Conscience of the Court
Conscience of the Court
Zora Neale Hurston is best remembered as the Harlem Renaissance novelist who contributed Their Eyes Were Watching God to the American canon. Like so many novelists, Hurston also produced a fair amount of short fiction over the course of her career. Toward the end of her life, she continued to write but was unable to support herself doing it full time. In fact, when "Conscience of the Court" was published in the March 18, 1950, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, she was working as a maid. It would be her last original short story published.
"Conscience of the Court" is a relatively simple story of devotion and justice. A black maid is on trial for assaulting a white man. As the details of the story come to light, the maid is exonerated and even commended for her behavior and the devotion that motivated it. The story reveals Hurston's affinity for themes of genuine love and devotion and her belief that these themes are relevant to the human experience, whether crossing racial lines or not.
Although census reports indicate that Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, she claimed to be born in 1901 or 1903. The actual date remains a mystery, as does her exact burial site. In 1973, prominent African American feminist and novelist Alice Walker was determined to find Hurston's unmarked grave and provide a suitable marker. After much effort, she found the spot she believed to be Hurston's grave and mounted a headstone that reads, "A Genius of the South" (a phrase from one of Jean Toomer's poems).
Hurston was the fifth of John and Lucy Ann (Potts) Hurston's eight children. Lucy was a former teacher and seamstress who wanted her children to reach higher, to "jump at de sun." John was a handsome and popular Baptist minister, who also served as Eatonville's mayor for three terms. Eatonville was founded by and for African Americans, and this unique all-black community provided the context for most of Hurston's early years. She recalled her childhood as happy until her mother's death in 1904, after which her father married a woman Hurston found impossible to embrace. Entering young adulthood without a mother, Hurston became independent, outspoken, and bold.
Hurston graduated from Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918. She enrolled immediately in Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied for five years while working as a waitress and a manicurist. She also tried her hand at writing and was encouraged enough to go to New York City to pursue writing. There, she met other writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. The collective effort of these writers is known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Hurston accepted a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. Upon graduation, she combined her love of anthropology with her love of writing by collecting folklore. Her efforts produced 1935's Mules and Men. This book is historically important, as it is often regarded as the first published collection of African American folklore.
Hurston went to Florida in 1935 to work for the Works Progress Administration before conducting anthropological research in Haiti. While in Africa, she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in only seven weeks. With its regional flavor and its black female protagonist, Hurston did not expect the novel to be important in American literature. In the mid-1970s, this book was popularized by feminist writers and critics such as Walker. Unfortunately for Hurston, she never enjoyed great critical acclaim during her lifetime. In the last decade of her life, she did some freelance writing and worked variously as a maid, teacher, reporter, and librarian.
Hurston suffered a stroke in 1959 and died on January 28, 1960, in a welfare home in Fort Piece, Florida. Because she had so little when she died, a collection was taken to pay for a funeral and an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery. Today, visitors can visit the marker where Walker believes she found the gravesite.
Laura Lee Kimble is Mrs. Celestine Beaufort Clairborne's maid. She is in court for assaulting a white man named Clement Beasley. Although she has been in jail for three weeks awaiting trial, she is calm and respectful, even in the face of the scorn she feels as she enters the courtroom. The judge and the onlookers all have preconceived ideas about her, but she does not know this is all working against her.
After the jury is brought in to their box, a series of witnesses testify to the brutality of the beating she gave Beasley. Then Beasley himself is helped from his cot to the witness stand to give his version of events. He tells the court that he arrived at Mrs. Clairborne's house to collect on an overdue loan he had made to her. Although Mrs. Clairborne was not home, he found her maid packing silver and became concerned about his loan. Believing that Mrs. Clairborne had left town for good and was sending for her things, he felt he had to act. The house and its furnishing had been the collateral on the loan, so he resolved to take the furniture. He claims that even though the furniture would not cover the loan, he wanted to be kind to the widow. When he arrived for the furniture, however, the maid physically attacked him. He claims she beat him terribly, as his apparent pain indicates.
Beasley's account outrages Laura Lee, who cannot believe the lies she is hearing. The first thing that offends her is his suggestion that Mrs. Clairborne would not honor a loan and that her beautiful antiques were not worth six hundred dollars. As she reflects on her bad luck at being in this position, she thinks about Mrs. Clairborne and how she feels betrayed by her. Laura Lee sent word as soon as she was put in jail, and yet Mrs. Clairborne had neither responded nor returned to town. Her heart is so broken that she does not care what the court decides to do with her.
Laura Lee is given her chance to tell the story, and she does so without an attorney. After assuring the court that Mrs. Clairborne is an honorable woman who would never leave a loan unpaid, she proceeds with her version of the story. According to Laura Lee, she was at the house when Beasley arrived, and she told him that Mrs. Clairborne was out of town and gave him the address where she was staying. The next day, he arrived with a truck and tried to take the furniture. Laura Lee blocked him, and when he hit and kicked her, she attacked him. She beat him until he could not stand upright, so she carried him to the gate and tossed him off the property.
Laura Lee does not try to make a case for her own innocence or guilt. While she feels justified in protecting her employer's belongings, she wonders if her husband had been right about her extreme loyalty to others. She goes on to explain her loyalty to the jury. She has known Mrs. Clairborne (then Miss Beaufort) since she was an infant and loved her so much she took care of her and mothered her for years. When her father died, Laura Lee married a man who worked for the family so she could stay with the family. She saw Miss Beaufort marry and become Mrs. Clairborne, and she was there when she lost her parents and then her husband. The widowed Mrs. Clairborne needed a fresh start and a smaller house, so she asked Laura Lee to consider moving to Florida with her. Laura Lee could not bear the thought of being separated and convinced her very reluctant husband to move. After much negotiating, they all moved to Florida. When Laura Lee's husband died, Mrs. Clairborne generously paid for his coffin to be returned to his hometown for burial, and she paid for Laura Lee and herself to go with it. As it so happens, this is why she had borrowed the money from Beasley.
When Beasley finally releases the promissory note to the court, the judge discovers that the due date is not for three more months. The judge chastises him for his attempted burglary and for trying to manipulate the court into helping him punish Laura Lee for protecting her employer's property against trespassers. The judge goes on to praise Laura Lee's loyalty to her employer.
Returning to the house, Laura Lee realizes that Mrs. Clairborne did not get her message about being in jail, and she asks God to forgive her. Inside, she polishes a silver platter to a high sheen as a symbolic act of cleansing her heart that loves Mrs. Clairborne so much.
Clement Beasley (whose name, not coincidentally, sounds like "beastly") is manipulative, un-trustworthy, and opportunistic. By the end of the trial, everyone realizes that he is a liar, a thief, and a bully. He takes advantage of Mrs. Clairborne by attaching her valuable belongings as collateral to a loan that is worth far less than her possessions, and then when she is out of town, he comes to collect on his loan. In reality, he is trying to steal Mrs. Clairborne's valuables, but he underestimates Laura Lee. When she tries to prevent him from taking anything, he does not hesitate to respond with violence, punching and kicking her. Then when she beats him and throws him off the property, he seeks revenge in court. He expects his crooked lawyer and his pitiful appearance (he arrives on a cot, even though it is three weeks after the attack) will sway the jury.
Mrs. Celestine Clairborne
Although Mrs. Clairborne never appears in the story, her character is extremely important to the events. Born Miss Celestine Beaufort to wealthy landowners, she grew up with Laura Lee. She depended on her for friendship and comfort, almost like a second mother, even though Laura Lee is only five years older. Through the years, she treats Laura Lee with nothing but respect and honor, making sure her needs are met and her dignity is preserved. As loyal as Laura Lee is to Mrs. Clairborne, Mrs. Clairborne seems to be equally loyal to Laura Lee. She wanted so much for Laura Lee and her husband, Tom, to accompany her on her move from Georgia to Florida that she made the offer irresistible to them both. She made promises to them that she keeps, even at high costs, because she values friendship and loyalty above possessions. Her influence on Laura Lee is profound, and without Mrs. Clairborne, Laura Lee would have become a completely different person.
