The nine architects of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case on the steps of the Supreme Court Building. (Screenshot from the 2021 documentary, “My Name Is Pauli Murray”)

In his brilliant 2020 book, Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott writes about the cadastral map (“essentially a geometric representation of the borders or frontiers between parcels of land”). The cadastral map is one of the tools that enabled the formation of the modern state because it gave government officials the capability of measuring the land on which the state levied taxes.

The cadastral map makes the state legible, in Scott’s words, enabling the state to see itself. But that “sight” comes at the expense of much deeper insight.

“The value of the cadastral map to the state lies in its abstraction and universality,” he adds. “In principle, at least, the same objective standard can be applied throughout the nation, regardless of local context, to produce a complete and unambiguous map of all landed property. … The completeness of the cadastral map depends, in a curious way, on its abstract sketchiness, its lack of detail — its thinness.”

Scott observed a similar flattening in the history of state “fiscal forestry,” a discipline in which “the actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood,” which, of course, existed to raise revenue for the state.

“From a naturalist’s perspective, nearly everything was missing from the state’s narrow frame of reference,” Scott writes. “Gone was the vast majority of flora: grasses, flowers, lichens, ferns, mosses, shrubs, and vines. Gone, too, were reptiles, birds, amphibians, and innumerable species of insects. Gone were most species of fauna, except those that interested the crown’s gamekeepers.”

Not only is the state’s perspective of ecological and social reality abstract and flat, it’s static, Scott writes.

“The cadastral map is very much like a still photograph of the current in a river,” the author explains. “It represents the parcels of land as they were arranged and owned at the moment the survey was conducted. But the current is always moving, and in periods of major social upheaval and growth, a cadastral survey may freeze a scene of great turbulence.”

While reading Scott, I realized that our understanding of history, particularly for those of us who were not present when it was happening, is often abstract, static and self-serving. After all, textbooks are essentially cadastral maps. 

In her forward to political theorist Adolph Reed Jr.’s new book, The South, the historian Barbara Fields compares America’s public memory of Jim Crow to a stencil.

“Toggling between a blurb and a melodrama, the stencil seldom affords either a rounded picture of everyday people’s everyday lives or an adequate analysis of whose interests the system served, how it disintegrated, and what replaced it,” Fields writes. “The difficulty stems, in part, from what E.P. Thompson called the ‘condescension of posterity.’

“But the main problem is that many of those looking back — whether scholars, journalists, memoirists, or current activists — lack the analytical or imaginative where-withal to reconcile Jim Crow as a daily lived experience with the standpoint of observers and analysts today, for whom life under Jim Crow lies beyond the threshold of memory.”

At 75, Reed is old enough to remember Jim Crow, making him one among a literal dying breed. One day soon, we will inhabit a country in which nobody alive remembers what it was like to live under that dreadful racial caste system. The purpose of Reed’s book is to explore that system more like an anthropologist than a historian. He gives that past the fleshy contours so often missing in most of our contemporary discussions of racism and White Supremacy — terms that have been (to invent a word) cadastralized, or abstracted out of existence.

In Reed’s recollection, there are no good guys and bad guys. He does, however, remember people. For instance, he writes about getting caught shoplifting in the ninth grade in New Orleans, “in either late 1959 or early 1960.” The white couple who owned the store “sat me down on the store’s stoop and talked to me, more like concerned parents or relatives than as intimidating or hostile storekeepers.”

Who knows whether they were racist or not? Perhaps. Probably. What mattered most to Reed was that they didn’t cause him to be sent to Angola prison or a juvenile reformatory, which would have changed his life’s trajectory. The white shop-owners were not heroes. They were, at least in that moment, acting decently.

Most people who find themselves in oppressive systems will not act heroically, Reed writes. They’ll “try to find ways to protect themselves and craft aspirations and self-images that accommodate to the conditions that constrain and threaten them.”

Reed fleshes out this dynamic in his reading of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that established the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine. An element of the brief provided by the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was of mixed race, “was that it denied ‘respectable’ black people the right to first-class accommodations and lumped them together with their social inferiors” (i.e., lower-class Blacks).

I thought about the cadastral map again while looking at a famous photo of the nine “architects” of the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which greatly weakened Plessy v. Ferguson.

Among these proud Black men standing on the steps of the Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall, at the time perhaps the most famous Black attorney in the country, and Spottswood Robinson, a Howard University law professor.

Ten years prior, in 1944, an unknown Howard University law school student made a bet with Professor Robinson. Ten bucks says Plessy v. Ferguson will be turned down within 25 years. The student was mocked by her classmates and Robinson was incredulous.

That Howard law student also wrote a paper arguing that civil rights lawyers should challenge the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine. For decades, the conventional approach taken by civil rights lawyers was to challenge the “equal” part of the doctrine.

Pauli Murray

Spottswood remembered the student’s argument and, according to Kathryn Schulz, writing in a 2017 New Yorker profile, “fished it out of his files, and presented it to his colleagues — the team that, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.”

You’ll see Marshall and Robinson in that iconic black-and-white photo of Brown’s “architects” on the steps of the Supreme Court, but you won’t see that student, a Black queer woman who didn’t learn of her contribution to the landmark SCOTUS case until she was almost 50, because Spottswood Robinson never gave her credit.

Her name was Pauli Murray. In her New Yorker profile, Schulz summarizes Murray’s life beautifully.

“A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, and Episcopal priest, Murray palled around in her youth with Langston Hughes, joined James Baldwin at the MacDowell Colony the first year it admitted African Americans, maintained a twenty-three-year friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped Betty Friedan found the National Organization for Women.

“Along the way, she articulated the intellectual foundations of two of the most important social-justice movements of the twentieth century: first, when she made her argument for overturning Plessy, and, later, when she co-wrote a law-review article subsequently used by a rising star at the ACLU — one Ruth Bader Ginsburg — to convince the Supreme Court that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women.”

Murray was also arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia, two decades before Rosa Parks did so in Montgomery, and Murray organized sit-ins that desegregated restaurants in Washington D.C., nearly 20 years before Greensboro.

Additionally, “four decades before another legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ Murray insisted on the indivisibility of her identity and experience as an African American, a worker, and a woman,” Schultz writes.

You may not know about Pauli Murray despite her centrality to the American social justice movement because, like a forest, her subtleties — as a queer, possibly non-binary Black woman legal theorist and, later in life, the first Black woman ordained an Episcopal priest — can’t be captured by the cadastral-like abstractions of textbook history.

About 10 years ago, the Episcopal Church made Murray a saint (she died in 1985) and more people are increasingly becoming aware of her trailblazing significance through books and documentaries. Her home has even been turned into a national historic site.

As her star rises, our capitalist state will do what it does to virtually everything — it will cadastralize her memory. If she gets big enough, she may show up on stamps or currency or, perhaps, her likeness fashioned into a Barbie doll.

Thankfully, people are not states. We can choose to see her differently.


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