Teaching from Narrative in Property Law – Part II of II

Kali Murray –

In my last post, I argued that property law needs to tell new stories, and in doing so, a key benefit would be that we would “uncover” the relationship between property and equality.  In this second post, I will turn to another benefit to using narrative as a teaching tool–the ability to “frame” abstract concepts by grounding them in experiential detail.  To do so, I would like to tell a story.

One of my favorite property narratives comes from an entry contained in the diary of Charlotte Forten, a noted antebellum African-American abolitionist. In this entry, written in 1864, Forten describes visiting a government-occupied plantation in South Carolina before she went to work with newly freed communities. During her visit, Forten marvels that when she “[a]rrived at the Superintendent’s house we were kindly greeted by him and the ladies and shown into a lofty ceilinged parlor where a cheerful wood fire glowed in a grate, and soon we began to feel quite at home in the very heart of Rebeldom.” Forten’s narrative offers a new frame by which we can view three subjects that are often poorly understood in property law: dispossession, disruption and spatiality.

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Teaching from Narrative in Property Law – Part I of II

Kali Murray –

My teaching in Property Law is shaped by stories (if I am feeling fancy, I call them narratives). Whether true, false, or fictive (to borrow Carlos Ginzburg’s wonderful delineation), narratives enrich my teaching in property law because they offer a way to interrogate how property regimes manifest political, social and economic hierarchies within different societies.

This focus on these “thread of narrations” has been influenced by property law scholarship in the last twenty years. Groundbreaking work on property law that we have seen in the last twenty or so years in a number of disciplines including critical legal studies, progressive property theory, critical race studies, feminist theory, anthropology, geography and social/cultural history, led me as a young scholar to ask two questions:

  • Whose stories do we tell in Property Law?
  • If we tell new stories, how would that impact how Property Law is taught?

Early in my teaching career I encountered a law review article that prompted me to reconsider whose stories get told in Property Law: Evelyn Alicia Lewis’s masterful article, Struggling With Quicksand, in which Lewis addresses a default rule that manages shared ownership of property called a tenancy in common, which describes the relationship that arises where two or more people may have ownership interests in one property. In Struggling with Quicksand, Lewis uses a personal narrative of her family’s fraught disagreements over the family homestead to explore how default rules related to tenancies in common have often disfavored communities of color. Specifically, according to Lewis, default tenancy in common rules often fail to address when one sibling co-owner retains possession of the property, thus potentially disfavoring those co-owner siblings that do not retain possession of the homestead. The default tenancy in common rule does not manage conflict well between the in-tenant and the out-tenant, and consequently, this rule may harm families of color because such families may lack access to lawyers that might help them navigate around default rules.

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