The judge in the story is the character who undergoes the most change. At the beginning, he has practically decided that Laura Lee is a vicious would-be killer before he even hears her case. Her demeanor in the court and the innocent trust she exhibits remind him of why he loved the law as a young man. He remembers the passion he felt toward justice and how he longed to be like his hero, Justice John Marshall. These thoughts and feelings sweep over him, and his conduct and attitudes change completely. He disregards an unethical deal he had obviously made with the prosecuting attorney, and he allows Laura Lee to say as much as she wants to say, even when it goes beyond the scope of the case itself. When he discovers that Beasley had intentionally tried to hide the promissory note because it was damning to his case, he is filled with righteous indignation. He not only lectures Beasley about his offense to the court, but goes on to lecture him about the Constitution and justice itself.
Laura Lee Kimble
Forty-nine-year-old Laura Lee Kimble works as a maid in the house of Mrs. Celestine Clairborne. She has been taking care of Mrs. Clairborne since she was born, and she loves her with a deep, motherly love, although she is only five years her senior. Laura Lee's love for Mrs. Clairborne has motivated all of her major life decisions (who to marry, where to live, and what opportunities to ignore), and now it is just the two of them.
Laura Lee's parents were servants of Mrs. Clairborne's family, and she grew up in a small servant's house on their property. She then became a maid for them, a position she never wanted to quit. She was with Mrs. Clairborne through her childhood and her marriage and is now with her in widowhood. Laura Lee is also a widow with no children.
Laura Lee is uneducated, outspoken, bold, strong, devoted, loving, and extremely determined. Although she is humble, she has a strong sense of herself and is accepting of whatever life brings her way. She is not intimidated by Beasley, the judge, or the jury but freely speaks her mind. Completely lacking in ego, she does not understand the judge's admiration after the trial and merely returns home to continue taking care of Mrs. Clairborne's house.
Laura Lee's devotion to Mrs. Clairborne compels her to protect her things, even if it means putting herself in the path of a violent man. She bodily defends her employer's furniture when Beasley arrives to take it, and when he hits and kicks her, she incapacitates him. She is passionate in her loyalty, and she will not let Beasley steal Mrs. Clairborne's treasured possessions without a fight.
Laura Lee's story of her history with Mrs. Clairborne is moving to the reader and to the jury. Her relationship began at Mrs. Clairborne's birth, and the affection between the two women deepened over the years. Unable to think about life away from Mrs. Clairborne, Laura Lee convinces Tom, her husband, that they should follow the family. Laura Lee's devotion seems to have a dual nature: She loves Mrs. Clairborne and wants to be with her for that reason, but she also wants to continue to play a part in taking care of her. It is a familial love she describes when she says, "I love her so hard, and I reckon I can't help myself."
In return, Mrs. Clairborne is loyal to Laura Lee. She continues to employ her and see that her needs are met, and she trusts her. When Laura Lee is widowed, Mrs. Clairborne offers to pay for Tom's body to be transported back to his hometown for burial, something Laura Lee would never have been able to afford on her own. In truth, Mrs. Clairborne cannot afford it either, and she must borrow the money until her next dividend check. She offers as collateral the most cherished and prized possessions in her home, items she has refused to sell repeatedly because she loves them so much. But to keep her promise to her friend to bury her husband in the family cemetery in Georgia, she includes them in her negotiations with Beasley. She values her friendship more highly than her finest possessions.
Topics for Further Study
- Put together a character sketch of Laura Lee that includes her personality strengths and weaknesses, her motivations, her relationships, her appearance, and anything else you find interesting or relevant. Wherever there is missing information, feel free to speculate, as long as your conclusions do not conflict with what Hurston provides about Laura in the story.
- How realistic do you think the trial is, given its time and place? Why? Imagine that the trial had concluded unfavorably for Laura Lee, and write a script depicting how you think it would have gone. Recruit classmates to act out your version; then discuss the differences with the class.
- Dialect is difficult to write but generally easy to read. Choose a dialect other than the one used by Hurston in the story, and rewrite Laura Lee's testimony with a new character. In addition to dialect, be sure to incorporate sayings and vernacular as appropriate. When you are done, write a brief reflection describing the experience of writing this way. If it changes the way you think about Hurston and other writers who use dialect, include some comments about that too.
- The judge in the story is reminded of the way he once respected the law and the Constitution, and it changes the way he conducts himself for the rest of the trial. He remembers his hero, Justice John Marshall, and what an influential figure he was to the judge in his university days. Who was John Marshall, and what is his significance in American history? Why would he have been the judge's hero, and why would his example alter the way the judge performs his job?
- Hurston's depiction of the friendship between Laura Lee and Mrs. Clairborne is touching and memorable. How are friendships between women depicted today? Think of three examples of female friendships in modern literature, movies, drama, or television. Try to find three that are very different from each other. Create a visual presentation of the similarities and differences between the three you have chosen and the one in "Conscience of the Court"; for example, you may want to make a simple table or be creative with a collage. Of the four, which do you think represents the most typical friendships between women today?
The title, "Conscience of the Court," underscores Hurston's theme of justice as a moral and reliable force in the American judicial system. Even though the case presented in the story is one involving a lowly black maid with no attorney against a moneyed white man, the side of good wins in the end. At the beginning of the story, justice is at a disadvantage, as the people in the room and the judge himself all look on Laura Lee as guilty. Hurston writes that when Laura Lee entered the courtroom, "The hostility in the room reached her without her seeking to find it." When the judge sees her struggling to understand protocol, he hesitates before helping her because "[t]his was the man-killing bear cat of a woman that he had heard so much about." Besides all of the impressions and rumors Laura Lee must overcome to attain justice, there is clearly a secret deal between the judge and the prosecutor of which she is unaware. Faced with the trusting innocence of Laura Lee, the judge remembers his early fervor for justice when he was a professor, and it awakens in him his old sense of judicial integrity. So when the issue of the promissory note is presented, he demands to see it, which is clearly in violation of an agreement made with the prosecutor. Hurston describes the lawyer's response: "The tall, lean, black-haired prosecutor hurled a surprised and betrayed look at the bench."
Despite so much weight against her case, Laura Lee manages to win. The judge and jury set aside any prejudices that initially impede good judgment, and they are able to see clearly that Laura Lee was justified in her attack on Beasley and that he is petty and has violent tendencies.
Because the story involves a court case in which the parties testify, Hurston uses flashback to relate the story of the fight between Laura Lee and Beasley. Of course, the two versions do not match, and when evidence is introduced, Beasley loses his credibility. This is an interesting use of flashback because Hurston in effect uses it with two different narrators, one reliable and one not. It demonstrates the flexibility of flashback as a narrative technique, and it reminds the reader to approach flashbacks with the same critical eye as any other style of storytelling.
Laura Lee's explanation of why she loves Mrs. Clairborne so much is another use of flashback, as she recounts her long and emotional history with her friend and employer. In this case, Hurston uses flashback for emotional effect, taking the reader (and the jury) to the origins of the love and the longstanding closeness between the two women.
Dialect and Vernacular
Hurston is famous for her use of dialect in fiction; she loved the way it brought her characters to life and gave her stories a streak of realism. "Conscience of the Court" is no different. Besides doing much of the work in revealing Laura Lee's personality, her dialect and vernacular serve as a reminder to the reader (who cannot see the characters, but who can hear them) of how different Laura Lee is from Beasley. Hurston introduces this element almost immediately in the story, as she reveals Laura Lee's first thoughts upon entering the courtroom: "Lawdy me! she mused inside herself. Look like I done every crime excepting habeas corpus and stealing a mule." Her personality and self-expression is consistent, whether she is talking to herself or to the jury. A humble woman, she tells the jury, "It don't surprise me to find out I'm ignorant about a whole heap of things. I ain't never rubbed the hair off my head against no college walls and schooled out nowhere at all." Her sayings become even more colorful and amusing when she tells the story of the actual fight between herself and Beasley. She says, "He just looked at me like I was something that the buzzards laid and the sun hatched." Then later, "He flew just as hot as Tucker when the mule kicked his mammy," and in response she says, "I jumped as salty as the 'gator when the pond went dry." Laura Lee's unique expressions give a sense of her strong personality and make her real and likeable to the reader.
