Spencer, Anne

Spencer, Anne (b. February 6, 1882, Henry County, Va.; d. July 12, 1975, Lynchburg, Va.), American writer, Harlem Renaissance poet whose work combined 19th century and modernist literary traditions.

Annie Bethel Bannister spent her early years with a foster family while her mother Sarah Scales, separated from her husband Joel Bannister, worked nearby as a cook. At 11, she began formal schooling in the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg under the name Annie Scales. With her first poem "The Skeptic" (1896), Scales revealed the independent thinking which would characterize her life and work. She graduated in 1899, taught for two years in West Virginia, and then returned to Lynchburg to marry Edward Spencer and raise their children Bethel Calloway, Alroy Sarah, and Chauncey Edward.

During this time, Spencer cultivated her poetry as well as her famous garden. When National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist James Weldon Johnson visited her in 1917, he convinced her that she ought to publish, and "Before the Feast of Shushan" appeared in the February 1920 issue of Crisis. For the next 20 years, her voice was heard in every collection of African American poetry.

Spencer's poetry invokes biblical and mythological allusions to speak of beauty in a decaying world. Her writing has been described as depicting a private vision, and she often employed images of the natural world. Despite the apparent influences of literary romanticism, Spencer has often been characterized as modernist, both for her complex style and her contemporary feminist concerns. She worked powerfully with detailed, focused images: a woman's hand, "Twisted, awry, like crumpled roots,/ bleached poor white in a sudsy tub," portrays the condition of women in "Lady, Lady."

Spencer's political activism in Lynchburg attested to her commitment to African American equality. She agitated for the hiring of African American teachers at the local segregated high school, she refused to ride segregated public transportation, and she initiated an African American library, where she worked from 1923 to 1945. Her garden home became a Southern locus for prominent African Americans, visited regularly by such guests as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes. In the mid-1930s, Spencer moved out of public life, and lived as a recluse until her death in 1975.

 

Contributed By:
Marian Aguiar