Ours Is No Bedtime Story
“Please don’t refer to me as ‘Mother Murray,’” Pauli Murray chided a reporter from the New Haven Register in 1977. The newspaper was running a story about the then-67-year-old Murray becoming the first African-American woman ordained an Episcopal priest. The achievement was another first in what had been a trailblazing life marked by both triumph and strife. In June of 1965, Murray became the first Black person to earn a JSD (doctorate in the Science of Law) from Yale Law School. This came more than two decades after the University of North Carolina Graduate School denied her admission in 1938 because she was Black, followed by another denial in 1944 from Harvard Law School because she was a woman. As Rosalind Rosenberg suggests in Jane Crow (2017), a biography of Murray, these setbacks threatened Murray’s livelihood, but they also laid the groundwork for a long career of activism during which Murray sought a constitutional basis for legal challenges against racial and gender discrimination. They also inspired poetry of vast ambition.
Murray knew hardship from the start. She was born Ann Pauline Murray in Baltimore in 1910. Her mother, a nurse, died when Murray was three, and her father, a teacher, was committed to an asylum for “the Negro insane” because of long-term typhoid fever. He was beaten to death by a guard in 1923. Murray—nicknamed “Lenie”—was raised by her maternal grandparents and her aunt in Durham, North Carolina. Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, Murray’s maternal grandmother, had been born into slavery, the result of her own enslaved mother being raped by a white man named Sidney Smith. (Making Murray the great-great-granddaughter of James Strudwick Smith, a congressman and one of antebellum North Carolina’s foremost white citizens.) This family history both haunted and empowered Murray, as did a secret that would have been taboo, even dangerous, in the South of that era: she privately considered herself to be a man.
Murray chafed against the identities she was born into (woman, Black). She saw them as reductive falsifications of who she knew herself to be. Nonetheless, she embraced those oppressed identities and, until her death at age 74 in 1985, committed herself to liberation in terms never neatly aligned with what she privately considered her own identity, terms far beyond the personal. The visionary intensity and importance of Murray’s work as an organizer, instigator, activist, legal theorist, and scholar have been showcased in recent books such as Jane Crow and Patrician Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady (2016), and in articles such as “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” published in the New Yorker in 2017.
But Murray was also a formidable writer of creative nonfiction and memoir. Before going to Howard Law School in 1941 (where she graduated first in her class), she considered attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop instead. Proud Shoes (1956), her chronicle of her own multiracial genealogy, has been part of the African-American canon since it first appeared. And Song in a Weary Throat (1987), a memoir of her career in the civil rights and women’s movements, was reissued to acclaim this spring.
Less prominent, but no less notable, are the poems that Murray wrote and published throughout her life, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. During her undergraduate years at Hunter College, and subsequently as a communist-affiliated labor organizer during the Great Depression, she befriended Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and others associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1934, she published a story, “Three Thousand Miles on a Dime,” and a poem, “Song of the Highway,” in Nancy Cunard’s groundbreaking Negro: An Anthology. The story is a thinly fictionalized portrayal of Murray’s illicit, cross-country train-hopping in the 1920s. (The story’s title page features a photograph of Murray in male drag posing as her story’s protagonist, a young Black man named Pete.) “Song of the Highway,” meanwhile, is a poem of democratic possibility that speaks in the voice of the open road. Nonetheless, the concluding stanza alludes to the fate of gendered and explicitly racialized silence:
But I go on in silence,For those who know my lifeWill sing my song,Song of the Highway,Long, white, winding Highway.
America has long demonstrated that the only upward path available to minorities—socially, economically, and otherwise—is dictated by the white world and the silences it imposes. Murray had other ideas. In 1939, she sent some of her poems to Stephen Vincent Benét and was thrilled to receive a favorable response addressed to “Mr. Murray.” The sense of validation derived from her brief correspondence with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of John Brown’s Body (1928) inspired some of her best poems, most notably “Dark Testament,” an epic of the violent but possibly redeemable multiracial reality of the United States. In 1970, Murray’s poems were collected and published as Dark Testament and Other Poems.
Emanating from the African-American freedom struggle and from the proletariat consciousness of the 1930s, Dark Testament is a people’s transatlantic epic. The poems depict lives bludgeoned by violence across the history of “the free world,” and by their experiences of auction blocks, forced labor, and rape. Elsewhere in the collection, Murray echoes Harlem Renaissance writers such as Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Anne Spencer, whose lyrics were similarly laced with political anger and verboten sexual desires. Murray’s lyrics of private bourgeois pleasures resemble, too, the work of her contemporary May Miller. Largely ignored upon its release, and long out of print, Dark Testament was reissued earlier this month. It presents a major addition to the available corpus of poetry by Black women other than Gwendolyn Brooks or Margaret Walker written between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s.