Race Relations in the 1940s
In the years following World War II, changes in race relations began to gain momentum. Racial tensions heightened in part because black soldiers returning from the war had a new perspective on segregation and other restrictive measures taken against them at home. Having risked their lives and seeing their fellow soldiers lose theirs, they found it difficult to accept second-class status.
Advocacy groups were organized, calling for more social and political equality. Areas such as housing, public accommodations, education, and the military were targeted for reform. More cases were tried before the Supreme Court, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People played an important role in legal battles at almost every level. Tensions were especially difficult in the South, where 75 percent of African Americans still lived in 1945. Although major changes would not sweep American society until the 1950s and 1960s, the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were planted in the 1940s.
The Harlem Renaissance
After World War I, many people moved to northern cities, and African Americans began creating a community in Harlem. Because Harlem became the center of African American culture in the 1920s, the artistic efforts of African Americans during this dynamic and prolific time is known as the Harlem Renaissance. A major literary and cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance was the first to support African American voices expressing and interpreting their unique experiences and histories. One of the most influential contributors to the Harlem Renaissance was Alain Locke, a Harvard University professor and the first black Rhodes scholar. He also edited The New Negro, an anthology that gave a forum to fresh voices in fiction, drama, poetry, and essay. Other prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance were Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. Poet and novelist Arna Bontemps was a participant in and historian of the movement, ensuring that its accomplishments would be preserved.
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: Major legal battles are waged to establish more equality under the law for all races. Changing attitudes are slowly making it easier for African Americans to get fair decisions handed down by courts. For example, the Supreme Court declares that whites-only deed restrictions are unenforceable (1948) and that segregated interstate travel is unconstitutional (1946).
Today: Tremendous progress has been made in the interest of equality under the law. The law calls for equal treatment in education, travel, business, hiring, military service, and other aspects of daily life. Although court cases continue to be filed, the legal standard is for everyone to receive equal opportunity and free access to the justice system.
- 1940s: Fully 75 percent of the African American population resides in the South. With racial tensions on the rise, this creates a great deal of social unrest in the South, and change is inevitable.
Today: The African American population is represented throughout the United States. Racial tensions have subsided dramatically, although racially motivated incidents are not yet obsolete. These incidents, however, can occur anywhere in the United States, not just in the South.
- 1940s: Some households still have live-in servants (maids, cooks, etc.), especially in wealthy Southern families whose prior generations hired the prior generations of their servants' families to live with them. In most cases, the servants are minorities employed by white families. This is becoming less common as work opportunities become more available for minorities and racial dynamics change.
Today: Only the wealthiest households have live-in domestic staff, and members of such staffs can be of any race. Given the history of race relations in America, most families employing such staff members would not even consider hiring only minorities.
Although black writers were recognized and appreciated in the United States, the Harlem Renaissance generated the cultural effort required to give this body of writing the stature it deserved. Over the course of the movement, black writers were encouraged to develop their unique voices and styles. As a result, there were fewer imitative works, or works heavily reliant on dialect, and more works exploring the heart of the culture. Novels, plays, poetry, and art reflected the depth of the heritage, and they empowered their creators to express their frustration, hope, and pride in their identity. The Harlem Renaissance was inclusive, featuring not just works of African American blacks, but also writers like Claude McKay, who came from Jamaica. As a result of these creative efforts, the African American experience reached people all over the country.
When the depression hit the United States, the Harlem Renaissance waned as writers, artists, and musicians were forced to seek other work, often in other cities.
Much of Hurston's writing is overshadowed by Their Eyes Were Watching God, especially her drama and short stories. As a result, there is little critical commentary specifically about "Conscience of the Court." It was published in 1950 in the Saturday Evening Post but was not published in a collection during Hurston's lifetime. In fact, it was the last work of fiction she had published, and it seems to bring to light the complex race issues she had witnessed in the 1940s.
In The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, Blanche H. Gelfant and Lawrence Graver consider "Conscience of the Court" in the context of Hurston's other fiction. They observe, "If outcomes are not necessarily happy, it is important in Hurston's stories that innocence triumph over corruption," explaining that Laura is the "beleaguered innocent" in the story, who is released by the court. Ultimately, however, they find the story confusing, noting that "the story draws on conventions that may make the reader queasy. Is Hurston assuring whites of black loyalty? Blacks of white protection?" In their "Introduction" to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke comment, "This story is about altruism.… It is also about an idea of justice and the fact that the court was on the side of a simple black woman." As if considering the historical context of the story they add, "Good is being rewarded—even in black skin—and those who mean well will be rewarded in the end."
Gates and Lemke view "Conscience of the Court" as thematically representative of Hurston's short fiction. They observe that "morality is the issue in most of her stories, which usually end happily for the disenfranchised and powerless. The moral values that Hurston cherishes are loyalty, justice, and love." Commenting on her narrative style, they note that her pace is never rushed, instead allowing the reader to enjoy and absorb "the nuances of speech or the timbre of voice that give a storyteller her or his distinctiveness." Speaking in general terms about Hurston's short fiction and the place it deserves in American literature, Gelfant and Graver write:
Hurston's stories are playful and provocative but somehow they never quite conform, never seem to play by any rules. Which is hardly to say that these stories are not valuable, both for students of Hurston and for students of the short story.… [T]he best of them can stand on their own alongside any of the short fiction of her contemporaries and should be included in anthologies of classic American short stories as fine examples of the genre. Zora Neale Hurston was deeply interested in the form of the short story, particularly its adaptability to oral traditions, folklore, and the vernacular, and she returned to it again and again throughout her life, experimenting with its possibilities and bringing to bear on it all of her varied and complex interests.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey compares Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Conscience of the Court" with Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
Zora Neale Hurston's "Conscience of the Court" is about an outspoken black woman whose fierce loyalty to her friend and employer lands her in jail. While defending herself and her employer's belongings from an unethical moneylender, Laura Lee attacks a white man and is sent to jail to await trial. Her trial goes favorably, and she is exonerated when the prosecutor's deception is revealed. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird also concerns a court case that happens to involve interracial conflict. Tom Robinson is falsely accused of attacking and raping Mayella Ewell. Although the very capable and honorable white attorney Atticus Finch represents Tom, the jury in his trial finds him guilty. These two stories have some common ground and also draw some sharp contrasts. There is enough common ground to warrant a closer look, but it may be necessary to look at the texts hand in hand with their social contexts to find meaning in the comparison.
The authors themselves bear some interesting similarities and differences. Hurston was a well-educated black woman who is now strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Although she is best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God, she wrote other novels, along with nonfiction, short stories, and plays. Her life's ambition was to be a writer, and at the end of her life she worked odd jobs to support herself, all the while clinging to the hope of completing another novel. Harper Lee is also well educated, although her career path is law. To Kill a Mockingbird is her only published fiction, and she seems to have no desire to follow it up with another. She is not associated with a particular literary movement. Despite the differences between the authors, these two obviously intelligent and perceptive women had something to say about justice and the legal system when they wrote the works discussed here. Examining the texts themselves will begin to reveal their motivations for writing their respective works.
In general terms, there are important similarities between "Conscience of the Court" and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both stories involve court cases with interracial implications, and both cases are observed by members of the community. Although the community anticipation in To Kill a Mockingbird is greater than it is in "Conscience of the Court," both trials begin under the scornful eyes of onlookers. When Laura Lee is brought into the courtroom, "The hostility in the room reached her without her seeking to find it." Similarly, when Tom's trial begins, the courtroom is packed with members of the community. The seating is segregated, and the white section is noticeably hostile. Another similarity is that both defendants are black and charged with attacking a white person, yet they both receive the sympathy of other whites who help with their cases. Laura Lee wins the sympathy of the judge and the jury, and Tom is fortunate enough to have the representation of Atticus Finch. That both stories are set in the South—"Conscience of the Court" in Jacksonville, Florida, and To Kill a Mockingbird in Maycomb, Alabama—only heightens the racial implications of the trials.
