Critical Essay on ‘‘Conscience of the Court’’

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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....

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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 welleducated 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 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.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Conscience of the Court,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Justice and Altruism

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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.

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 socalled 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.

Source: Laura Carter, Critical Essay on ‘‘Conscience of the Court,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Significant Stereotypes in Hurston’s ‘Conscience of the Court’

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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 in The 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.

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 watchdog’’ 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.

Source: Judith Musser, ‘‘Significant Stereotypes in Hurston’s ‘Conscience of the Court,’’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, Autumn 1999, p. 79.

Zora Neale Hurston

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2232

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. 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 thoroughgoing 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’), goodlooking 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, FOLKLORIST / ANTHROPOLOGIST.’’

Source: 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.

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