Spencer, Anne 1882–1975
Anne Spencer 1882–1975
A major poet of the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s and 1930s, Anne Spencer was for many decades much less well known than her male counterparts of the day. Few of her works were published during her lifetime, and at the end of her life many of her manuscript poems were tragically destroyed. She lived for much of her life not in the African-American intellectual center of New York, but in the remote foothill town of Lynchburg, Virginia, and her works for the most part referred only indirectly to the racial themes that other poets met head-on. In recent years, however, scholars and general observers have reached a new appreciation of the subtlety of Spencer’s work and of her unique ways of surmounting the obstacles that she faced as a black woman poet.
Spencer was born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister on February 6, 1882, in Henry County, Virginia. Her father, a sometime tavern-keeper of black and Seminole ancestry, often clashed with her mother, the daughter of a Virginia aristocrat and his slave mistress, and the couple separated when Spencer was five. Mother and daughter moved to Bramwell, West Virginia, in coal-mining country, and Spencer ended up in foster care with friends of her mother’s while her mother worked as a cook.
Spencer’s education was a curious one. She had minimal formal schooling as a child, for her mother had little use for the rough and rowdy ways of the miners’ families who comprised the student population at the only school for Blacks in the area. But she learned to read from magazines and popular novels brought home by her foster father, and because she interacted mostly with adults she developed precocious linguistic skills. Finally her father, who had continued to take an interest in his daughter’s welfare, urged that she be sent to school, and in 1892 she enrolled in the Virginia Seminary, an all-black academy in Lynchburg. At the time she used the last name Scales, her mother’s maiden name.
A shy teenager, she began to turn to writing to express her inner thoughts. A superior student, she presented the valedictory speech to her graduating class in 1899, after receiving some help in her science courses from a fellow student and tutor, Edward Spencer. The two were married in 1901, and Edward Spencer’s job as a postal worker allowed them an existence far more financially stable than many of their African-American contemporaries enjoyed. The couple’s three children (the youngest, Chauncey, became a noted aviator) were raised with the assistance of domestic servants, and Spencer had time to devote to the development of her poetic craft—and also to the cultivation of a garden which would play an increasingly important role in her creative life.
Her poetry gained notice when one of the leading African-American intellectuals of the time, the writer
At a Glance…
Born Annie Bethel Scales Bannister on February 6, 1882, in Henry County, Virginia; raised by mother in Bramwell, West Virginia; married Edward Spencer, 1901; three children. Died July 27, 1975, in Lynchburg, VA. Education: Graduated from Virginia Seminary, Lynchburg, VA, 1899.
Career: Poet Discovered by James Weldon Johnson during Johnson’s visit to establish Lynchburg NAACP chapter, 1917; “Before the Feast of Shushan” published in Crisis, 1920; about 20 poems published, 1920s and 1930s; librarian, Dunbar High School branch library, Lynchburg, 1923-43; civil rights activism in Lynchburg from 1920s onward; wrote fiction and historical material later in life; many poems and other writings destroyed at death.
James Weldon Johnson, came to Lynchburg in 1917 to establish a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Johnson (who also suggested to this woman of many names that she call herself simply Anne Spencer) alerted the acerbic white essayist H.L. Mencken to her talent and about twenty of her poems were published between 1920 and 1930, many of them in anthologies edited by Johnson and others. Showing a characteristic sense of self, Spencer rejected attempts by Mencken and others to push her writing in new directions; she probably sacrificed wider recognition in order to obey her own inner creative impulses.
Those impulses led Spencer to create a poetic language unlike that of any of her contemporaries. Her poetry might be described as deceptively conventional. Outwardly there was little about it that was distinctively African-American: as noted above, Spencer avoided racial themes (except in the anti-lynching poem “White Things”). “I write about the things I love,” she pointed out in the introduction to an anthology (quoted in American Women Writers). “But I have no civilized articulation for the things I hate.” Nor did Spencer incorporate black diction or speech rhythms into her style.
Beneath the conventional surface, though, critics have found that Spencer’s poetry embodied her inner life in strikingly original ways. Many of her works deal in some way with women’s responses to their long subjugation (“It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods,” she wrote in “Letter to My Sister”), and the role that flowers and gardens play in her work prefigured a similar strain in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. Spencer has been compared with the white nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson—a reclusive but pathbreaking figure who, like Spencer, used conventional language and domestic themes in ways that expanded their significance to a universal level.
Spencer remained close to James Weldon Johnson until the latter’s death in 1938, and her Lynchburg home was a frequent stopping-place for other African-American luminaries of the time, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. She herself became a solitary but effective civil-rights activist, boycotting Lynchburg’s segregated public-transit system and demanding the hiring of black teachers in the city’s black schools. In 1923 she applied for a job in Lynchburg’s library system; under pressure owing to Spencer’s growing recognition as a poet, administrators responded by establishing a branch library in all-black Dunbar High School (named after the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar) and naming Spencer as its head. She remained in the post for twenty years, walking the two miles from her home every morning.
In later years Spencer withdrew from the public eye. Deeply shaken by her husband’s death in 1964, she suffered from ill health. She continued to write for her entire life, however, penning poetry, historical essays, and even part of a novel but not allowing any of it to be published. Restlessly creative for her entire life, she often wrote poems on whatever scraps of paper might be lying available at hand. When Spencer was hospitalized shortly before her death, many of these scraps were discarded by visitors unaware of their value, and the garden house where she did much of her writing was vandalized—with the result that of the hundreds of poems Spencer wrote, only a few dozen have ever been published in any form. Anne Spencer died on July 27, 1975, at the age of ninety-two.
“Before the Feast of Shushan,” 1920.
“White Things,” 1923.
“Lady, Lady,” 1925
“Lines to a Nasturtium,” 1926.
“At the Carnival,” 1927.
“Letter to My Sister,” 1927.
“Rime for the Christmas Baby,” 1927.
“Grapes: Still Life,” 1929.
Benbow-Pfalzgraf, Taryn, ed., American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, second ed., St. James Press, 2000.
Greene, J. Lee, Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Harris, Trudier, ed., Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940 (Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 51), Gale, 1987.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed., Black Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Roses, Lorraine Elena, and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph, Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, G.K. Hall & Co., 1990.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
—James M. Manheim
"Spencer, Anne 1882–1975." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/spencer-anne-1882-1975
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