Some of the four dozen poems in Dark Testament record moments of public outrage, as in “Mr. Roosevelt Regrets,” from 1943, a rebuttal to President Franklin Roosevelt’s noncommittal statement in the wake of that summer’s race riots centered in Detroit:
What’d you get, black boy,When they knocked you down in the gutter,And they kicked your teeth out,And they broke your skull with clubsAnd they bashed your stomach in?
Short, mostly undated lyrics sketch private moments of loneliness and smothered queer desire, as in “Dinner for Three,” in which friendly guests talk but “[y]et of love—not one word was said.” Most remarkable, however, is the title sequence of poems, a modernist epic in 12 sections that represents a major, albeit largely uncelebrated, instance of a mid-century American long poem.
Murray worked on this sequence—originally titled “Dark Anger”—between 1939 and 1944. After being denied admission to both UNC and Harvard, she moved to California, where she was the only graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Amid these turbulent years, she wrote essays and newspaper articles, and she worked on poems.
In the winter of 1942, the sequence, now titled “Dark Testament,” was published in the South Today, a magazine helmed by the white anti-segregation activist and journalist Lillian Smith. (Strange Fruit, Smith’s controversial novel about an interracial romance in the South, had been a recent bestseller.) Echoing Whitman’s grand vision of the United States in Leaves of Grass (1855), “Dark Testament” is a panorama of American history and geography riven by violence. The poem’s fragmented structure and clashing images of promise and violence also recall another epic, Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930). Unlike the pessimism of mainstream Anglo-American modernists such as Crane and T.S. Eliot, Murray instead celebrates strength and rebellion, much as Sterling Brown does in “Strong Men” (1931) and other lyrics. But perhaps Murray’s closest corollary is Muriel Rukeyser, whom Benét also championed and whose first book, Theory of Flight, he chose for the 1935 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Like Rukeyser, Murray grafts modernist tropes of malaise and modernist techniques of fragmentation onto an affirmative, if imperiled, vision of political redemption.
“Dark Testament” opens with that stock image of American promise: The Dream. Speaking in the heroic, first-person collective, Murray concludes the poem’s first section with images of a multicultural proletariat:
I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom,I was a Negro Slave following the North Star,I was an immigrant huddled in ship’s belly,I was a Mormon searching for a temple.I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere—
These images of promise sought in the United States—the country itself likened to a “vast sleeping Gulliver of the globe”—butt up against the history of stolen land and native removal:
But the dream was lost when campfires grew,The Bible twisted as white men threwThe Redskins back to mountain pass,The senses dulled with whiskey flask […]
After native populations were exiled from the dream, “white slave[s] ran away too soon” into the mythic territory of empty land “where a man could stand / Holding free earth in scrawny hand.” Andrew Jackson’s newly empowered masses blur into an all too contemporary image of an entitled populace who simultaneously forget and fetishize how “freedom was won / By the hand on an axe, the hand on a gun.”
Into this space emptied by axe and gun, peopled by “white slaves” transformed into genocidal settlers with dulled minds, Murray introduces the mercantilist’s method of capital accumulation wherein “[p]lanters bargained with traders, / traders bargained with slavers, / Slavers turned toward Africa.” Section three of “Dark Testament” concludes with romantic images of Edenic Africa awaiting betrayal and plunder. Imagining the pre-contact diasporic origins of African-American life, Murray envisions “stalwart men” and West African civilizations comprising “smelters of iron, carvers of wood and ivory, / Weavers and potters of intricate design” whose labor had yet to be alienated or exploited: “every task no matter what its import / Signalled a joyous song and tribal dance.”
In his 1925 poem “Heritage,” Countee Cullen refers to Africa, and to the question of diasporic origins, as a remote place in his speaker’s reverie, “[a] book one thumbs / Listlessly, till slumber comes.” As if in response, Murray’s conception of diasporic consciousness entails economic brutality: “Ours is no bedtime story children beg to hear. . . / Ours is a tale of blood streaking the Atlantic.” In The New Negro (1925), Alain Locke describes a miracle of progress as Black migrants from the South headed to the North, moving from “medieval America to modern” over the course of a train ride. By 1943, the year of major riots in Detroit and Harlem, Murray saw in these modern migrations echoes of the slave trade and its historical terrors: “From Africa to Barbados / From Haiti to Massachusetts […] // From swampy graves in Mississippi / To the morgues of Detroit.” Alluding to Abel Meeropol’s lyrics in “Strange Fruit”—words with which Billie Holiday closed her shows at New York City’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society—Murray chants her contemporaneous American pastoral: “Ours is a tale of charred and blackened fruit, / Aborted harvest dropped from blazing bough.”
