Today on the blog, Musa Nonieqa Ramos is interviewing Musa Terry Catasús about her newest book, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist. Scroll on to learn more about this incredible project!
NoNieqa Ramos: Terry, I’m so honored to speak with you about Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist, a book for upper elementary, middle, and high school students that needs to be in every social studies curriculum across the country. This work is both a primer and a bible on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race in America.
From the publisher Yellow Jacket books:
“Pauli Murray was a thorn in the side of white America demanding justice and equal treatment for all. She was a queer civil rights and women's rights activist before any movement advocated for either--the brilliant mind that, in 1944, conceptualized the arguments that would win Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; and in 1964, the arguments that won women equality in the workplace.
Throughout her life, she fought for the oppressed, not only through changing laws, but by using her powerful prose to influence those who could affect change. She lived by her convictions and challenged authority to demand fairness and justice regardless of the personal consequences. Without seeking acknowledgment, glory, or financial gain for what she did, Pauli Murray fought in the trenches for many of the rights we take for granted. Her goal was human rights and the dignity of life for all.”
NoNieqa Ramos: You coauthored this work with Rosita Stevens-Holsey, one of Pauli Murray’s nieces, the daughter of her youngest sister, Rosetta Murray Stevens. Can you describe the emotional experience of working with her on this important endeavor to advance Murray’s historical legacy?
Terry Catasús Jennings: NoNi, thank you so much for reading Pauli! The honor is mine that you are working with me to bring the biography of this transformational human being to young readers. And it really was a very emotional experience for me to finally find a member of Pauli’s family, and Rosita Stevens-Holsey is a superstar. From Rosita I heard the actual family stories. She talked to her cousins and I listened on the other side of the line. It was magical. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening.
You know, I actually stalked Rosita in a manner of speaking. I had tried to get in touch with Pauli’s family for a long time and tried many avenues until one day I received an announcement of a play about Pauli Murray being presented at Howard University in Washington, DC. That is just about half an hour from our home. I just figured that I could meet someone who could give me a name of someone who could give me another name and perhaps I could get to Pauli’s family. I never dreamt that I would meet her niece. When I saw a section cordoned off for the Pauli Murray family I waited until the section was pretty full and then I introduced myself. Brazen as you please. And I was so lucky that Rosita was the one who answered me. She was an elementary school teacher, and she was already on a mission to make Pauli Murray known to the world. It was an answer to my prayer. That weekend we met at her house and the rest, as they say, is history.
NR: What advice do you have for authors who would like to collaborate on a project?
TCJ: One important thing, to me, is communication. It goes without saying, but communication is the key. The other thing is humility, being open to everything. I hope that I have done that. Rosita and I share the same agent, and the only thing I wish we’d done differently is to give Rosita even more of a primer on the publishing process. As writers, we’ve been working so long before getting published (at least I had) and we know what’s coming, and we’ve learned to lower our expectations. This is such a hard business, and for a newcomer it can be difficult to match expectations to the reality. But on the other hand, I am sorry, because sometimes by being too pragmatic, I might have interfered with Rosita’s enjoyment of the moment. I always had to catch myself.
NR: Lawyer, activist, scholar, poet and priest, Pauli Murray led a trailblazing life that altered the course of history, yet they are not well-known. Why is it especially important that children know Pauli Murray’s story?
TCJ: Pauli Murray is a model of dogged perseverance. They overcame obstacles that would have stopped anyone else. They had a complete disregard for glory or self-aggrandizement.
They could see wrong with uncommon clarity because they lived at the intersection of race and gender. They were discriminated against on both counts. And they made it their mission in life to change the conditions that made that discrimination possible. At first, they tried doing social work, but eventually they became a lawyer, because only through knowing the laws, they could change them. It’s important that young readers know Pauli Murray’s story because they are a model of tenacity and generosity. They gave their life to the betterment of others.
You know, NoNi, Pauli Murray wrote letters to everybody. From President Roosevelt on down. Through this writing, they met Eleanor Roosevelt and became great friends with the First Lady. Pauli was never afraid to talk truth to power. Even in the 1930s. Can you believe that? A young, Black, queer, woman writing the First Lady and telling her that she was disappointed in Eleanor’s behavior. And Eleanor listened!!! But also it is important that young readers know of Pauli so that they can learn what it took to achieve the rights we now enjoy, to understand how fragile those rights are and how hard we must fight to protect them. Unfortunately, we are still having to protect those rights.
NR: In the acknowledgements of your book you state you “found Pauli Murray during my research for The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960–1990.” You and Rosita Stevens-Holsey wrote a comprehensive and compelling text for children. Can you discuss your research process? What were your most surprising discoveries?
TCJ: Oh, NoNi. You are so kind. I tried to make it comprehensive. I think Pauli Murray herself made it compelling. In one respect, researching Pauli Murray’s life was easy. They were a writer. They wrote their autobiography, and they wrote a book titled Proud Shoes which was a history not only of their family, but of the African American experience. You know, Alex Haley used it as a model for his book Roots. On the other hand, I had to place Pauli in the context of their times, so I had to learn about the depression, and the civil rights movement, about Eleanor Roosevelt, about Caroline Ware—one of Pauli’s good friends. I had to immerse myself in Jim Crow, poll taxes and gender and other forms of discrimination. Pauli worked trying to save a Black sharecropper’s life, I became fluent in that case. I was lucky that I had already done a lot of research for my women’s movement book but still, I had to refresh my knowledge.
