About Anne Spencer

Keith Clark

Traditionally, students and critics of African-American literature associate the black literary movement of the 1920s--the Harlem Renaissance--with such prolific artists as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Jean Toomer. When women writers do receive recognition, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are the names mentioned. However, as black women writers began attracting popular and critical attention in the 1980s, poet Anne Spencer has begun to receive the attention she deserves. Her iconoclastic voice was rediscovered with J. Lee Greene's Time's Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry (1977), and critics are now acknowledging her substantial contribution to African-American arts and letters.

Born in Henry County, Virginia, on 6 February 1882, Annie Bethel Bannister was the only child of Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales. After her tumultuous marriage ended, Sarah took Annie to Bramwell, West Virginia; subsequently, Sarah's financial exigencies forced her to place Annie in the home of William T. Dixie, an upstanding member of the black community. Reading dime-store novels and newspapers taught the precocious youngster about the power of language. While she was illiterate herself, Sarah Scales sent Anne to the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, and she graduated in 1899. This period was also significant because Anne met classmate Edward Spencer. The couple married on 15 May 1901 and had three children.

While Spencer befriended many Harlem Renaissance luminaries, her most fruitful relationship was with James Weldon Johnson. Not only did he discover her, but he also selected her pen name, Anne Spencer. Also, Johnson introduced her to H. L. Mencken who, like Carl Van Vechten, aided black writers. While Mencken helped Anne publish her first poem, "Before the Feast at Shushan," she later declined his patronage. Spencer published most of her poems during the 1920s in the period's most prestigious collections: James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922); Robert T. Kerlin's Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923); Louis Untermeyer's American Poetry Since 1900 (1923); Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925); and Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1925). One of her last poems, "For Jim, Easter Eve," was published in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps's The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 in 1948.

Many of Spencer's poems convey a romantic concern with the human search for beauty and meaning in a sordid universe, as well as people's futile attempts to impose order on God's earth. Poems in this vein include "At the Carnival" and "Change." However, Spencer cannot be viewed solely as a "nature" or "religious" poet, for her complex work resists such facile categorizations. "Black Man O' Mine," for instance, uses erotic imagery to celebrate black love. While Spencer did not write "protest" poetry--she wrote Johnson that "The Tom-Tom forced into poetry seems a sad state to me" (quoted in J. Lee Green's biography; author's emphasis)--she was aware of white oppression. The persona of "White Things" addresses racism metaphorically: "They [white things] turned the blood in a ruby rose/To a poor white poppy-flower." In addition she worked fervently with NAACP secretary Johnson and helped establish the Lynchburg chapter of that organization in 1918. Thus, an unequivocally black, feminist voice coexisted with one enamored of the earth's splendor.

Anne Spencer cultivated a garden that attracted several members of the black artistic community for over half a century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Paul Robeson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou are just a few of the artists to visit her Lynchburg home. Her devotion to illuminating the beauty of God's garden and humankind's place in it anticipates writers such as Alice Walker, who also sees a cosmic and spiritual relationship between human beings and the earth. Though many of her writings were lost, critics continue to rediscover the resonant voice of Anne Spencer--a voice that pulsates through black women's writing in the later half of the twentieth century.

See: J. Lee Greene, Time's Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry (1977). Gloria T. Hull, "Afro-American Women Poets: A Bio-Critical Survey," in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., Shakespeare's Sisters (1979). Echoes from the Garden: The Anne Spencer Story, documentary film (1980). Erlene Stetson, ed., Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980 (1981). Maureen Honey, ed., Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (1989). Keith Clark, "Anne Spencer: Poet, Librarian," in Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (1992).

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Oxford University Press.

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