for colored children in North Carolina, where her aunt taught, Murray soaked in her aunt’s lessons until she could read. By the age of six, she had read the Bible to her grandmother, the Durham Morning News to her grandfather, and, to herself, she had read The Remarkable Advancement of the Afro-American Negro from the Bondage of Slavery, Ignorance, and Poverty to the Freedom of Citizenship, Intelligence, Affluence, Honor and Trust.

Her book smarts wasn’t enough to outwit her classmates, who called her a ‘half-white bastard’ and a ‘dirty-faced Jew baby’ due to her mixed skin color. Nor were they enough to get her into the school she wanted: Columbia University, which didn’t accept women to any of its colleges save Barnard. As Rosenberg reveals, Murray lacked the words to describe what she most yearned to become — a male. When she married a man at the age of twenty, she left him just weeks after the wedding and wrote in her diary, ‘Why is it when men try to make love to me, something in me fights?’

In college, Pauli Murray finally concluded that her given name ‘Anna’ had no place in her life. She had already tried calling herself ‘Agnes,’ the name of her mother; she had tried out ‘Pete,’ short for Peter Pan; she had tried out ‘Dude,’ a name for, well, men; and, at the age of fifteen, she had tried out ‘Paul.’ When Murray entered Hunter College in New York City, she had neither a name for herself nor much of a savings account. She worked as a waitress, typist, and housekeeper cook — all professions that welcomed women — and lived on coffee, tea sandwiches, and smuggled chicken dinners. She was hungry to escape.

In the spring of 1931, Murray dropped out of school and drove to California with a friend to look for work. She memorialized the trip in a poem written from the point of view of a highway. Its fifth stanza begins,

I am old—sad things I know,
Ache of road-worn travelers,
Lonely hours; the tragedy of pioneers
Who trudged through scorching lands,
Through rain—and snow,
Who battered with famine—thirst—
And death—to give me birth.

Murray was twenty, but she was old as poplar trees. She knew the sad things of lynchings, the aches of North Carolina’s segregation, the lonely hours of escape in her hometown Durham, the famines of the Great Depression, the deaths of ‘Anna’ and ‘Agnes’ and ‘Pete’ and ‘Dude’ and ‘Paul’ and the birth of a new name, ‘Pauli.’ According to Rosenberg, ‘this was the name she believed most likely to meet with acceptance in the larger world, while still capturing her inner sense of herself as more male than female.’

With a new name, Pauli Murray returned to Hunter College in the fall and majored in history until she couldn’t. Her teachers believed that Darwinian evolution had left black Americans irreparably inferior to white Americans. She began to write for the black newspaper New York Age, remained convinced she was to be a writer, switched her major to English, and studied poetry. In a poem that Murray published a decade later, she wrote:

Tear it out of the history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces
Twenty million times over!

The ‘it’ that Murray was shouting about was the history of her black ancestors, the history she couldn’t find in her classes, the history that she felt had been whipped, shackled, set aflame, and buried.

● ● ●

Meanwhile, some seventy miles northeast in New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University planned to erect ten residential colleges, and it needed namesakes. In 1931, Yale president James Angell concluded that none of the colleges would be named after anyone still alive or recently departed. He worried that such a contemporary name would produce an ‘acute controversial atmosphere.’ For one of the colleges, Yale chose John C. Calhoun. The board of trustees believed that Calhoun was ‘Yale’s most eminent graduate in the field of Civil State,’ but it peeped not a word on slavery. This buried history surfaced in a report published in 2016 by the Yale Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, commissioned by Yale’s current president Peter Salovey. Angell had either ignored, forgotten, or never learned that although Calhoun had admirers, he was also hated by many contemporaries. The more pressing concern for Angell was attracting students from the South—honoring Calhoun, a South Carolinian, promised to do that.

But Angell probably didn’t have students like Pauli Murray, a North Carolinian, in mind. Months after Murray graduated from Hunter in 1933, Yale’s Calhoun College welcomed its first cohort of students, who were all men and all white. On December 14, 1938, six days after she applied to the University of North Carolina for a graduate degree in the social sciences, Murray received a rejection letter: ‘members of your race are not admitted to the University.’ According to Rosenberg, Murray was distraught, fought the decision, began working for organizations like the Workers Defense League, and, in 1941, was accepted to Howard Law School. Yet even at Howard, a haven for black students, Murray still found herself ostracized, unable to join the all-male legal societies and surrounded by men who joked about women entering law school. Murray grew desperate to prove her classmates wrong. She wrote a thesis challenging segregation, graduated at the top of her class, and applied to Harvard Law School for a graduate degree. On January 5, 1944, she received the decision: ‘Harvard Law School . . . is not open to women for registration.’