You know what was really cool? Using my own book in my bibliography! There were times that I had to corroborate what Pauli had written in their autobiography. Reading between the lines, I could tell that they were gay. I could tell that they had a very deep relationship with two women, Peg Holmes as a young woman, and Renee Barlow once they were older. Yet, they never refer to the depth of the relationship in their autobiography. Of course, back then, it was against the law to be gay, Pauli would have lost everything if they owned up to the fact. I suspected, but it wasn’t until I read her correspondence that I was sure. And NoNi, talk about something emotional! I went to Boston to the Radcliffe Archives and read their correspondence. I put my hands on papers that they held. I saw the sweet letters that they wrote to Renee Barlow. I saw the letter that they wrote to the warden when they were jailed for not sitting on the back of the bus. I believe that was the highlight of my research. It was as if I had met them.
The most surprising discovery, other than her letters to Renee was a letter that they wrote to their doctor, in preparation for an appendectomy. Pauli said they were a man trapped in a woman’s body. They asked the doctor to check and see if they had male organs “secreted” in the abdomen. They also sought, without success, hormone therapies to change their sex.
NR: What is your advice for writers in the organization process of research? What are some tips for authors to make complex information accessible for young readers?
TCJ: I am a big outliner. I think it comes from having done a lot of work for hire. Work for hire editors always require that you write a good, comprehensive outline. So I developed an outline as I read the more general books and their autobiography. First, I set up a document where I keep all my notes by source. So for each source (numbered) I have either my highlighted notes or the whole text—say if it’s from an internet article. Then I migrate those notes into the topics of the outline (still keeping the numbers). As the notes grow, the outline becomes finer, more detailed. Once I think I have a really, really, good foundation, I begin the writing. But there is always something that doesn’t make sense, or two sources that contradict each other, or something that needs further research. That’s my downfall. Because by that point I’m not all that disciplined and my notes get more sketchy. I just put what I need in the text. Other than that, I mostly need to credit my work for hire training served me well in my organization.
Making complex information accessible for young readers comes easily to me. Again, I have written educational text from kindergarten through high school and I have learned to write to those age groups. But it’s more than that. To learn anything, I’ve always had to parse it down so that I could understand it, you know? I had to find a way to explain it to myself. Turns out my threshold of understanding is very similar to my young readers’. Some would say that is a shortcoming, but it has served me well in writing for kids.
NBJ: What are some ways educators can use Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist, in the classroom?
TCJ: Well…they can look at my website, http://www.terrycjennings.com/Books---Pauli-Murray.html#anchor_67 and they can find all sorts of activities for the classroom. The activities are in two groups, classroom activities are quick and easy activities, perhaps more suitable to younger students. Then the teacher’s guide provides food for thought for older students. What I tried to do in those activities was to place Pauli in the context of her time and then invite the teachers to chat with their students to bring those situations to the present time and discuss how they would react. Rosita and I put together an album of Pauli’s photographs so that the students can better get to know her. There are many contemporaneous documents that teachers and students can use to get an idea of the times. It’s a treasure trove about Pauli, Civil Rights and women’s rights, but I hope that it will get even better soon.
NR: Share with us some of your upcoming projects!
TCJ: Oh, I’m delighted to share my upcoming projects with you and our readers. I have a picture book coming out on May 17th. The name of the book is The Little House of Hope/La Casita de Esperanza. It’s about an immigrant family who opens their home to other immigrants to give them a leg up to get jobs, get their papers, save a little money before they go out on their own.
Rosita and I just finished working on a Pauli Murray picture book which begins with their need for fairness as a youngster and ends as they harness the power of the Fourteenth Amendment—equal protection of the laws—to figure out how to dismantle Jim Crow and obtain the most consequential law for women’s rights of all time.
I am also working on a novel in verse about a girl in Cuba during the first four months of the Cuban revolution. I’ve written and re-written that story several times, but I’m hoping that now the verse will bring it the emotional impact that it was needing. You know, I’m afraid that I dealt with it more as it “just the facts” book rather than a moving story which is what it should be. I’m really enjoying the verse version, and I am really working hard on my free verse.
NR: Mil gracias, Terry for co-authoring this extraordinary work, giving Pauli Murray their historical due, and reclaiming history on behalf of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA community!
TCJ: NoNi, como siempre, gracias a tí! You are my hero and my fairy godmother all rolled into one. Thanks for the opportunity of discussing this amazing human being, Pauli Murray, with you. I hope Rosita’s and my effort will make her a worthy example for young readers.
Purchase Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist today!
Terry Catasús Jennings is an award-winning author of children's fiction, non-fiction, and fact-based fiction. Her chapter book series Definitely Dominguita, described as “Judy Moody meets Netflix’s One Day at a Time,” features a young Cuban American girl who tries to find adventure based on classics she has read with her beloved abuela. In Book 1, Dominguita is on a quest to be a noble knight like Don Quixote. In their starred review, Kirkus called Definitely Dominguita Book 1 “A charming adventure that will encourage kids to become knights in their own communities.” Terry’s book was a School Library Journal Best Book of 2021!
NoNieqa Ramos is an educator, literary activist, and writer of “intense” literature. She wrote the THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY, a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. TDGD earned starred reviews from Booklist, Foreword, and Voya. Lilliam Rivera, author of Dealing in Dreams, called THE TRUTH IS “a gorgeous novel about privilege and prejudice, love and loss grief and gratitude.” Hip Latina named THE TRUTH IS in its “10 of the Best Latinx Young Adult Books of 2019.” Remezcla included TTI in the “15 Best Books by Latino and Latin American Authors of 2019.” Versify will publish her debut picture book BEAUTY WOKE January 2021 and YOUR MAMA April 6th, 2021!
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