There are also significant differences to consider in comparing these two fictional trials. While both trials involve interracial conflict, To Kill a Mockingbird is about charges of a black man sexually assaulting a white woman, which is a weightier charge than the black woman's physical attack on a white man in "Conscience of the Court." At a deeper, philosophical level, the two stories are divergent. Written in 1950, "Conscience of the Court" presents an ultimately optimistic view of the legal system. Written ten years later, however, To Kill a Mockingbird depicts a pessimistic view of the court system as one that is vulnerable to the flaws of the people on the jury. Atticus says this explicitly in his closing arguments when he appeals to the jury to do their job responsibly because the judicial system can really only be as honorable as the people who serve in juries. Despite Atticus's plea, Tom Robinson is deemed guilty by a prejudiced jury. His life ends tragically when he is killed trying to escape while en route to prison, his innocence relegated to irrelevance. In contrast, Laura Lee is deemed not guilty, is commended by the judge, and returns home to polish silver. These are two dramatically different results.
At the center of the differences between To Kill a Mockingbird and "Conscience of the Court" are the contrasts between the protagonists. Tom is quiet, imposing, betrayed by someone to whom he showed kindness, and courageous even in his fear. Laura Lee is more approachable-looking, outspoken, bold, loyal, fearless, and betrayed by someone with whom she has no personal relationship. Both characters are black and living in the South, and thus have little social power or influence. And both are brought to court by white accusers who expect their privileged social status to ensure their victories. Laura Lee's accuser is wrong about that, but Tom's accuser is right.
What Do I Read Next?
- Robert E. Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston; A Literary Biography (1977) provides the student with information about Hurston's unique life and influences, with a particular eye toward her writing career. Much of Hurston's life story is unknown, so Hemenway focuses instead on her place in American literature.
- Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is now considered an important contribution to the Harlem Renaissance and feminist writing in general. It is the story of Janie, who finally finds love in her third marriage, only to be widowed. Her story is one of overcoming adversity, maturing, and self-determination.
- Written by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a classic American novel about race relations, small communities, and the justice system. In this story, Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, suffers the scorn of his town when he defends a black man accused of attacking a white woman.
- The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (1994), edited by David L. Lewis, is a comprehensive sampling of the contributors and key works that defined the movement. The works of forty-five writers are included.
What do all these comparisons and contrasts mean, besides the fact that two different authors with different experiences will inevitably write two different stories? Hurston and Lee are both ultimately writing about where to find justice and racial harmony in American society, and where to find hope for change. The message of To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be that there is little hope in a flawed legal system that relies on flawed people to determine innocence and guilt but that there is tremendous hope in personal relationships. As badly as Tom was treated by the people of Maycomb, and specifically the Ewell family, he was treated with respect as a fellow human being by Atticus and his family. In short, Lee offers a model for change—one individual at a time. On the other hand, the message of "Conscience of the Court" seems to be that there is hope in the legal system with its heritage of justice and pursuit of fairness. The courts, the Constitution, and the judicial legacy all feed into a reliable source of justice in the legal system. In short, Hurston offers a model for change—one case at a time. Either way, change takes time and patience, whether it comes about on an individual level or at a legal level.
It is interesting that the message of hope in the legal system comes not from the white lawyer (Lee), but from the black writer (Hurston). Speculation can be made that Lee was more jaded, having experienced firsthand the inner workings of the legal system. In all likelihood, she had witnessed how people are sometimes mistreated by it. If Lee herself had doubts about the legal system, her fictional attorney, Atticus Finch, did not. In his closing remarks to the jury, he declares:
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college professor. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.… Our courts have their faults, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
Atticus reminds the jury that the court system can only be as good as the men in the jury. He appeals to them to do the job they came to do, and to do it responsibly. Atticus knows that for all the preparation and planning, the evidence and the witness testimony, if the jury decides to make a decision based on racism or fear of community backlash, the system will fail Tom. He knows he is fighting an uphill battle, but it is one he must fight because it is for the cause of right. Lee shows that the legal system entire is really the collective efforts of individual Americans.
There is also the issue of social and historical context to consider. Hurston's story was published in 1950 as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was gaining prominence in its support of the growing number of legal battles being fought for equal rights at every court level. Lee's story was published in 1960, after the tumultuous decade of the 1950s that saw racial tensions intensifying and resolution coming too slowly. It is easy for the reader to assume that Hurston and Lee are commenting somehow on what they have seen and experienced as reality, when in fact there may be an element of teaching or warning in their writings. Hurston may have hoped that her depiction of justice would serve as a model for how the courts should operate, and Lee may have intended her depiction as something of a cautionary tale. Without explicit instructions from the authors, readers are left to speculate on how these works are to inform their perceptions of the world around them, just as great literature almost always challenges us to do.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Conscience of the Court," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Carter is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter explores Hurston's notions of justice and altruism and how these values ultimately impact the outcome of the story.
" It is easy for the reader to assume that Hurston and Lee are commenting somehow on what they have seen and experienced as reality, when in fact there may be an element of teaching or warning in their writings."
In "Conscience of the Court," as in many of her stories, Zora Neale Hurston creates a narrative framework that serves to raise broader questions about the notions of justice and altruism, particularly the legitimacy of the legal system and the consequences of serving one's community. The character of Laura Lee illuminates these principles. She is, in many respects, the "conscience" of the court. Her lack of faith sparks the conscience of the judge, causing him to pause in shame over the circumstances of her arrest and renewing in him an interest in seeing justice served, despite the color of Laura Lee's skin. Ultimately, it is Laura Lee's fierce devotion to her employer that also serves her well. Her outstanding character, specifically her generous nature, is recognized and rewarded by the judge, and she is exonerated.
From the moment he sees her in the courtroom, the judge is moved by Laura Lee's presence. His assessment of her somehow runs counter to all that he has heard about Laura Lee and her supposed crime. Consequently, he sees her as "a riddle to solve" and "a challenge to him somehow or other," rather than the "man-killing bearcat of a woman" described by the prosecutor. It is Laura Lee who puts her position into perspective for the judge when she refuses the right to an attorney, suggesting that because of her race and social standing, her prosecution is inevitable. And the judge's response moves from one of curiosity to one of deep shame. Laura Lee is not a mystery to be solved. The judge recognizes his folly in not seeing her as a human being deserving of the rights and protections he dedicated his life to promoting, protecting, and preserving.
In the story, the judge's "greatest hero" is John Marshall, known in history as the Great Chief Justice, "his inner resolve to follow in the great man's steps, and even to interpretations of human rights if his abilities allowed." The judge claims Laura Lee has revived his college fascination with human rights and justice and his resolve to uphold Marshall's values.
Much of what drives Hurston's story is the notion of justice. The judge does not forsake Laura Lee; rather, in the name of "two thousand years of growth of the concepts of human rights and justice," he is resolved to hear her side of the story. Despite overwhelmingly negative testimony to the contrary, Laura Lee is asked to tell her side of the story in earnest, leading to a promissory note and ultimately the discovery that, in fact, the so-called victim or plaintiff is guilty of far more than Laura Lee. Ironically, the judge in this case demonstrates what another great Justice, the first African American on the Supreme Court—Thurgood Marshall, believed, that by following the letter of the law, justice would ultimately prevail, or lead to the truth of the matter in question, the color of one's skin aside. Certainly, by allowing Laura Lee to speak, the prejudice of the court room is all but erased with a simple presentation of the facts surrounding the alleged attack against the plaintiff.
According to journalist Juan Williams, in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview concerning his work Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, Justice Thurgood Marshall began his career in the 1930s, well after John Marshall, working as a lawyer for the NAACP, before his appointment to the Supreme Court. It is felt by many historians that Thurgood Marshall, more than any figure, black or white, has done more to advance the rights and liberties of blacks in America. By using the Constitution to remedy the issue of segregation, he took some amazing strides to resolve social inequities: he won equal pay for white and black teachers; he opened Southern juries on primary elections; he filed several law suits that integrated school buses; and he banned discrimination in suburban neighborhoods. And, in the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall outlawed segregation in public schools.
