Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting

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Pauli Murray [1910-1985], lawyer and civil rights activist

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) 
Civil Rights activist
& lawyer

Aesthetic Realism Seminar

Respect, Contempt, and Individuality

by Nancy Huntting

Presented in November 1990 at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City

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 individuality is usually seen—the way I saw it—is wrong and hurtful. I associated individuality 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: “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. 

I. 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. 

Continued, Part II: "Early Individuality"

© Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting. All rights reserved