Pauli Murray had a name for this type of discrimination, the double discrimination of race and sex: Jane Crow. Murray dedicated herself to dismantling the sources of this intertwined oppression. In 1948, she began compiling a book on laws across the nation and, three years later, published it as a reference book — States’ Laws on Race and Color. Thurgood Marshall bought it for everyone on his staff. Throughout the 1950s, Murray continued her legal work, though, as Rosenberg infers from Murray’s sparse legal diary after 1952, the work was running out. Murray published an autobiography and began teaching law in South Africa. When she was fifty, she was accepted to Yale Law School for a doctoral degree. At Yale, she spent her nights crafting a theory that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause ought to be expanded to protect sex and not just race.

By that time, Murray’s work had attracted the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who sent Murray a telegram asking her to join President Kennedy’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights. Murray rushed to Washington, where she continued to challenge Jane Crow wherever she saw it—including at the March on Washington. She was furious that the march’s organizers hadn’t planned to let women stand alongside leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. The next year, Murray drafted a memo supporting the addition of ‘sex’ as a protected category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Later, her frustration with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prompted her to co-create the National Organization for Women in June of 1966, just months before the EEOC hired her as a consultant.

History wasn’t always on Murray’s side. She began teaching at Brandeis College in 1968, the same year that Rosalind Rosenberg received her undergraduate degree at Stanford, and the same year that a wave of student protests swept the nation. Murray’s students, wrapped up in the movement, asked her, ‘Why do you keep saying “Knee-grows” when you’re talking about black people?’ Murray didn’t have an answer. She had grown up capitalizing ‘Negro’ to dignify the term, and yet her students were convinced that the term ‘Negro’ was a symbol of slavery and segregation. The insights and morals of the present threatened to erase a historical label that Murray cherished.

Here, Rosenberg defends Murray, perhaps to a fault. According to Rosenberg, Murray was ‘being challenged in a disrespectful manner because of her gender to adopt a term that she and the students both associated with a reductionist view of skin color and a separatist vision of racial life, a political stance that went against everything she fought for all her life.’ But what Murray’s students were doing, really, was liberating themselves—just as Nelson Goucher had done, and just as Anna Pauline Murray had done — from names and labels they were forced to accept as children. Up to then, history had sided with Murray; earlier scholars and elder African Americans had preferred the word ‘Negro.’ Ever since then, though, popular usage has sided with the students, who had a point. ‘Negro’ was a brand stamped by light-skinned European explorers in the 15th century. ‘Black,’ a word of liberation, erased ‘Negro,’ and it stuck.

● ● ●

What’s a person to do when history isn’t on her side? In the 1980s, the solution for Rosalind Rosenberg was to tell it anyway when she testified as an expert witness in EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. For years the EEOC had alleged that the retailing giant Sears discriminated against female employees, as evidenced by the underrepresentation of women in high-commission sales jobs. Rosenberg took the side of Sears, arguing that women historically preferred to sell products on a non-commission basis, for they saw themselves as less competitive than men and preferred less stressful non-commission jobs.

Rosenberg was arguing against the EEOC, but she was also arguing against presentism. As she later told the New York Times, ‘Scholars must not subordinate their scholarship to their politics even if their scholarship appears to be heading in a politically dangerous direction.’ Other feminist historians were furious. When the American Historical Association met in December of 1985, a committee passed a resolution that jabbed at Rosenberg: ‘As feminist scholars we have a responsibility not to allow our scholarship to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society.’ History, according to the committee, was a loaded gun.

Is it possible to liberate one’s scholarship from one’s politics? Jane Crow suggests not. A central question in American politics is whether a society’s problems are primarily the result of individuals’ choices or systemic obstacles. In the Sears case, Rosenberg argued that women’s choices accounted for their underrepresentation in Sears. Similarly, a biography highlights a person’s choices, drive, and luck against the backdrop of myriad challenges. A biographer runs the risk of suggesting, paradoxically, that because the obstacles are conquerable, the responsibility for other people's failings and fortunes rests with themselves. To be sure, Rosenberg gestures at major societal barriers: she points out Murray’s limited options in schooling, sex hormone therapy, and employment. But ultimately, Murray emerges as the champion. It was Pauli Murray who chose the name ‘Pauli’ over ‘Anna,’ and it was Pauli Murray who beat the odds and struggled and won. Jane Crow, as a theory of history, is Rosalind Rosenberg’s personal, political decision to explain the nature of change in the terms of one individual’s choices.