Murray’s thematic descent continues with a section that reimagines the middle passage as a modern, mercantile endeavor. She pays homage to Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” which he continued to revise after its first publication in 1941. Unlike the metaphysical sublimity of Hayden’s poem, Murray’s approach is more traditional, but nonetheless cinematic as it jump cuts between images of human cargo—“Vomiting milk from curdled breast / Rat’s teeth sinking in suckling’s chest”—and the managerial techniques of human traffickers:
Oh, running slaves is a risky tradeWhen you cross the path of Gov’ment sail,They’ll smell you five miles down the windFor a slaver stinks like a rotting whale.And when they spy you, dump your cargo,Shove the first black over the rail. […]
Captives who by whatever luck avoid “churning torrent, in fathomless grave,” and complete what Hayden calls “voyage through death / to life upon these shores,” find themselves at the midpoint in their journeys, which is also the nadir of Murray’s vision: on the auction block. Murray looks past morality to portray America’s rock bottom as explicitly commercial.
Indeed, Murray figures the existential role the market played in forming a distinct people in the West, a genealogy that became untraceable beyond bills of sale featuring the names of white buyers: “We have not forgotten the market square— / Malignant commerce in our flesh—.” Marx wrote that capitalism deranges all senses except the sense of property. Murray proceeds from the sense of what it felt like to be property. Black folks’ sense of individuality doesn’t begin with the inalienable rights of modern democratic theory but with the function of being sold. In “Dark Testament,” the auction platform becomes tabula rasa: “One by one we climbed the auction block— / Naked in an alien land—.” The process of alienation grinds on as the market fractures kinship, tradition, and family: “Uprooted, dispersed again–she was too brief a wife.” Finally, the sense of ownership is all that’s left of the original dream. Accounts are ratified by the political power of white owners, and buttressed by the rationally apportioned measure of human property:
Sell a man’s brain for a handful of greenbacks,Mark him up in Congress—he’s three-fifths human,Mark him down in the record with mules and mortgage,Sell him long! Sell him short!
In a conversation with Nikki Giovanni filmed for British television in 1971, and later published as A Dialogue (1973), James Baldwin observes that “it’s very hard to recognize that the standards which have almost killed you are really mercantile standards. They’re based on cotton; based on oil.” Giovanni notes that those standards are still in place. Baldwin agrees but adds, “It’s when you begin to realize all of that, which is not easy, that you begin to break out of the culture which has produced you and discover the culture which really produced you, what really brought you to where you are.” Giovanni remarks on the irony that the Christian church was at once so complicit in those killing standards yet also instrumental in Black people’s survival of those standards. She suggests the Church has more to do with performance and ritual than with Christian doctrine. Baldwin replies, “Baby, what we did with Jesus was not supposed to happen.”
Murray sees the art of the American deal as a disastrous criminal conspiracy from the start. However, she traces an embattled but not yet extinguished flicker of hope that emanates from an unlikely source:
A black man down on his knees in the swamp grassSent his prayer straight to the white God’s throne,Built him a faith, built a bridge to this GodAnd God gave him hope and the power of song.
From that near-Promethean image, Murray builds a story that’s also a dialectic of acceptance and invisible rebellion: “Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty— / A word whispered with the wind.” Murray hints at the origins of an elusive power that operated mostly unbeknownst to the surrounding status quo until the 1950s, when it emerged in the organized defiance of Southern domestic workers, farmers, and their children. In Baldwin’s words, this was the power (a.k.a. Black Power) recognized by Black subjects as “the culture that really produced you.”
Splicing a note from Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” into a riff on Virginia Woolf, Murray imagines an intergenerational awareness of objects—and especially of people—that may have once been bought and sold, but that were never really owned:
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,A name and a place for one’s childrenAnd children’s children at last...Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Echoing Rukeyser, Murray’s work counters the cynicism of an Anglo-Modernism that was both transfixed and disillusioned by the carnage wrought in the name of enlightenment and mechanization during World War I. That formidable branch of American poetry mobilized in opposition to industrialization and Roosevelt’s New Deal through agrarian myths and books such as I’ll Take My Stand (1930) and Who Owns America (1938). These works were key to the formalist withdrawal of so-called Fugitive poets such as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom in the 1930s. Unlike the Formalists, Murray’s vision of racial reclamation and historical recovery connects aesthetics and experience. A song sings its way out of waste and into history with an affirmative sense of new possibilities for both the self and the world:
Give me a song of kindlinessAnd a country where I can live it.Give me a song of hope and loveAnd a brown girl’s heart to hear it.
From this paradox of strength rooted in suffering comes a riddle that the United States is still failing to solve: namely, why some white people who’ve been told the country is theirs now feel less at home than Black folks who arrived in chains and labored for free, and whose sense of life in the United States began not with property but as property. These were the people forced to “discover . . .what really brought [them] to where [they] are,” in Baldwin’s words. In that discovery, an oppositional tradition was created that has informed the structure, practice, and consciousness of the most important modern protest movements in American history.