Marshall's passion was fueled by a belief that integration was necessary to change the hearts and minds that made up a community. A brilliant legal mind, his success was predicated or dependent on his ability to bring a more human element to his courtroom. He was a calming force with a manner and attitude that complemented his legal skills, and attracted people from all walks of life. And unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, he did not advocate passive resistance as a means of accomplishing his objectives. Marshall had been trying to get blacks out of jail all along, and recognized the mistreatment and violence that protestors may encounter in jail for their acts of civil disobedience. An advocate for justice, Marshall believed in following the law with the belief that ultimately, through reform, justice would indeed prevail.
"Just as Thurgood Marshall won over his biggest critics with his superior intellect, charm, and grace, Laura Lee, a simple black woman, wins over the judge with a proud, erect stance and humble nature."
The "conscience" of Hurston's "court" echoes with the voices of the Supreme Court, and by extension, Laura Lee. It is Laura Lee who stirs the judge's own conscience, admitting to him that she has little faith in the court, and for obvious reasons. By virtue of her skin color, as the narrator intimates or suggests, Laura Lee has been typecast in the roles of "savage queen," and "two-legged she-devil." The judge flushes in shame at Lee's assertions and his failure to recognize her as a person worthy as any other of the protections of the law. Just as Thurgood Marshall won over his biggest critics with his superior intellect, charm, and grace, Laura Lee, a simple black woman, wins over the judge with a proud, erect stance and humble nature. She readily admits she does not know whether she is innocent or guilty, and that she is not educated in the ways of the court or much of anything, for that matter, stating, "I ain't never rubbed the hair off of my head against no college walls."
And, like Thurgood Marshall, the judge brings a human element to his court room by insisting that Laura Lee speak on her own behalf. Hearing her side of the story not only humanizes her in the eyes of the jury and all present in the courtroom, but it leads the judge to make some conclusions on his own that ultimately lead to Laura Lee's acquittal. Laura Lee's story reveals a woman genuinely respectful in the courtroom, and one so devoted to her employer that she would fight to the death to protect her. Her story also brings to light the inequities of the plaintiff, whose case is ultimately destroyed with one simple promissory note. Given a proper representation of all of the facts, justice was indeed served. As Marshall ultimately believed, so too did Hurston believe in the notion that justice would always prevail, no matter how initially daunting or discouraging the evidence may seem.
The judge rests his decision on the idea that "the protection of women and children," was "implicit in Anglo-Saxon civilization," and attributed to the English-speaking people (those of "civilized" or Anglo-Saxon descent) the honor of giving the world "its highest concepts of the rights of the individual." At the root of true justice for all, then, according to the judge, would be the white or Anglo-Saxon culture, a culture that at its core has been historically reluctant to rescind or withdraw the notion of segregation. Hence the reading of the story becomes decidedly more complex, even problematic. Justice does indeed prevail, but it does so at the whimsy of a judge whose long-buried college ideals have been suddenly revived. In support of his romantic notions, the judge responds to the prosecutor's rude interruption of Laura Lee, stating: "The object of a trial, I need not remind you, is to get at the whole truth of a case."
The judge's notions of justice, however romantic, ultimately save Laura Lee. Readers never learn the judge's name, amplifying the idea that perhaps ultimately it is the "law," rather than the judge, that prevails. As some critics have suggested, the story is to be read as one concerned with the quality of justice, and rightly so. In more than one instance the judge appears to have been "shaken out of a dream," or restored to a sense of reverence more fitting to his profession. In fact, the judge does indeed acknowledge the key role Laura Lee has played in his so-called enlightenment, at least in her case, responding to her gratitude at the story's end by stating: "That will do, Laura Lee. I am the one who should be thanking you." But this vote of confidence is no consolation; rather, it leaves the reader to speculate how many people of color the judge has overlooked in similar circumstances.
Presented hand in hand with the notion of justice is the concept of altruism in the story. Laura Lee was devoted to her employer to the degree that she was willing to suffer a jail sentence for her in order to protect her. It could be argued that leaving Laura Lee to watch over Celestine's things was a less than appropriate choice. Arguably, given the tenor of the community and its prejudice toward blacks, such a move could be seen as an open invitation for abuse, making Laura Lee an easy target. As demonstrated by the nature of her arrest, Laura Lee had been tried and convicted by the citizens of the town, most of whom had made assumptions concerning her crime without much substance. This bias demonstrates the lack of respect, and by extension, the lack of security with which black citizens of the town were accustomed to living.
Laura Lee recognizes her folly in her generous assessment of her neighbors, now surrounding her in the courtroom, filled with hostility. She herself admits "The People was a meddlesome and unfriendly passel and had no use for the truth." She also chides herself for not listening to something her husband Tom had told her repeatedly: "This world had no use for the love and friending that she was ever trying to give." And, worse than the "atmosphere that crawled all over Laura Lee like reptiles," was the notion that Celestine had failed her by not coming to her aid. Again, her generous spirit does not go forsaken. Because of her devotion, Laura Lee is not only exonerated by the judge, but is made an example of, "which no decent citizen need blush to follow."
In the introduction to Hurston's collection of short stories, The Complete Stories, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke discuss the concepts of justice and altruism in Hurston's "Conscience of the Court." They claim, that in the story, "Good is being rewarded—even in black skin—and those who mean well will be rewarded in the end." Morality, in fact, is the thematic glue that binds all of Hurston's stories. Despite the odds, "a simple black woman," as Laura Lee is lovingly referred to by the editors, realizes justice as a result of her steadfast loyalty and fierce love for her employer, all qualities Hurston deeply valued and has woven into much of her work.
Laura Carter, Critical Essay on "Conscience of the Court," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay, Musser examines autobiographical elements in Hurston's "Conscience of the Court."
Zora Neale Hurston's "Conscience of the Court," originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in March of 1950, is a little-known and rarely discussed story. Considering the recent attention to Hurston's importance in the development of African-American women's writing, it seems unusual to discover this neglect of one of her works. One cause for this neglect may be that the story was the last work Hurston published during her lifetime, a period in which her popularity as a writer was waning. And even Robert Hemenway, Hurston's biographer, suggested that the story was weak. He wrote that Hurston, once again in financial trouble and working as a maid on Rivo Island near Miami, was desperate to publish a story. Hemenway proposed that the story's faults probably stemmed from the fact that it was "heavily edited by the Post's staff, and by the knowledge that [Hurston] badly needed to sell a story." Although Hemenway shifted the blame for the weaknesses of the story to the editors of the Post, it is still clear that he believed the story was not Hurston's most exemplary piece of writing. Other biographers and critics have expressed their lack of interest by simply ignoring the story. One exception is Lillie P. Howard who mentioned only the circumstances surrounding its publication without commentary on the text itself. These circumstances are certainly noteworthy: a Miami Herald reporter discovered that Hurston "was dusting bookshelves in the library while her mistress sat in the living room reading the Saturday Evening Post—and discovering a story written by her 'girl."'
This disapproving analysis of Hurston's "Conscience of the Court" is not the only instance of pessimism towards Hurston's writings, for her career is riddled with negative criticism. Her peers blacklisted her and dismissed her work on the grounds that her personality, charming and amusing as it was, was considered an expression of her need "to reach a wider audience," that is, a white one. Often, her writing was given little value. In fact, Wallace Thurman described her as "a short story writer more noted for her ribald wit and personal effervescence than for any actual literary work." Langston Hughes remembered only that "in her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from wealthy white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them." Most of the negative criticism centers on how her characters are portrayed. For example, after the publication of Mules and Men, Sterling Brown wrote that the characters in the book "should be more bitter; it would be nearer the total truth." Having included one of her stories inThe New Negro, Alain Locke was nonetheless concerned with her representation of rural African Americans:
The elder generation of Negro writers expressed itself in … guarded idealization.… "Be representative": put the better foot foremost, was the underlying mood. But writers like Rudolph Fisher, Zora Hurston … take their material objectively with detached artistic vision; they have no thought of their racy folk types as typical of anything but themselves or of their being taken or mistaken as racially representative.
