Saturday, April 2, 2022

Q&A with Terry Catasús Jennings




Terry Catasús Jennings is the author, with Rosita Stevens-Holsey, of Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist & Civil Rights Activist, a new biography in verse for upper middle grade readers. Jennings' other books include the Definitely Dominguita series. She lives in Reston, Virginia. Stevens-Holsey is a niece of Pauli Murray and an elementary school educator. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: Why did you and Rosita Stevens-Holsey decide to write this biography of feminist and civil rights activist Pauli Murray?


A: Deborah, thank you so much for having us on your blog.


I “met” Pauli Murray while working on The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960-1990. She was a force for change in the women’s movement and I wanted to learn more. So I began reading, and the more I read, the more I was amazed. She was as influential in the Civil Rights Movement.


How had I never heard of such a transformational person? There were few adult books about her, and no books for young readers. I had found a kindred spirit, the way that fairness was so important to her, the way she was discriminated against as a woman so I wanted to remedy that. I continued researching Murray’s life and even trying out some writing.


When I met the Reverend Dr. Murray’s niece, Rosita Stevens-Holsey, at a Howard University Law School play about Pauli Murray, To Buy the Sun: The Challenges of Pauli Murray, I found that she had a similar goal—to bring attention to Pauli Murray’s life.


Rosita is an elementary school educator. It seems natural to her to write about her aunt. She knows how important it is for children in their formative years to have positive role models to inspire them, as well as “see” themselves on the page. What better idea than to collaborate on a book about her aunt for young readers?


Q: Why did you choose to write the book in verse, and how did the two of you collaborate on the writing?


A: Writing the biography in verse did not come easy. There were many iterations in prose. A picture book biography, a straight prose biography, another straight prose biography. There didn’t seem to be a way of capturing the feeling of Pauli Murray’s life in an engaging and meaningful way.


A verse version made it all come together. Since Pauli Murray was a poet, that idea was most daunting, yet, it was the one that seemed to work the best. It gave a natural voice to all the injustices that Pauli Murray endured.


Another thing that made sense about a biography in verse is that it would be very accessible for young readers. There is so much about Pauli Murray’s life that is important and noteworthy that it would take tomes to chronicle it.


In verse, we could make it easy for young readers, and actually very good for those older ones of us who may want to learn about Murray’s life, yet don’t have the time for a 600-page work.


Rosita and I worked very organically. First we developed a vision of the work. We had each done our own research, so we had ideas of what we wanted to include. Then we developed an outline. We combined our research, and then I wrote, sending the work to Rosita for review.


We spent a week together on a porch on the banks of the Rappahannock River going over every word—Rosita making suggestions and me making changes—and having some wine as a reward each night.


Rosita, being a teacher, didn’t let me get away with anything. She is always thinking of the need for proper grammar (being a first-generation Cuban, grammar is not my best subject) so I was grateful to her for that.


The most fun thing was when Rosita talked to her cousins to get information that would fill in our knowledge and answer questions that came up. I listened in on the other side. It was great to be a fly on the wall on their reminiscences of Pauli Murray.


Q: How did you research Murray's life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I read Pauli’s autobiography, and her book Proud Shoes. I read her poetry and her sermons. Then I read all the books that I know have been written about her. As new books have been written, I have read them.


I read articles that she wrote for newspapers and articles that were written about her in newspapers. I read her work on "Jane Crow and the Law," and the work that she did cataloguing Jim Crow laws. I read her paper on using the 14th amendment as an argument against segregated schools.

Then I went to the Radcliffe Archive at the Schlesinger Library where Pauli Murray donated all her papers and photographs. It was such a high to hold the same papers that she had held in her hands. I saw how she prepared, when she was arrested in Petersburg, Virginia, for not sitting in the back of the bus, for a possible Supreme Court case to tear down all Jim Crow laws. I listened to Rosita and got a more rounded idea of the who Pauli Murray was.


Rosita spent time searching for documents, newspaper and magazine articles and photographs for her research. She contacted many family members for oral history and any other documents that might help tell the stories about her aunt Pauli.


