A Woman to Know: Anne Spencer

Ah! How poets sing and die. — Anne Spencer

Ah! How poets sing and die. — Anne Spencer

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Roses. Manicured hedges. Poppies. A pergola painted sky-blue. A small pool filled by a trickling statue fountain, gifted to Anne by W.E.B DuBois.

Throughout the 1920s, Anne Spencer tended to her garden — which she called “half my world” — in Lynchburg, Va. Her beloved garden served as a meeting place for activists, educators and Harlem Renaissance figures like James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. W.E.B. DuBois visited frequently, bringing African statues, clippings and other gifts for Anne to include in her garden.

As the daughter of former slaves, Anne worked tirelessly for civil rights and public service. She furnished the library at the all-black Dunbar High School with volumes from her personal collection, and many of her poems reflect an active political life. She worked with James Weldon Johnson to founding the local branch of the NAACP in Lynchburg, and in the course of their work together, Johnson discovered Anne’s poetry. He insisted on helping her get her work into magazines, and at the age of 40, Anne saw her first verses in print.

Anne published fewer than 30 poems in her lifetime, but her literary influence extended well beyond her garden. She continued writing up until her death in 1975, at the age of 93. As she wrote in “Dunbar,” one of her rescued poems:

Ah, how poets sing and die!
Make one song and Heaven takes it;

Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;
Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I—
Ah, how poets sing and die!

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