- “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I”Reading Anne Spencer in the White Literary Tradition
African American writers have often struggled to recreate and reinvent themselves through the received forms and culture of a white Western tradition. During the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke’s New Negro wrote like a white person about black concerns, struggling to reach a white intellectual readership and hoping that black art could lead to a revision of American culture from within. As Houston Baker notes, while The New Negro emphasized a black community and a folk perspective, the work praised “formal mastery” and consisted of mostly “formally standard works.” Yet, according to Baker, conforming to Western standards was a critical step in the production of black art: “If the younger generation was to proffer ‘artistic’ gifts, such gifts had first to be recognizable as ‘artistic’ by Western, formal standards” (85). For black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, merely employing the very tradition that silenced, caricatured, and exoticized them constituted a cultural revolution. Inhabiting the forms and methods of white literature meant to some extent buying into the ideology of the oppressor, but as Maureen Honey explains, such “forms were conceived of as politically neutral vehicles through which Black culture could be made visible” (7).
The alternative to writing in accepted forms—an attempt to forge a new literary aesthetic from the black folk forms of spiritual, jazz, and orality—was not always more desirable, for it fed racist notions of exoticism and primitivism. Such notions were particularly dangerous for black women because they recalled a tradition of sexual abuse and images of black women as licentious.1 Either way black artists turned they were criticized, and while black men could occasionally garner praise for their skillful use of traditional poetic form, as Countee Cullen and Claude McKay did, or for their innovation with new forms like the jazz rhythms of Langston Hughes, black women invariably suffered disapproval at either end of the spectrum. Jessie Fauset’s novels were too bourgeois, “too prim school-marmish and stilted,” by McKay’s assessment, and Zora Neale Hurston’s work was largely criticized and overlooked (Lewis 124, 304).
As one of the most important female poets of the Harlem Renaissance, whose work was featured in The New Negro, Caroling Dusk, and The Book of American Negro Poetry, as well as in the two most important journals of the Harlem Renaissance, The Crisis and Opportunity, Anne Spencer chose to employ rather than overturn existing literary structures.2 She proclaimed Robert Browning her favorite poet without conceiving of her affinity for him as a contradiction, and she wrote herself comfortably into the company of white men: “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I— / Ah, how poets sing and die!” (qtd. in Greene 197).3 Many critics see a separation between her radical life as a civil rights activist and [End Page 228] her more conventional art;4 however, I do not believe we can understand Spencer’s work fairly as the product of a separation of her life as a black woman from her writing in a white male tradition. Such a view of Spencer’s poetry implies a tension that is not present in her writing or her conception of herself as a writer. Such a separation also implies a denial of self and a distancing of consciousness, but Spencer’s poetry is constantly aware of what it means to be black and female, what it means to speak from the margins of a tradition.
As June Jordan states in “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley,” the literature available to writers like Wheatley was created “by white men taking their pleasure, their walks, their pipes, their pens and their paper, rather seriously, while somebody else cleaned the house, washed the clothes, cooked the food, watched the children.” Yet, as Jordan notes, Wheatley manages in spite of the limited models available to her to present “us with something wholly her own” (177–78). Erlene Stetson similarly warns against the all too facile perception of Wheatley as a “’servile’ imitator,” insisting that she managed to impart her own “black female consciousness” into all...