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Anne Spencer

(1882—1975)


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(1882–1975), poet, librarian, community activist,

and muse and confidante to Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and literati. Anne Spencer was born inauspiciously on a Virginia plantation. Yet the combination of loving, though irreconcilable, parents and an unorthodox, isolated youth formed her extraordinary independence, introspection, and conviction.

Her father, Joel Cephus Bannister, of African American, white, and Native American descent, and her mother, Sarah Louise Scales, the mulatta daughter of a slaveholder, separated when Spencer was six. While her mother worked as an itinerant cook, Spencer roomed with foster parents in Bramwell, West Virginia, where no other black children lived. In insular and parochial Bramwell, she was groomed for the African American bourgeoisie. Her mother dressed her in the finest frocks she could afford and withheld her from an outlying school that enrolled working-class children until she could attend Lynchburg's Virginia Seminary with socially suitable African American students. Spencer entered the seminary at age eleven. At seventeen, she graduated as valedictorian.

Two events there redirected her life. With a sonnet, “The Skeptic” (1896), she began writing poetry; and she met her husband, Edward. They settled in Lynch-burg and raised three children. In 1918 Spencer was visited by James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912), then field secretary for the NAACP. Their meeting launched a lifetime friendship—and with “Before the Feast at Sushan,” submitted to the the Crisis (1920), it inaugurated her publishing era.

Such poems as “At the Carnival” (1922), “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), “Substitution” (1927), and “Requiem” (1931) share the Romantics' affection for the ordinary and simple, retreat to nature's purity and peace, quest for love, disillusionment with earthly vanities, and passionate contemplation of eternity. Spencer flaunted tradition as much as she acknowledged it, laying claim to a modern poet's signature with sinister rhythms, slanted rhymes, blunt rejection of religious dogma, and enigmatic symbolism. During the 1920s, largely due to Johnson's mentorship, she published in such intellectual race magazines as the Crisis and Opportunity, in general anthologies of American poetry, in poet Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927), in Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), the official mission declaration of Harlem Renaissance (New Negro movement) writers and artists.

She detested an editorial process that misread her meanings, misunderstood her motives, mercilessly alluded to her inconsistent output, and miscategorized her poems as either much too subtle or too subtly militant. For many poems, including “White Things” (1923) and “Grapes: Still-Life” (1929), Spencer stood at variance with editors and publishers who censored statements of racial and sexual equality and rejected whatever they judged too controversial and/or experimental for American audiences. Consequently, she confined her editorial submissions to a decade, and she never published a poetry collection. Of her thousands of unpublished writings, including a novel and cantos commemorating John Brown, some fifty remain.

Her paradoxical lifestyle kindled her writing. During the depression and World War II, her salon at 1313 Pierce Street hosted notables from W. E. B. Du Bois to Paul Robeson. Yet she so enjoyed the solitude of her garden that Edward erected a cottage for her there, naming it Edankraal, and he hired housekeepers to liberate her from the average southern woman's sentence to domestic drudgery. “The Wife-Woman” (1922), “Lady, Lady” (1925), and “Letter to My Sister” (1927) confide Spencer's ambivalence about matrimony, motherhood, feminism, and the unattainability of gender equality for African American women. They identify the masculine prerogatives of seclusion, intellect, and leisure served by the madonnas found everywhere in productions of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Subjects: Literature.


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