'For the skull of a black is white, not dull'

Ann Spencer with husband and grandchildren, June 1929
Encyclopedia entries are deceptively hard to write, and our entries on writers are perhaps the most challenging. You want to get all the interesting biographical stuff in there while also doing justice to the art. Who is this poet as a person, but also who is this poet as a poet? On a good day, it’s tough to write about writing. Now do it for a general audience without boring everyone to tears.
All of which is to say that I think our Anne Spencer entry is awesome. She’s a fascinating character: She grew up in poverty on the Reynolds Plantation in Critz, but her mother managed to send her to seminary in Lynchburg when she was eleven; she ended up valedictorian. She married Lynchburg’s first parcel postman, and one of their three children helped initiate the Tuskegee Airmen program. (The airfield at Tuskegee, meanwhile, was named for this guy.) Although she stayed in Lynchburg, Spencer managed to be an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, partly because of her poetry, which attracted the attention of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, and partly because of her garden.

She called her large garden Edankraal, which combined her and her husband Edward’s names with the idea of sacred places such as the biblical Eden and the African kraal (an Afrikaans term for a native southern African village community). As early as the 1920s, the Spencers turned Edankraal into an artists’ salon, hosting W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. While Jim Crow laws prevented these Harlem Renaissance luminaries from staying in Lynchburg’s hotels, they could find hospitality and intellectual stimulation at Edankraal. In this way, Spencer cemented her influence on Harlem—all the way from Virginia.

This adds up to a great entry all by itself, and we haven’t even mentioned the Ota Benga connection. But to do justice to Spencer, I think you also need to do justice to her poetry. You can’t just say her poetry mattered and not say why or how. After reading the entry, I want at least to be able to pick her verse out of a lineup. Our section on her literary career accomplishes this, I think.
“The relationship between Spencer’s race, her politics, and her poetry is complex,” according to the entry. “Although a civil rights activist, she opposed school integration as ‘tokenism,’ and she did not address the issues of African Americans in her poetry nearly as often as did other Harlem Renaissance artists.” And yet, what to do with the poem “White Things” (1923)?

Several lines later, the white “wand of power” has reduced the hills of “red and darkened pine” to blanched wastelands and has turned the “blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower.” The poem’s final verses turn from the transformative devastation that whites inflict upon the “natural” world to the violent “whitening” of blacks through their transmutation to ash and bone in the act of lynching: They pyred a race of black, black men,
And burned them to ashes white; then,
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull,
For the skull of a black is white, not dull …

Powerful stuff. And not that you need a reason to visit this particular post, but we’ve mentioned Spencer previously here.
IMAGE: Anne Spencer with Husband and Grandchildren by Rawley M. Long (June 1929); courtesy of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Inc.


2 thoughts

  1. I am the first grandchild of Anne and Edward Spencer. My mother was Bethel Spencer, their first child. This picture was taken by my uncle, Rawley Long, in 1929 when I was four years old. My sister, Anne Bethel Stevenson (next to our grandfather) was two years old. Rawley was married to my aunt, Alroy Spencer Long. I have other pictures which were taken that day.


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