The Atypical Woman in a Typical World Do many people know who Anne Spencer is? Probably not. Anne Spencer was a Harlem Renaissance poet who actually lived in Lynchburg, Virginia. She immensely enjoyed working in her garden and spending time in Edankraal, a small cottage in her garden where she wrote most of her poetry. Though Anne was a hard worker, she definitely was not a typical woman of the early 20 th century.
Anne and her husband, Edward, did many things that were not typical during the early 20 th century, but these 'atypical' characteristics made the couple very unique. Anne was the 'unannounced' valedictorian of her class at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College (Potter 129). This was unusual because at the time African American women were able to attend school, but most did not go to college, much less become the valedictorian of the graduating class. Though some say that Anne was not the valedictorian of her class, but rather a shy girl was the valedictorian, and Anne definitely was not shy ('Anne Bethel'). Anne's intelligence definitely shows throughout her work. Spencer did not work simply to earn money; she worked because she enjoyed what she was doing.
According to A History of Women in the West, the women of the early 20 th century were still working at home, keeping the children, doing house chores, and some even worked on the farm. When World War I broke out because of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, most women went to work in factories (24). Anne did not work in a factory; but she did work at Jones Memorial Library's Dunbar Branch for $75 a month. Anne was not the typical librarian hired for this job.
Though the library only served African American patrons, the position as a librarian normally went to a white person. She convinced the employer that she was qualified by showing him / her that she was a published poet. She also taught at her alma mater, the Virginia Theological Seminary and College for free, just because she loved teaching (Clark). On the other hand, Edward was Lynchburg, Virginia's first parcel postman. Not only was this an enormous achievement for the city of Lynchburg, but also because Edward was an African American. Edward also helped out with the family grocery store which was close to their home on 1313 Pierce Street.
The pay he received helped the family's financial situation tremendously (Salmon 18). Anne Spencer was not typical because she stayed in Lynchburg, Virginia. Most Harlem Renaissance poets began to move up north towards New York because of social and intellectual freedom. The Harlem Renaissance happened when African Americans began to express their thoughts in art, poetry, dance, and literature (Danzer 632). Anne spent most of her time in the garden behind her house and enjoyed every minute of it. It is odd that she did not follow the movement of African Americans up north, but rather enjoyed herself in Lynchburg, and still produced quality work.
Most women of the early 20 th century either had a garden and spent time working in it, or did not have a garden at all. Anne loved her garden with every ounce that she had. The garden contained many different types of plants such as: peonies, roses, lilacs, sweet peas, trumpet vines, lilies, and many more different plants. Anne was not the typical lady who called a flower by the name that it is typically known by. Anne used her teaching abilities inside the garden, 'Anne always called her flowers by their botanical names' (Salmon 13).
Anne even played with cross-pollination, and years later, a black pansy popped up from where she had always tried to make the black pansy develop (Salmon 14). Edward also contributed to the garden, which is unusual. Most men in the early 20 th century were busy working to support the family or fighting in the war (Danzer 575). Edward would take Anne to venture out and find unusual, bright colored plants; those that not many other gardeners had.
Edward was a wonderful recycler. He brought in a wrought iron fence from Randolph-Macon Woman's College, greenstone from a quarry close by, and maybe a goldfish or two given by acquaintances or customers from the grocery store (Salmon 10). Edward constructed a small cottage called 'Edankraal,' for Anne. This cottage was made of stone and shingles.
Most women of the early 20 th century did not have time to write poetry all afternoon because they had to do household chores. If a woman did have time to write poetry, she certainly would not have a small cottage to resort to. Edward came up with the name Edankraal. He combined both his name, 'Ed' and Anne's name, 'An' and 'kraal' came from an African word meaning 'dwelling.' The cottage contained a cot for resting, pictures of family and friends, and a desk.
The windows of the cottage looked out into the garden, which is where Anne obtained most of her inspiration ('Anne Bethel'). Anne and Edward treated their children differently than most parents did in the early 20 th century. The teacher 'in' Anne would always come out when Chauncey, Bethel, and Alroy asked their mother a question about the definition of a word. She would not reply and when the children finally got ready to go to bed, they would find a dictionary on the table beside of their bed. The next morning, Anne would make the word in question come up in conversation to insure that the word was understood and used properly (Salmon 18). If during conversation between Anne and her children, a subject came up that the children did not have enough knowledge about, she would gather the correct research material and then quiz the children on it the next day (Salmon 19).
Most parents in the early 20 th century simply expected the teachers to teach information, or the parents taught their children about running a household. Anne and Edward hired people to come in to take care of the household chores and children. This was atypical for the early 20 th century, because if a woman did actually work outside of the home, her children would do the household chores. Unless the family was fairly wealthy, it was highly unusual for a family to hire help for both the household chores, and taking care of the children. Furthermore, it was very unusual because Anne and Edward Spencer were African Americans.
Anne and Edward ruled the house with high standards, but Anne did most of the ruling. This was atypical during the time because men were thought of as the head of the household. Anne made the three children come in the house, take a bath, do homework, and then go to bed. Not much time was left for playing. Alroy and Bethel frequently asked their father, Edward, about going to a party or some other social event. Though he might have gotten away with saying, 'Yes, you can go,' he would most of the time say something to the effect of, 'go ask your mother' (Salmon 7).
Anne Spencer treated both black and white people the same exact way. Anne lent her books out to whoever wanted them; it didn't matter what race they were, she just wanted people to read so they would become more knowledgeable. She was active in civil rights, but she did not want to be called a 'black rights activist.' Though Anne was a member of the NAACP, she did not frequently write about racial injustice in her poems ('A Poet of Many Styles'). Though, one of her poems, 'White Things,' actually does address racial injustice: Most things are colorful things - the sky, earth, and sea. Black men are most men; but the white are free! White things are rare things; so rare, so rare They stole from out a silvered world - somewhere... (1-4) This poem has an unusual characteristic; mostly because Anne did not often write about racial injustice.
Unlike many women of the early 20 th century, Anne did not tolerate gossip. She wasn't afraid to speak up and tell someone that she did not tolerate gossip, and that it was rather petty. Everyone knows that women are more interested in gossip than men. Everyone wants to hear information about someone else. Then, if the information strikes someone's 'fancy,' they will tell the information to their friends, who will tell everyone else. Anne did not appreciate hearing people talk about others in a manner such as this, but she did not mind if someone said something mean and hurtful about her (Salmon 20).
Anne was not the typical woman because she wore whatever she was comfortable in (Salmon 20). In the early 20 th century, 'it was considered a woman's duty to make herself beautiful.' There were beauty aids which were deemed very painful. The aids, 'such as 'M. Trielty's Nose Shaper,' was held over the nose by straps buckled around the head and adjusted with screws.' Imagine how much pain a person would go through just to look beautiful! During the first several years of the 20 th century, fashion was going towards soft, draping, oriental fabrics. Corsets were still worn, as well as long, narrow skirts. During the 1920's, women's skirts became shorter than ever.
Many women wore 'flatterers' to minimize their busts, and waistlines were lowered to the hip level ('Perceptions'). Many things, such as: the way Anne and Edward Spencer treated their children strictly, Anne's job as a teacher and librarian, Edward's job as a parcel postman, fashion, not tolerating gossip, and hired help for the children and household chores, are just a few things that set Anne Spencer and Edward Spencer apart from the typical man and woman of the early 20 th century. Though Anne and Edward were not typical, these qualities only made them who they were. If everyone were the exact same, the world would be a boring place, and Anne and Edward 'spiced up' many people's lives.