“Guilt pins a fig-leaf; Innocence is its own adorning.” — poet Anne Spencer

Anne Bethel Scales Bannister Spencer was yet another poet-librarian, like Dudley Randall, and many others. It was part of a tradition, one worthy of more study (there are websites devoted to it!). As the daughter of a librarian, I am always drawn to these particular journeys, since libraries are not just buildings, they are symbols, and librarians are in charge of a public trust. For an African-American in an earlier era, becoming a librarian was one way to further education, but also …. it goes way way beyond that. Just consider: to a librarian, knowledge is a lifelong process. You aren’t just educated during the brief years you go to school. Or, SOME people are, but those aren’t the people we are talking about. Education, to many, is a way of life, whether you’re in school or not. This was true of the people who joined the poet-librarian tradition. So, let’s hear it for poet-librarians.

Anne Spencer is primarily associated with the Harlem Renaissance, although she didn’t live in New York, was far removed from that whole scene. But she was one of the many poets writing at that time, bringing her own voice to a rich and diverse movement. Her legacy is a living one, primarily because of her home and her extraordinary garden – in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her home continues to be a tourist attraction (and it was during her life as well! It was a gathering place for travelers, admirers, garden-lovers, poetry lovers, civil rights activists). Anne Spencer’s home and garden is now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Aren’t human beings interesting?

Anne Spencer was born in 1882 in Virginia. After her parents separated, her mother got a job in an inn in a community with a very tight-knit and established Black community – lots of entrepreneurs, small businesses – rare at the time. It helped form her outlook on life. The two stayed with a big family, and Anne enjoyed a luxury that so few children – even less so black children – had at the time: lots and lots of free time. She didn’t have to go to work, her mother didn’t send her to school at first, so she had all this free time to … think and dream and walk in the woods (she loved nature) and just BE. She taught herself to read by poring through Sears & Roebuck catalogs. (There have been some really interesting pieces on the democratization of our world through the Sears catalogs – this is beyond the scope of this piece, but if you’re interested, just Google around, and you’ll find some really fascinating commentary. I love that the Sears & Roebuck catalogs play a part in opening Anne Spencer’s mind to LANGUAGE.)

When her father – not on the scene physically, but still present in her life – learned that Anne wasn’t going to school, he hit the roof. Anne was then enrolled in a seminary school. She really couldn’t read and write, she was far behind all the other students. But she was eager to learn, and quickly excelled, rising to the top of her class. She then became a teacher, and married someone she met at the seminary, Charles Edward Spencer. They were a real power couple. She became the librarian at the all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and maintained that job for 20 years.

Speaking of Dunbar: Here’s Anne Spencer’s poem for Paul Laurence Dunbar (post about him here).

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!

It was when she decided to open up a chapter of NAACP in Lynchburg, in 1919, that the “break” occurred. James Weldon Johnson (post about him here), during a visit with her, found out she wrote poetry. He recognized instantly that she was good. He sent her work off to H.L. Mencken, who felt the same way as Johnson did once he read it. (I love people who HELP. Mencken – post about him here – was often that “helping” figure to the major names of this era. His name comes up constantly, a testament to his stature in the literary world.) Anne’s first poem was published in the NAACP magazine “The Crisis.” Her work spread quickly. She was included in almost every anthology (and was the second African-American to be added to the Norton Anthology of Poetry).

But let’s talk about her HOUSE. I have never visited it, but if I’m ever in that area of the country I will be sure to make a stop. She and her husband devoted time, energy, and finances, into creating this oasis. The garden was key. Anne was a devoted gardener, and the natural world is one of the main “characters” in her poetry (it’s not a surprise she loops herself in with Keats in the poem “Dunbar” above.) During her lifetime, people would travel from all around to take tours through her garden.

Why does this move me so much?

Here she is, in her famous garden:

In 2018, Spencer was paid tribute to by being put on a postage stamp:

Here are a couple of her poems. The second, “At the Carnival” is my favorite.


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.

At the Carnival

Gay little Girl-of-the-Diving-Tank,
I desire a name for you,
Nice, as a right glove fits;
For you—who amid the malodorous
Mechanics of this unlovely thing,
Are darling of spirit and form.
I know you—a glance, and what you are
Sits-by-the-fire in my heart.
My Limousine-Lady knows you, or
Why does the slant-envy of her eye mark
Your straight air and radiant inclusive smile?
Guilt pins a fig-leaf; Innocence is its own adorning.
The bull-necked man knows you—this first time
His itching flesh sees form divine and vibrant health
And thinks not of his avocation.
I came incuriously—
Set on no diversion save that my mind
Might safely nurse its brood of misdeeds
In the presence of a blind crowd.
The color of life was gray.
Everywhere the setting seemed right
For my mood. Here the sausage and garlic booth
Sent unholy incense skyward;
There a quivering female-thing
Gestured assignations, and lied
To call it dancing;
There, too, were games of chance
With chances for none;
But oh! Girl-of-the-Tank, at last!
Gleaming Girl, how intimately pure and free
The gaze you send the crowd,
As though you know the dearth of beauty
In its sordid life.
We need you—my Limousine-Lady,
The bull-necked man and I.
Seeing you here brave and water-clean,
Leaven for the heavy ones of earth,
I am swift to feel that what makes
The plodder glad is good; and
Whatever is good is God.
The wonder is that you are here;
I have seen the queer in queer places,
But never before a heaven-fed
Naiad of the Carnival-Tank!
Little Diver, Destiny for you,
Like as for me, is shod in silence;
Years may seep into your soul
The bacilli of the usual and the expedient;
I implore Neptune to claim his child to-day!

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “Guilt pins a fig-leaf; Innocence is its own adorning.” — poet Anne Spencer

  1. Elizabeth Westcott says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating bit of our history.
    I had never heard of Anne Spencer but will be looking into her interesting life and beautiful poetry.

  2. Kristen Westergaard says:

    So fascinating! What an interesting, charming voice she has. And certainly her life. I am a bit enamored. Thank you for the introduction!

    I love this bit. Very simple and very complex. Like all the best things. :
    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.

    • sheila says:

      Kristen – so happy to pass it on!! She has a very clear eye, I think – and I love her “plain” language that isn’t plain at all – like the section you mention. It’s so filled with heart! I want to go see her house and garden!

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