Following Murray’s images of Black resistance, of families reclaimed and legacies of suffering redeemed, “Dark Testament” features images of white people who live without similar resources of collective purpose. Murray describes a people gripped by hatred, bereft of the cultural tools that Baldwin and Giovanni recognized:
Pity the poor who hate—Wild brood of earth’s lean seasons—Pity the poor, the land-robbed whites,Driven by planters to marshy back-lands,Driven by fevers, pellagra and hookworm,Driven to hate niggers warm in their cabins,The nigger fed on scraps from the Big House,The nigger’s hands on a fine tall coach-whipThe half-white nigger in a rich man’s kitchen.
Murray understands the dangers of political incoherence that prevents people from identifying common interests:
Pity the slave and serf in their misery,Bound by common fate to common destiny.
“This is America, dual brained creature,” chimes Murray’s speaker in a harbinger of Childish Gambino’s refrain from the summer of 2018. “The drivers are dead now / But the drivers have sons. / The slaves are dead too / But the slaves have sons,” she writes. In the end, until the riddle of this cultural inheritance can be solved, it’s most certainly not the truth that marches on: “And when the sons of drivers meet the sons of slaves / The hate, the old hate, keeps grinding on.”
Through experience and study, and through studying experience, Murray comes to understand that the real wealth of America lies in its commonness, and its in-commonness. The nation’s wealth and power can be mobilized only by the realization that “the same red earth is fed / By the white bones of Tom Jefferson / And the white bones of Nat Turner.” Despite efforts to evade this fundamental commonality in fraudulent “history books” and “conspiracies of silence,” Black people can testify to nothing else: “it is written in our faces / Twenty million times over!” Murray’s epic hazards solutions to the riddle of incoherence: real wealth can’t be owned. She had proof. Her own relatives, some of whom were the children of their captors, had been considered property but never allowed themselves to be owned. Or by means of “words whispered to the winds,” and to each other, Black people recovered themselves from that subjugation. By such refusal and reclamation, Black people in America created a vital and mutual sense of self. This was a project that many others in the outlying culture knew nothing about. In that regard, it was clear to Murray that real rights exist only to the extent that they are shared; otherwise, they’re just privileges of the ostensibly exceptional. And those privileges are the road to incoherence.
Coherence, like freedom, isn’t owned, it’s something held in common. This is the existential Black story.
We’ll sing it at the work bench,We’ll whisper it over back fences,We’ll speak it in the kitchen,We’ll state it at the White House,We’ll tell it everywhere to all who will listen—
Setting up the final section of “Dark Testament,” Murray calls out, “Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history, / And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.” Murray argues that commonality is the only solution to the American riddle. It’s the countermelody inside the dirge of America’s history of racial division and oppression: “We have no other dream, no land but this.” Nowhere did capitalism disfigure selves and derange senses more profoundly than it did—and still does—in the United States. In sermons delivered late in her life, Murray stressed her will “to establish a new humanity beyond patriarchy.” Dark Testament evinces a will to establish a humanity beyond property. Murray testifies that the only way in which a coherent America can survive is through a constantly renewed sense of each other. This, as Murray knew, is the real American myth, and the only functional source of American power.
In an undated poem titled “To the Oppressor,” Murray cites the Hegelian dynamic by which the powerful and the powerless change places. Either as warning or as promise or as both, she writes:
We shall endureTo steal your sensesIn that lonely twilightOf your winter’s grief.
The twisted sense of property established by the mercantile/capitalist adventure becomes, to borrow a phrase from Rimbaud, rationally deranged, or maybe rearranged, into a living sense of collective purpose and mutual consequence. In Murray’s vision, the American sense of “property,” which included Black people, will be stolen back, rearranged into a living sense of community that affirms itself and resists its so-called owners.
The non-chronological arrangement of Dark Testament and Other Poems takes up other themes as it progresses through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Politics abound, while the private life resonates on lower frequencies throughout the collection. But the title poem represents the book’s vascular system. Dark Testament is a touchstone to understand how a unique and powerful African-American sense of self came into being. Unlike the fantasy of the exceptional, self-reliant “individual” so key to the American myth and the American lyric, Murray’s work documents an often oppositional sense of collective Black experience. Perhaps more so than any source besides her diaries, Murray’s poems testify to her brave rebellion, and to the identities—transracial, transgender, transhistorical—that are more visionary now than ever.
Ed Pavlić is the author of 11 books, most recently Live at the Bitter End (2018), Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener (2016), Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno (2015), and Visiting Hours at the Color Line (2013). His first...