Historical Context

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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...

(The entire section contains 1578 words.)

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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.

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.

Literary Style

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

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