What was most surprising to me is that Pauli Murray did not get any credit for her work on school segregation—the paper which was used in winning Brown v. Board of Education.


Pauli never complained that her idea was used, so there was always this thing in the back of my mind that said, this couldn’t have been. Why wouldn’t she have been given credit if credit was due? She would have complained if it had, indeed, been her idea.


But she didn’t complain because it was such a monumental step forward for her race that she subordinated everything to that accomplishment. She didn’t find out until 10 years after it happened, perhaps it was difficult for her to complain so long after the fact. I wish she had made a stink. That might have been the first salvo in her fight for equality for women.


I was also suspicious that she had some homosexual relationships although she never spoke of that in her autobiography or to her family, but you could see it in her papers. Last surprise was finding out that she proposed to Richard Nixon that he nominate her for the Supreme Court.


What surprised Rosita, very much, was her Aunt Pauli’s constant near-poverty existence from childhood, through college and beyond.


Throughout her life, she did not know that Pauli’s thesis and idea had been used in the landmark Supreme Court victory Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Her aunt Pauli was humble, and she never spoke about that. Rosita did go along when her aunt received an award, but Pauli Murray was not the type to boast. 


It was very later on in Pauli Murray’s life that Rosita found out about the fact that Murray had a failed, very short-term marriage, but she never found out about her aunt’s gender preference or her aunt’s feeling that she was “a man trapped in a woman’s body” while Murray was alive.


Q: How would you describe Murray's legacy today?


A: Pauli Murray’s legacy lives in each working woman today. She was responsible, when congressmen were bent on ensuring equal pay for equal work for Black men with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for including women in the deal.


She pointed out how, if Black men only were included, only about 5 percent of the population would benefit from the act. If all women were included, 56 percent of the population would benefit. The cohort that would receive the most benefit, Murray, argued, were single, head-of-household Black women. They were the most needy. 


Without Pauli Murray’s efforts, it may have been many more years before women would receive equal pay for equal work, and equality for women would have been much longer in being achieved.


In addition, Pauli Murray advocated publicly for an organization like the NAACP, to ensure that women’s grievances were addressed. Because of those statements, she became friends with Betty Friedan. She and Friedan were the moving force behind the creation of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which challenged discrimination against women in the workplace in courts of law.


Rosita is gratified that her Aunt Pauli’s legacy is now better known. Pauli Murray is an inspiration to those who still struggle for human rights. She was a pioneer in that field. She was also an inspiration to anyone who want to do something that has never been done before. Rosita is happy that many more groups taking up the baton to learn about Pauli Murray and spread her legacy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: We have just recently submitted to editors a picture book about Pauli Murray’s need for fairness and how that guided her to take the actions that changed the world for the better.


We are also working on a longer picture book series, one for older readers, about the ups and downs of human rights, emphasizing our need to protect voting rights.  The multi-book series would include Reconstruction, The History of the Electoral College, Jim Crow laws, and Supreme Court Cases that have been overturned.  


I have a picture book with award-winning Raúl Colón called The Little House of Hope / La casita de esperanza, coming out on May 17 from Neal Porter Books Holiday House.


It is about an immigrant family who shares the home they rent with other immigrants to give them a leg up in the new country. Raúl captured “Cubanness” absolutely perfectly.  I am very excited about that book as well.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I continue working on other middle grade fiction. One is another novel in verse about Cuba and the time of the Cuban Revolution.


Since 2021, Rosita has been working with the Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the president of the Pauli Murray Chapter of UBE, and several Baltimore elected officials to replace a Confederate statue that has been removed with one of Pauli Murray in Bishop's Square.


She is a board member of the National Women’s History Alliance which gave Pauli Murray the prestigious “Nevertheless She Persisted” award in 2018. She is also on the board of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, in Durham, North Carolina, which continues to promote her aunt’s legacy.


Deborah, thank you so much for chatting. As always, I value your insights.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Terry Catasús Jennings.

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