Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Significant Stereotypes in Hurston's "Conscience of the Court"

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Significant Stereotypes in Hurston's "Conscience of the Court"

Article excerpt

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" (327). Although Hemenway shifted the blame for the weaknesses of the story to the editors of 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'" (quoted in Hemenway, 325).

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" (Hughes, 238), 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" (229). 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" (238). 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" (quoted in Hemenway, 219). 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. (50)

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" (25). 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. …

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