Discussing “The conscience of the Court”

Published: 1950

You can find this story in “The Complete Collection”

This story was different from what I expected when I began reading it. It is a story of the trial of Laura Lee Kimble. A Black woman who is accused of brutally beating a white man name Clement Beasley. She stands alone in the courtroom, and you get the impression that everything is already decided against her except for the glimmer of hope that the judge will see that the trail is fair. The plaintiff, Beasley, tells his side of the story. According to him, he was just trying to collect a debt from Mrs. Celestine Clairborne, the owner of the home. Laura Lee is watching over the home. Mrs. Clairborne had left without paying and he was going to collect her belonging which did not equal the amount of the loan. Then, Laura Lee attacked him, and he suffered several injuries to his body.

Then Laura Lee, who declines a lawyer, takes the stand, and tells her story. She tells of how her and Celestine Clairborne became so attached to each other. She tells how she was a daughter of servants on Celestine’s family land and how she became a loyal friend and servant for Celestine. Through deaths and financial challenges, the two women stayed connected to each other. While Celestine was away, Laura was taking care of the home. Then Beasley comes to the home asking about the whereabouts of Mrs. Clairborne and Laura tells him and he goes on his way. The next day he comes back with a truck saying that he is here to take possession of Clairborne’s belongings. When Laura refuses to let him in he begins attacking her and she handles him. Not once, not twice but three times. The last time she picks him up and throws him over the fence and into the road.

Two very different stories, where is the truth. Well thanks to the judge’s commitment to justice, he demands to see the promissory note that Beasley conveniently forgets to bring to court. When the note is presented to the court it is discovered that the due date is still three months off. The judge makes a speech, charges are dropped, and Laura goes free.

Here is an excerpt from the story where the judge makes his closing statement:

“The protection of women and children, he said, was inherent, implicit in Angle-Saxon civilization, and here in these United Stated it had become a sacred trust. He reviewed the long, slow climb of humanity from the rule of the club and the stone hatchet to the Constitution of the United States. The English-speaking people had given the world its highest concepts of the rights of the individual, and they were not going to be made a mock of, and nullified by this court.”

I mentioned at the start that this was different from what I expected. In previous stories, the focus was on the relationships between Black people and how they lived and loved in a world that was not supportive of them. Yet in this story, we get the devotion of a Black woman to a white woman through her life, even when she several opportunities to build a life on her own. Clairborne was just as committed to Laura, but she had the power of employment and property on her side. Of all of Hurston’s woman characters, this is the first one that seems to be so self-sacrificing for someone other than their mate.

This is not one of my favorite stories. That may be to my personal feelings about stories where Black people are such loyal friends to white people who employ them that they never seek their own place in the world. Hurston describes the closeness between Laura and Celestine but I can not get past the power dynamics of the relationship.

Also, the space given for the judge’s comments about the fairness of the law were a little off putting for me. This story was published in 1950. A time when justice for Black people in the courts was not guaranteed. But as I think more about it, things do come together. After she was found not guilty, Laura Lee made her way to the judge and thanked him over and over again. The judge said: “That will do, Laura Lee. I am the one who should be thanking you.” Perhaps as the title implies, Laura Lee’s case was an opportunity to show what the judge believed about the law and justice in the United States was true. Perhaps, Hurston was showing that there were white people who were battling internally with the contradiction between the stories the country was built on and the realities of everyday life where injustices were done in the name of bigotry.

Perhaps I am reading way too much into this short story, but I really do not think Hurston at this point in her writing career would just give us a tale about a loyal servant/friend who was saved by a kind judge.

More discussions of Hurston's short stories.