Safe space: how homes protected, nurtured and inspired artists of colour

After visiting the living museum that was home to activist and poet Anne Spencer, Rashida James-­Saadiya is reminded of the importance of finding space and beauty in an often ugly world

29 April 2017

We have a lovely home – one that

money did not buy –  it was born and evolved

slowly out of our passionate, poverty-

stricken agony to own our own home,  our happiness.

These are the words of gardener and poet, Anne Spencer. Spencer’s life and work, though little recognised, is a story about the search for beauty in a complicated world – a search that required sunlight, water and love. As political, economic and physical oppression of black bodies continues in the United States and around the world, so does her quest.

Portrait of writer Anne B. Spencer in her wedding dress, 1900. From an archive collected by James Weldon and Carl Van Vechten.

Annie Bethel Scales Bannister was born in 1882 on a farm in Henry County, Virginia. Her father was born into slavery and her mother is believed to be the child of a free black woman and a wealthy Virginian aristocrat. In 1893, 11-year-old Anne was enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. Though she was barely literate at first, Anne graduated six years later as valedictorian of her class. At school, she met Edward Spencer, a fellow student who would become her husband (and Lynchburg, Virginia’s first parcel postman).

A poet, civil rights activist, educator, and lover of nature, Spencer published her first poem in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the foremost civil rights organisation in the United States. This was the first of many publications. Alain Locke, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, published her poem “Lady, Lady” in his influential collection “The New Negro”; and Spencer was the first African-American woman to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Despite this success, fewer than 30 of her estimated 1,000 poems were published.

Spencer was a poetic graffiti artist, writing on walls, ledgers, playbills and even shoe boxes. Her work and life read like a compass that honoured nature, women’s rights and spirituality. She planted flowers on top of everything ugly, consistently interacting with the natural world.

For his part, Edward Spencer laboured diligently to give his wife a safe sanctuary. In 1903, he built her a two-story home using scavenged materials. In the 1920s, an adjacent lot was purchased that doubled the length of their garden. He built a writing cottage, named “EdanKraal” – which combines the names Edward, Anne, and kraal, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral – in the new area. She basked in flowers and creativity in this sacred space, often working into the small hours of the morning.

Spencer’s home is a reminder that spaces for laughter, good food and powerful dreaming are all part of the creative process

In 1924, Spencer was hired as a librarian at Dunbar High School, the only library open to people of colour in the area. She spent much of her time writing and serving on committees to improve the legal, social and economic fortunes of black citizens. During this time, she also helped to establish the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP and led a campaign to hire black educators and improve the academic advancements of schools for students of colour. Spencer was an outspoken advocate for the rights of all human beings, using her home and garden as a lighthouse and sanctuary for those affected by oppression.

Poets, artists and activists came to stay, write and recharge. The Spencer home became a salon for creatives, intellectuals and travellers who found hospitality when the laws of segregation barred them from public hotels. Guests included: activist, author and lawyer James Weldon Johnson; poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes; novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and other luminaries.

Anne Spencer’s home is now a museum. Picture: Rashida James-­Saadiya.

During a recent visit to Anne Spencer’s home, which is now a living museum and historical landmark, I became fascinated with how homes have historically offered protection and support for artists of colour – and how racism and segregation necessitated the development of sacred spaces. Why would the Spencers imagine and create a different place for themselves? What form of self-love and rebellion occurs when black bodies sit in a garden bought and toiled with their own hands? Anne Spencer was audacious enough to create intentional happiness, despite systemic oppression lurking at her window.

Ultimately, Spencer’s home is a reminder that supportive spaces for laughter, good food and powerful dreaming are all part of the creative process. Writers are consistently unpacking what is broken and what is beautiful. Spencer herself said: “I write about some of the things I love. But have no civilized articulation for the things I hate.”

Sacred spaces allow us time to breathe and unlock the hidden parts of ourselves so that we may be liberated and exist fully. This elevates our creativity, while supporting mental and spiritual wellness. Anne Spencer knew well the power of the pen to tell her own stories and the power of safe space to nourish and empower the writer as well as the activist.

Rashida James-­Saadiya is a founding member and co-editor of Voyages, a quarterly online journal that explores the complexities of Africana arts and culture.

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