Rosenberg corrects the historical record and most importantly doesn’t pander to present-day politics. But while she guards against presentism, her biography is nevertheless made possible because of more recent political developments. One can sense that her personal history with feminist movements helps illuminate her account of Pauli Murray’s life, adding necessary complexity and context. She also draws on and adds to a more recent intellectual movement of analyzing race and gender as conjoined, mutually constitutive, and inseparable concepts — a tradition that includes Pauli Murray’s notion of Jane Crow and the work of more recent scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. At times, however, even Rosenberg’s own language fails this type of analysis (though the English language is more to blame than she). ‘Race led back to gender,’ Rosenberg writes at one point, as if it were that easy to untangle the two.

A historian’s choice of vocabulary reveals what she believes about using the present to talk about the past. Rosenberg conscientiously uses ‘she,’ ‘her,’ and ‘hers’ for Murray in an admirable attempt to capture Murray’s gender struggles. For ‘sex,’ Rosenberg notes that she followed modern practices: ‘whereas Murray spoke of sex differences, I write about gender differences, and whereas Murray referred to transsexuals, I say transgender persons.’ She preserves the word ‘Negro’ when quoting historical material but otherwise uses the more modern ‘black’ and ‘African American.’ What these choices reveal is that people of a certain time may have had their own, unique vocabulary to describe their experiences, but people in the present aren’t always beholden to them. After all, maybe the vocabulary wasn’t very accurate to begin with, or it was forced onto people, or it was the product of the time’s shoddy politics. New words, and new names, are often in order.

● ● ●

In April of 2016, after a year of campus protests, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that Calhoun College would retain its name and that two new residential colleges would be named after Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray. Hundreds of students swarmed into a town hall the next day and threw fake money at Salovey, protesting both the addition of Franklin and the retention of Calhoun. They believed this was Yale’s attempt to appease alumni donors, and they weren’t wrong. Alumni had worried that Salovey would bend to students’ emotions, that he would cave to the morals of the present rather than cautiously guard the past. Salovey himself worried that a renaming would be an erasure of history. Still, students had been arguing for years that other principles superseded the preservation of historical names. They held that the name of a residential college did more than remember someone — it honored him. At the end of the town hall, Salovey hinted that the Yale board of trustees had made a mistake, and he suggested there would be more conversations to come.

What Salovey wanted was explicit principles from people recognized as experts, not implicit principles coated in emotional testimonies by students. That’s why he formed a committee later that year to establish principles for renaming buildings on campus. But even experts can be swayed by the emotions and morals of the day. The committee itself was the product of a particular emotion of its moment: anxiety about making decisions based on the emotions of one’s time. The report’s scholarship, while sound, rigorous, and based on archival evidence, was its own loaded gun. It got the job done. Yale reversed course in February of 2017, after the report’s recommendation to rename Calhoun College had sunk in for two months. Salovey announced that Yale would rename Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College, after an acclaimed computer scientist.[1]

What muddied up the recent debate about Calhoun was that the essential distinction between correcting and pandering began to blur. A new college name would account for people omitted from the decision-making process in the 1930s as well as correct misinterpretations of Calhoun’s legacy. In this sense, it would be a liberation from the past’s constraints—from the historical forces that made it difficult, for example, to consider naming a female-sexed baby ‘Paul.’ But the idea was also selling well with students motivated by values of the present. Which of the two factors drove the recent process became unclear, and the committee report was an attempt to establish that what mattered most was explicit principles rather than students asking in classrooms, ‘Why do you keep saying “Knee-grows”?’ Even though the report highlighted and drew on students’ actions and words, perhaps its very premise diminishes what people will ultimately remember of the magnitude of students’ influence. For it was students who, caught up in the moods of the moment, understood the politics inherent in all scholarship and argued for new principles—and new names.

[1] We honor people who rose above obstacles that we consider abhorrent—racism, sexism, Jim Crow, Jane Crow—not necessarily people who questioned the obstacles in the first place. Grace Hopper was the first kind of person. Asked in a 1983 interview whether she thought her sex had hindered her career, Grace Hopper replied, ‘I’m not a woman’s libber. I have no desire to be liberated at all. I’ll have all of my privileges, thank you, and use them too.’