Earth, I Thank You

By Anne Spencer

‘Earth, I thank you
for the pleasure of your language
You’ve had a hard time
bringing it to me
from the ground
to grunt thru the noun
To all the way
feeling seeing smelling touching
—awareness
I am here!’

(Anne Spencer 1882-1975)


Anne Spencer was a poet, civil rights activist, teacher, and librarian, wife and mother, and a gardener. More than thirty of her poems were published in her lifetime, making her an important figure of the black literary and cultural 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).

“People rarely think of black poets as writing in a genre that brings to mind having the leisure – and time – to contemplate a field of flowers…. If we look at history and say, well, black people can only write about the natural world and think about slavery or think about being a runaway, you forget that other component – that there has always been promise and survival in the natural world. That some people knew where to look and how to look. And so that is as much a part of these poems: the hope and the potential for a real connection and collaboration, as much as this devastating and horrible history, is there.” Anne Spencer was an activist and “the librarian for the black library, because in the town of Lynchburg it was in the deed that African-Americans could not go into the building. …She was working against a lot of arbitrary racism, but at the same time, she had this incredible garden in her backyard, and she was also aware of this other kind of peace and beauty.” (C. T. Dungy, ed., ‘Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry’, 2006)

Spencer’s poetry, often ‘scribblings’ found on any available surface, including walls of her home and loose scraps of paper, were written for herself rather than a public audience. She used language to give voice to her thoughts, reactions, and, often, her indignation, like in a letter from 1926, “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. Happiness.” (www.annespencermuseum.com)

Judy Chicago (born Judith Sylvia Cohen; July 20, 1939) is an American feminist artist, art educator, and writer known for her large collaborative art installation pieces about birth and creation images, which examine the role of women in history and culture. During the 1970s, she founded the first feminist art program in the US and acted as a catalyst for feminist art and art education. The above ‘Earth Birth’ is one of the most iconic images and relates to Chicago’s imagery embracing the truth and beauty of being female; the birth cavity/flower/place of creation, where life is both fertilized and delivered in the natural world. In 2020, Judy Chicago completed a widely acclaimed collaboration with Dior Couture in Paris, in which her Female Divine sculpture was erected outside the Rodin Museum. in Paris and housed her banners posing the question “What if Women Ruled the World?

“The ‘Birth Project’ was an ambitious collaboration with over 150 needle workers, to celebrate and create a history for the miraculous, painful, and mystical birthing process. Literally weaving the personal together as a universal ‘herstory,’ Chicago’s five-year-long tapestry (started in 1980 and completed in 1985) is one of the few attempts to introduce the subject of birth, with multiple female perspectives, into visual culture. It speaks of maternity and the female body, the monumental strength and universality of female experiences. It is a feminist work in this sense – but Chicago frames the origins of humankind, and women not as other, but at the center.”

In the recent interview for CNN, Judy Chicago says, “On an institutional level, there has been very little change,” referring to the “illusion of change in the art world,” when in reality, it still favours white men. A recent report by artnet News and the Art Agency Partners podcast ‘In Other Words’ found that only 11% of acquisitions by major US museums in the last decade were of works by female artists, and only 3 percent of female artists whose works are collected by these museums are African American. Race, class, sex, gender – these are the ‘invisible and unacknowledged forces are what I’ve been struggling against,’ Chicago said. She acknowledges that the landscape of contemporary art today is dramatically different. ‘Women and artists of color can be themselves in their art, and in their work, in ways you couldn’t when I was young, when the highest compliment you can get was that you made work like a man!’” (‘At 80, Judy Chicago is finally being recognized for the full range of her work’, CNN Style, 12 December 2019; https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/judy-chicago-artsy/index.html)

UKAGP Newsletter, Autumn 2021
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