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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Importance of racial identity and sense of community

Murray explains that "hatred of segregation was not hatred of community," describing the strong sense of identity she and her peers shared while growing up. Contrasting her generation to those of later years, Murray emphasizes the importance of their sense of racial identity as it pertained to their hopes for a more equitable future.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Now, are there any other matters that you think are significant about your childhood experiences and your ancestry that we ought to talk about before we move on to New York?
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes, I want to, particularly in light of some of the experiences of young blacks today, I want to make one or two comments about identity. I am not aware of the kind of identity crisis for many of us in my generation as has been suggested about young blacks of the present generation. I think that we had a very strong sense, and Ralph Ellison says the same thing and he's my contemporary, he grew up in Oklahoma where there were segregated schools. We had a very stong sense of our identity. Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, these were very significant people in our lives. We had no self-consciousness about reciting Paul Laurence Dunbar in dialect and as a matter of fact, the person who could really recite Paul Lawrence Dunbar with all the flair of his dialect, was considered a very talented, gifted person. I remember my classmate, Betty Hicks, I don't know whether she's retired now, but Betty Hicks worked for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and Betty was really a genius at reciting Paul Laurence Dunbar. I've often thought that if someone could have discovered her when she was young, she would have made a great dramatic actress. But what am I saying? We did have this sense of racial identity. I remember in our family, finding these little pamphlets, "Thirty Years of Freedom," and then a second little pamphlet, "Fifty Years of Freedom," and these were little playlets that had been written up for community groups to dramatize. One must have referred to about 1890, or maybe 1895 and the other one must have been 1910 or '15.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Are you saying that despite the problem and the harm of segregation that also there were many things of value that came out of the fact that black people were so close to each other and was there in fact something even comfortable about that black community, that community that was totally black?
PAULI MURRAY:
I am sure that there were many positives about it, as I think, for example, of the social life and the community life, I think of White Rock Baptist Church, St. Joseph Baptist Church …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
A.M.E., the A.M.E. Church?
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes, the St. Joseph A.M.E. Church, Mother Zion A.M.E. Church. I think of many kinds of community activities that took place in these community centers, so to speak. And these were comfortable. The point at which life became unbearable was in the contact with the white world, in the sense of business contacts, or going into the community and being made to feel inferior by all the signs and symbols and the etiquette, the racial etiquette in terms of being called by your first name or people addressing adult Negroes as "Auntie" or "Uncle" and maybe "boy" and this kind of thing. In the relationships between the superiors, the school official superiors and the teachers, and since I had so many relatives who were teachers, I was very aware of the hierarchy of the relationships and the interracial relationships in the school system, the superintendent or supervisor who comes in and calls your teacher by her first name. This, I think I talk about in Proud Shoes. So, the hatred of segregation was not hatred of community life among Negroes, it was finding barriers that hemmed you in, that you were not free to go and come as you chose. Does that make sense to you?
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Yes. And in fact, would I be taking liberties if I said that you had a sense that people were building a sense of community and that this was something that would happen regardless of the outer environment, that people would continue to associate with each other and be proud of their heritage and have a sense of identity?
PAULI MURRAY:
Now, I must say this. In my house, I always heard about the race, "You can't keep this race down. This race is going to show the world yet." The race, the race. So, I called my aunts "race women." There was that sense of loyalty and dedication to the advancement of the race. So, there wasn't a negative feeling about my racial identity in my house and yet, this strange tension between acute awareness of a mixed ancestry and this devotion to "the race."