Likewise, Richard Wright felt that the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was counterrevolutionary in portraying simple, minstrel-show African-Americans: he complained that Hurston's characters existed in "that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears." Overall, Hurston was criticized because she opened up to whites too easily, practiced cultural colonialism by collecting folklore, wasn't bitter enough about the African-American condition, and used folklore too obtrusively in her fiction.
Although not explicitly stated, it would seem that a cause for the unease with "Conscience of the Court" most likely stems from Hurston's portrayal of stereotypical characters. The story takes place in a courtroom where Laura Lee, an African-American family servant, is accused of assault for physically preventing a loan shark from removing her mistress's belongings from the house. Laura Lee is pointedly characterized in terms of the stereotypes of the mammy, the comedian/fool, and the savage. She appears in a courtroom wearing a head rag and a shabby housedress. Her ignorance of courtroom procedures entertains the observers while at the same time makes her appear pitifully naive. Yet the charges against her cause the judge to view her as a "man-killing bear cat of a woman" and a "savage queen." The caricature continues as Laura Lee offers her own defence. She describes her commitment to her mistress, "Miz Celestine," since birth. Celestine Beaufort Clairborne, in her infancy, was placed in Laura Lee's care when Laura Lee was but a child herself. Portraying the role of the dutiful, loyal, and lifelong servant, Laura Lee remains in the household, rejecting offers of marriage which would allow her to leave the household of her mistress. Instead, she agrees to marry Tom, another older servant in the house. Hurston's Tom, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, is completely against the idea of accommodation to the will of white people. He acts as Laura Lee's foil and thus intensifies her self-sacrificial embodiment of the perfect servant. Laura Lee's most recent sacrifice for her white employer was to physically defend Celestine's valuables from Clement Beasley, a sleazy loan officer. Because Mrs. Clairborne was vacationing in Miami and could not be located, Laura Lee must endure the present trial alone. Laura Lee's dramatic storytelling ability, her willingness to abide by an Uncle Tom philosophy of putting "other folk's cares in front of [her] own," and her entertaining, folksy speech win the hearts of the jury and judge, and she is acquitted.
"Considering Hurston's anger, her anonymity as a writer in 1950, her current position as someone who also shines silver platters for a wealthy white woman, I do not accept that Hurston is catering to a white audience as Laura Lee caters to her mistress."
The portrayal of a woman facing a jury in a trial is certainly not new in Hurston's fiction. The courtroom drama in Their Eyes Were Watching God is a significant scene. The key difference between Janie's trial and Laura Lee's trial is that Laura Lee's words on the witness stand are presented directly and completely, whereas Janie's speech in Their Eyes is summarized by the narrator. Thus both the content and the manner in which Laura Lee presents her case factor into her acquittal. In addition, an important similarity between the two trials is how characters react to the court's decision. The white women in Janie's courtroom are as equally pleased at Janie's acquittal as those in the courtroom of Laura Lee. Despite the thirteen years between the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God and "Conscience of the Court," Hurston still recognizes the need to accompany an obvious act of justice with approval from the white community. Hurston, catering to the predominantly white, middle-class readers of the Saturday Evening Post, is reassuring them that they can feel at ease with their white middle-class values—an African-American woman prevails over a white man and therefore there is no racism in the white courts of America. Even the Post's artist catches this mood of patriotic justice in his/her depiction of an American flag in the background which practically enfolds Laura Lee on the witness stand. Perhaps it is no wonder that the story is ignored by critics and blamed on intrusive editors.
I believe, however, that subtleties in the text as well as the circumstances under which the story was written suggest that Hurston's last piece of fiction was not a sell-out to the formula demands of a white readership. The most significant reading of this story stems from the fact that it is remarkably autobiographical. This is not an unusual characteristic in Hurston's writings. After the publication of her second story, "Drenched in Light," Hurston openly admitted that Isis embodied many of the characteristics of her o[w]n childhood. In another story, "Muttsy," Hurston recreates her own entrance into the mainstream of Northern life through the experiences of an innocent young woman from the South, Pinkie Jones, as she enters the bewildering city of Harlem. And Janie's relationship with Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God is often read in light of Hurston's own relationship with a man she met in New York in 1931. "Conscience of the Court" presents another period in Hurston's life, although the relevant difference here is that the circumstances are far from pleasant.
Like Laura Lee, Hurston was equally devoted to her own "mistress," or "godmother," the term she used to address Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason. Hemenway describes the powerful, almost perverse control that Mason exerted over Hurston's career. Invariably, Hurston was placed in a position of constantly needing to subject her own interests to those of Mrs. Mason in order to maintain Mason's financial support. Hurston's sensitivity was not reciprocated, for Mason was careful not to involve herself in any of Hurston's controversial episodes. One such even stands out. In 1931, Langston Hughes, another dependent of Mason, accused Hurston of claiming sole authorship of the play Mule Bone, a production that was supposed to be a collaboration between the two writers. The argument over the authorship of Mule Bone is complicated, but in the end, Hurston was vindicated of the accusation. During the very public controversy, however, Mason refused to back Hurston, which caused a strain in their relationship. In her hour of need, Hurston was left to face the accusations of plagiarism alone, much as Laura Lee was left to singly face the false accusations of Beasley.
But a closer parallel between Hurston's life and "Conscience of the Court" appears in 1948, just two years before she published the story. Hurston had to appear in a courtroom to defend herself against accusations of committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. According to Hemenway, this trial should never have made it to court. Hurston's passport proved that she was in Honduras when the alleged acts of sodomy were said to have taken place. It was later revealed that the child was mentally disturbed and had previously been in Bellevue for psychiatric testing. Karla Holloway writes that Hurston "was 'prostrate and hysterical' in the courtroom, defending herself of these charges." By the time the case was dismissed, the damage had already been done. Papers all across the country printed lurid headlines about the famous writer's sexual appetites. One of the most disturbing was a paper which used a quotation from one of the characters in Hurston's recently published Seraph on the Suwanee—"I'm just hungry as a dog for a knowing and a doing love" and asked if Zora sought the same affection. Hurston's personal world had collapsed. In the end, what shocked Hurston more than the negative publicity was the way the judicial system took the word of a ten-year-old boy over that of an adult. "Would they have done the same to a white person? … It smacks of an anti-Negro violation of one's civil rights.… If such an injustice can happen to one who has prestige and contacts, then there can be absolutely no justice for the little people of the community."
Only a year after the trial, Hurston wrote her last piece of published fiction and it appeared in a well-known magazine which catered to an American middle-class white readership. She presents a fictional scenario of how justice is meted out to the "little people." The circumstances of Hurston's recent trial and the trial in "Conscience of the Court" are similar. As in Hurston's own situation, the case against Laura Lee should never have come to trial. There was documented evidence that Mrs. Claireborne still had three months to pay back the loan and therefore Beasley had no right to take her possessions. We learn this vital information at the end of the trial, long after Laura Lee has been required to endure the scornful glances of the spectators in the courtroom and to struggle through relating her story to the jury. Also, in both cases, the defendants—Hurston and Laura Lee—did not have support from the white community. Laura Lee didn't even have a lawyer defend her for her trial. And finally, in the end, both Hurston and Laura Lee were found innocent.
