Anne Spencer(1882-1975) was a Harlem Renaissance poet and civil rights activist. Though she lived in Lynchburg Virginia her whole life, she maintained close friendships with many Harlem Renaissance writers, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and her home was a Southern gathering place for them all. She worked with Johnson and others to establish the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP and served for 20 years as the librarian for Dunbar High School. Spencer was the first African American woman poet to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973).
Poet, essayist and novelist Audre Lorde (1934-1992) also worked as a librarian, further north in New York City, briefy before turning to teaching at Tugaloo College, and ultimately at John Jay and Hunter College. Her first volume of poems, The First Cities, was published in 1968, and her poetry collection From a Land Where Other People Live (1972), was nominated for a National Book Award. Later collections included New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), Coal (1976), and The Black Unicorn (1978) Her poems and prose largely deal with issues related to civil rights, feminism, lesbianism, and the exploration of black female identity. Lorde was poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992.
Below are two poems from each of these highly acclaimed poets in which their mastery and wisdom is fully on display. Share these with your children and enjoy.
Being a Negro Woman is the world’s most exciting
game of “Taboo”: By hell there is nothing you can
do that you want to do and by heaven you are
going to do it anyhow—
We do not climb into the jim crow galleries
of scenario houses we stay away and read
I read garden and seed catalogs, Browning,
Housman, Whitman, Saturday Evening Post
detective tales, Atlantic Monthly, American
Mercury, Crisis, Opportunity, Vanity Fair,
Hibberts Journal, oh, anything.
I can cook delicious things to eat. . .
we have a lovely home—one that
money did not buy—it was born and evolved
slowly out of our passionate, poverty-
striken agony to own our own home,
Oh, I who so wanted to own some earth,
Am consumed by the earth instead:
Blood into river
Bone into land
The grave restores what finds its bed.
Oh, I who did drink of Spring’s fragrant clay,
Give back its wine for other men:
Breath into air
Heart into grass
My heart bereft—I might rest then.
Who Said It Was Simple
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
my heart beats
as my eyes open
as my hands move
as my mouth speaks
*Thanks, T. Golden for introducing GCP to this poem.