Two birthdays today. On this day in 1882 Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was born on a farm in Henry County. Better known by her married name, Spencer, she was a poet, a civil rights activist, a teacher, a librarian, and a gardener. While fewer than thirty of her poems were published in her lifetime, she was an important figure of the black literary movement of the 1920s—the Harlem Renaissance—and only the second African American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973). Noted for iambic verse preoccupied with biblical and mythological themes, Spencer found fans in such Harlem heavyweights as James Weldon Johnson, who commented on her “economy of phrase and compression of thought.” In addition to her writing, Spencer helped to found the Lynchburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also an avid gardener and hosted a salon at her Lynchburg garden, which attracted prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Her former residence is now a museum that is open to the public.
If for no other reason than this, read the entry to read about Anne Spencer’s friendship with the African pygmy Ota Benga.
Also on this day, in 1833, James Ewell Brown Stuart was born in Patrick County. Stuart, of course, grew up to ride horses. In the words of the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, he was
Reckless, merry, religious, theatrical,
Lover of gesture, lover of panache,
With all the actor’s grace and the quick, light charm
That makes the women adore him
Spencer’s preoccupations were less romantic than Stuart’s, or Benét’s, for that matter. Here is her meditation on a 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 …
As my wife would say, “Thanks for that, Brendan.”
IMAGE: Top: Anne Spencer in her garden by Jimmy Ray (Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum); Anne Spencer House (Flickr user eli.pousson); bottom: Confederate uniform jacket worn by J. E. B. Stuart (Virginia Historical Society); eight of clubs in a deck of Confederate playing cards that dates to the second half of the nineteenth century (Virginia Historical Society)