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.
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...
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