But here the list of similarities ends, for instead of recreating herself in the character of Laura Lee, Hurston carefully constructs a completely different kind of defendant. Hurston is educated, articulate, stylish in her dress, emotionally outraged during and after the the trial, and, in 1950, financially independent of white patronage. Laura Lee, however, speaks with a strong dialect, misuses the English language, wears a head rag, acts comically ignorant of the dominant society's system of justice, entertains the audience with her simplistic re-telling of her story, and fulfills perfectly the role of the dependent servant (renamed "the faithful watch-dog" by the judge in the story). After she is acquitted, Laura Lee "diffidently" thanks the judge and he remarks, "I am the one who should be thanking you." Laura Lee is surrounded by "smiling, congratulating strangers, many of whom made her event so welcome if ever she needed a home. She was rubbed and polished to a high glow." On the other hand, Hurston, after her acquittal, vehemently attacked the injustices in the court system and was harassed by the news media. After the trial, Hurston wrote to Carl Van Vechten, "All that I have ever tried do has proved useless. All that I have believed in has failed me. I have resolved to die. It will take a few days for me to set my affairs in order, and then I will go … no acquittal will persuade some people that I am innocent. I feel hurled down a filthy privy hole." Hurston's emotional despair is a complete reversal of Laura Lee's spiritual restoration at the end of the story. Laura Lee returns to her mistress's home and performs a sacrament of devotion to the world. Before she enters the house, she, "like a pilgrim before a shrine," confesses her sin in doubting the white world. Despite her hunger, she first "made a ritual of atonement in serving. She took a finely wrought silver platter from the massive old sideboard and gleamed it to perfection. So the platter, so she wanted her love to shine."
Considering Hurston's anger, her anonymity as a writer in 1950, her current position as someone who also shines silver platters for a wealthy white woman, I do not accept that Hurston is catering to a white audience as Laura Lee caters to her mistress. Laura Lee's glaring overtures to the white world and Hurston's blatant stereotypical characterization of Laura Lee reveal Hurston's most creative and powerful work of protest. Hurston's last piece of published fiction is an overtly dramatic and scathing critique of the social and justice system in America. An African-American woman like Laura Lee satisfies society's expectations of what she should look like and how she should behave; therefore society recognizes her rights and justice prevails. For the readers and editors of the Post (and perhaps critics who have chosen to ignore the story), the court was acting "conscientiously" because it sided with an African-American woman over a white man. But the reason the court can make this decision is not because the evidence clearly indicates that the African-American woman is truly innocent; it is because the woman's behavior was socially acceptable to the white audience/readership. Perhaps if Hurston had enacted the part of the passive, ignorant, and loyal African-American during her trial, her innocence would have been as easily accepted as it was for Laura Lee.
The story of a black woman in a court of law, whether it be fictional or autobiographical, is certainly familiar to us today. One cannot help but think of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case. Anita Hill did not fit into the accepted stereotypes of a African-American woman in the 1980s. Nell Irvin Painter writes that Hill had the choice of adopting either the role of the mammy, the welfare cheat, or the oversexed-black Jezebel. Hill found no shelter in stereotypes of race and therefore there was no way for her to emerge a heroine of the race. Hurston, on the other hand, was immediately characterized as the oversexed-black-Jezebel stereotype because of her emotional reaction during the trial as well as her depiction of sensuality in her writing. Thus, despite the outcome of the trial, she was believed to be guilty of a sexual crime. And Laura Lee, the woman who fits the stereotypes of the mammy, the comedian/fool, and the savage, emerges as honorable because she knew her place in that society. In this one short story, Hurston has subtly revealed the power behind racial and gender stereotyping, a situation that has been and continues to be repeated throughout African-American history. And what is even more amazing is the fact that readers, both then and now, may have missed her message.
Judith Musser, "Significant Stereotypes in Hurston's 'Conscience of the Court,"' in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, Autumn 1999, p. 79.
Laura M. Zaidman
In the following essay excerpt, Zaidman discusses "Conscience of the Court" in light of the decline in Hurston's popularity.
A departure from the Eatonville setting toward the folklore of the Bible is found in "The Fire and the Cloud," published in Challenge (September 1934). Edited by Dorothy West, this Harlem Renaissance magazine also published works by writers such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and Frank Yerby. The first issue's lead editorial presented a challenge to young black writers to better the achievement of earlier writers who "did not altogether live up to our fine promise.""The Fire and the Cloud" fails to surpass the quality of Hurston's previous stories, yet it does briefly explore the richness of the Moses mythology, especially Moses's stature as a black folklore hero, a subject expanded in her 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain. In this germinal story, Moses sits on his grave on Mount Nebo and explains to a lizard how he delivered the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. He is not so much the great Jewish leader who gave his people the Ten Commandments; he is the great African hero who performed the greatest voodoo magic ever with his rod of power that struck terror in the Pharaoh to set the slaves free. In Tell My Horse (1938), a study of Caribbean voodoo practices, Hurston writes, "This worship of Moses recalls the hard-to-explain fact that wherever the Negro is found, there are traditional tales of Moses and his supernatural powers that are not in the Bible.…"
Hurston's devotion to anthropology disappointed those friends who wanted her to concentrate more on fiction writing. An interesting perspective is found in Wallace Thurman's satiric treatment of Sweetie May Carr, a thinly disguised portrait of Hurston, in his novel Infants of the Spring (1932). A short-story writer from an all-black Mississippi town, she is "too indifferent to literary creation to transfer to paper that which she told so well." Sweetie May says, "I have to eat. I also wish to finish my education. Being a Negro writer these days is a racket and I'm going to make the most of it while it lasts … I don't know a tinker's damn about art.… My ultimate ambition, as you know, is to become a gynecologist. And the only way I can live easily until I have the requisite training is to pose as a writer of potential ability." Thurman questions Hurston's commitment to writing—and in a larger context, the fate of the entire Harlem Renaissance spirit. Yet in the 1930s Hurston would produce the best fiction being written by a black woman, including the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written in Haiti in seven weeks, and considered to be her best work. Despite Thurman's cynicism about Hurston's priorities, he does offer some truths about Hurston through Sweetie May Carr's character. For example, she was "more noted for her ribald wit and personal effervescence than for any actual literary work. She was a great favorite among those whites who went in for Negro prodigies. Mainly because she lived up to their conception of what a typical Negro should be.… Her repertoire of tales was earthy, vulgar and funny. Her darkies always smiled through their tears, sang spirituals on the slightest provocation, and performed buck dances.… Sweetie May was a master of Southern dialect, and an able raconteur … [who] knew her white folks." Thurman's fictional portrait is confirmed by Langston Hughes's comment in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940) that Hurston entertained wealthy whites with her "side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragi-comic stories of the South." Hughes concludes, "no doubt she was a perfect 'darkie' in the nice meaning whites give the term—that is a naive, childlike, sweet, humorous, and highly colored Negro. But Miss Hurston was clever too.…"
"The sixteen years between 'The Fire and the Cloud' and Hurston's last published story, 'The Conscience of the Court' (Saturday Evening Post, 18 March 1950), created an embittered writer, frustrated by the lack of popular acclaim from both blacks and whites for her four novels and two books of folklore."
The sixteen years between "The Fire and the Cloud" and Hurston's last published story, "The Conscience of the Court" (Saturday Evening Post, 18 March 1950), created an embittered writer, frustrated by the lack of popular acclaim from both blacks and whites for her four novels and two books of folklore. In the early 1940s Hurston worked for four months as a story consultant at Paramount Studios but failed to have her novels made into movies; then she lectured on the black-college circuit while she continued writing. Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, her most successful publication, gave a partially accurate, partially fictionalized account of her life. In the following years she made many attempts to receive funding for folklore research trips to Central America; finally, an advance on a new novel allowed her to travel in 1947 to British Honduras, where she completed Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), her first work that excluded blacks—and her last book. In September 1948 Hurston was arrested in New York City on a morals charge that devastated her personally and professionally. Although the accusation of sodomy with a ten-year-old proved to be false and she was cleared of this morals charge in March 1949, Hurston's world collapsed. A national black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, gave the story sensationalized, inaccurate front-page coverage. Writing to Carl Van Vechten, Hurston explained how she was unjustly betrayed by her own race which "has seen fit to destroy [her] without reason" in the "so-called liberal North." She concludes, "All that I have ever tried to do has proved useless. All that I have believed in has failed me. I have resolved to die … no acquittal will persuade some people that I am innocent. I feel hurled down a filthy privy hole." However, after a brief period of depression, she attempted to restore her reputation. She taught drama at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham for a short while and published several nonfiction articles in national magazines.
When "The Conscience of the Court" was published Hurston was working as a maid on affluent Rivo Island, one of Miami's fashionable neighborhoods. As she dusted bookshelves in the library, her employer sat in the living room reading a story written by her "girl." Hurston's unusual situation was inaccurately depicted in a Miami Herald feature article (and picked up by the wire services). "Miss Hurston," the interviewing reporter wrote, "believes that she is temporarily written out." (Hurston's agent was at this time holding her eighth book and three short stories—about a Florida religious colony, a turpentine worker at a political meeting, and myths explaining Swiss cheese's holes—none of which was ever published.) Hurston covered up her need for money by stating, "You can only use your mind so long. Then you have to use your hands. It's just the natural thing. I was born with a skillet in my hands. I like to cook and keep house. Why shouldn't I do it for someone else a while? A writer has to stop writing every now and then and live a little." Continuing to weave her stories, she assured the reporter that she only wanted to learn about a maid's life so she could begin a magazine "for and by domestics"—as if she did not know already from her earlier experiences. She told her employer that she had bank accounts overseas where her books had been published, but she refused to be unpatriotic and spend the money abroad. The publicity about her being a maid and being arrested lends an irony to "Conscience of the Court," which is about a black maid arrested for attacking a white man.
The story focuses on Laura Lee Kimble, who is being tried for assaulting Clement Beasley. Refusing a defense lawyer, Laura justifies her actions by explaining that Beasley attempted to remove valuable property from the home of her white employer, Mrs. J. Stuart Clairborne, on the grounds that he was collecting on an unpaid debt incurred when the white woman borrowed six hundred dollars to pay for Laura's husband's funeral. As the lifelong maid of the Clairborne family, Laura is intensely devoted, despite the fact that she thinks her employer has now abandoned her. She protected the home as if it were her own, and when the man verbally and physically abused her, she stopped him. She tells the judge, "All I did was grab him by his heels and flail the pillar of the porch with him a few times." When the truth comes out that the money was not yet due, and that the man was trying to steal property in excess of six hundred dollars, the judge praises Laura's courage and loyalty and instructs the jury to free her. Laura then finds out that Mrs. Clairborne never knew she had been arrested. Having doubted the woman's friendship for not coming to her aid, Laura expiates her sin when she arrives home by performing a "ritual of atonement" in solemnly polishing the silver before she eats her meal.
Laura's extreme humility, dependence, and loyalty toward whites illustrate the formula writing Hurston knew would sell. The rejection of her last completed novel, about wealthy blacks, led her to believe that whites could not conceive of blacks beyond lower class stereotypes. However, in this story she helped perpetuate the stereotyped images of her race, allowing the Post staff to heavily edit the piece because she badly needed the nine hundred dollars she was paid for it.
A year after this last published story appeared, Hurston wrote her agent that she was "cold in hand" (penniless); she confessed, "God! What I have been through.… Just inching along like a stepped on worm." This once-famous writer, who had received honorary doctorates and had been on the cover of Saturday Review, spent the final decade of her life in relative obscurity. From Rivo Island, she moved around Florida—Belle Glade, Eau Gallie (for five peaceful years), Merritt Island (during which time she worked briefly as a technical librarian for the space program at Patrick Air Force Base), and Fort Pierce, where she wrote a column, "Hoodoo and Black Magic," for a black weekly, the Fort Pierce Chronicle, from 11 July 1958 to 7 August 1959. She also taught in a black public school. In 1959 she suffered a stroke, leaving her unable to care for herself adequately. Wracked with pain, she continued to labor at a three-hundred-page manuscript about Herod the Great. Against her will she entered the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in October 1959 and died of hypertensive heart disease on 28 January 1960. No one noticed that her middle name was misspelled (Neil) on her death certificate; moreover, her funeral was delayed a week while friends and family raised the four hundred dollars for expenses. Hoping to make some money to pay Hurston's debt, a deputy sheriff used a garden hose to save the Herod manuscript from being burned, for the welfare-home janitor had been instructed to destroy Hurston's personal effects. Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce's segregated cemetery, Garden of the Heavenly Rest.
Hurston's short stories signal the beginning of an important literary career that also produced four novels, two folklore books, an autobiography, and several nonfiction journal articles. However, "The Conscience of the Court" seems to support Darwin T. Turner's criticism of her work's "superficial and shallow" judgments because she became too "desperate for recognition" and "a blind follower of that social code which approves arrogance toward one's assumed peers and inferiors but requires total psychological commitment to a subservient position before one's supposed superiors." Yet Turner praises her early work, particularly "Sweat," for its skill in presenting the picturesque idiom of Southern blacks, its credible characterization, and its emphasis on love and hate in family relationships. Turner sums up the intensity by which Hurston herself seems to have lived: "In her fiction, men and women love each other totally, or they hate vengefully." Perhaps because she wrote against the prevailing black attitudes of protest in the 1950s, black critics often dismissed her work. Yet in 1972 Arna Bontemps (her literary executor) prophetically wrote that Hurston "still awaits the thorough-going critical analysis that will properly place her in the pattern of American fiction."
That comprehensive appraisal came in 1977 with Robert E. Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Acknowledging his "white man's reconstruction of the intellectual process in a black woman's mind," he offers a favorable assessment of her literary career and tries to explain her enigmatic personality. Praising her work as a celebration of black culture, he concludes that her failure to achieve recognition in her life reflects America's poor treatment of its black artists. The critical acclaim awarded Hurston's writings in the past ten years has allowed readers to discover what Alice Walker (writing in the foreword to Hemenway's biography) finds: a "sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings." She honors Hurston's genius as a black woman writer and delights in her dynamic personality: "Zora was funny, irreverent (she was the first to call the Harlem Renaissance literati the 'niggerati'), good-looking and sexy."
Hurston, who produced a substantial body of literature of intense human emotions, died poor but left a rich legacy. In 1973, as a tribute to that inspiration, Walker placed a gravestone inscribed: "ZORA NEALE HURSTON / 'A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH' / 1901–1960 / NOVELIST, FOLK-LORIST / ANTHROPOLOGIST."
Laura M. Zaidman, "Zora Neale Hurston," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 86, American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, First Series, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 159–71.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Sieglinde Lemke, eds., "Introduction," in Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories, HarperPerennial, 1995, pp. ix–xxiii.
Gelfant, Blanche H., and Lawrence Graver, "Zora Neale Hurston," in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 305–08.
Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 9th ed., Prentice Hall, 2003.
Howard, Lillie P., "Zora Neale Hustorn," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 133–45.
Hurston, Zora Neale, "Conscience of the Court," in The Complete Stories, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke, 1995, HarperCollins, pp. xxii–xxiii, 162–77.
"The Politics of Civil Rights: Ending Racial Segregation in America," in Civil Rights in America: 1500 to the Present, Gale, 1998.
"Race Relations," in Dictionary of American History, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.
Williams, Juan, Interview, in All Things Considered, NPR, October 31, 1998.
Howard, Lillie P., ed., Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond, Greenwood Press, 1993.
Hurston is an influential writer for many African American authors, and Walker has been among her most outspoken champions. Here, Howard analyzes Hurston's and Walker's writings to find similarities and areas of influence.
Klarman, Michael J., From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Beginning with 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson, Klarman summarizes landmark Supreme Court decisions as they pertain to racial issues and civil rights. In addition to the facts of the cases themselves, Klarman includes the political and social contexts and ramifications for each case.
Peters, Pearlie Mae Fisher, The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston's Fiction, Folklore, and Drama, Garland Publishing, 1998.
Hurston, an independent and outspoken woman, is credited with creating assertive female characters that were in many ways ahead of their time. Peters draws from Hurston's canon of work to evaluate the importance of her bold protagonists. Unlike many studies of Hurston's work, this one considers her drama alongside her fiction.
Watson, Steven, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920–1930, Pantheon, 1995.
Going beyond the writings that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, Watson explores the cultural influences of the movement, along with the cultural forces that led to it. Watson enhances his exploration with photos and art from the period.
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