At first glance, Spencer’s poem feels like an unusual choice for The Crisis. “Before the Feast at Shushan” leaves behind the America of 1920, transporting the reader to the world of the biblical Book of Esther. Nevertheless, Spencer uses the remote setting to address familiar themes of power and inequality. Her poem is narrated by Xerxes, a Persian king who dismisses his rebellious queen. Dense, evocative lines describe a haughty ruler who refuses to kneel to a woman or listen to her views.
Historical issues of The Crisis in the Library of Virginia’s collection provide the opportunity to view Spencer’s poem in its original setting. The magazine’s typeface, illustrations, and the weight and texture of paper give history a physical presence, offering a glimpse of what it meant to publish in the premier African American magazine of the day.
The February 1920 Crisis is a lightweight volume of 64 pages. When Anne Spencer received her copy, she would have first seen Frank Walts’ striking cover art. Later, she may have encountered “The Fall of the Castle,” an elegant cartoon about segregation by Albert Alexander Smith. The issue contains other literary works by African American writers, contextualizing Spencer’s poem in a burgeoning national literary scene.
Coming to the table of contents, Spencer would find articles on international politics, regional news, and the national lynching crisis. The magazine also includes stories about the Red Summer of 1919, a series of riots across the United States in which hundreds of African Americans were murdered by whites.
Like any newly published writer, Anne Spencer may have flipped ahead to see her poem in print. “Before the Feast at Shushan” appears on page 186, directly below a table of lynching statistics. Spencer would not have taken special note of the decorative swastikas, which in early 1920 were a common decorative motif and were not yet associated with the Nazi Party.
The attention to gender and power found in “Before the Feast at Shushan” may have resonated as Spencer read the report preceding her poem, which tabulates 84 lynchings that occurred nationwide in 1919. No lynchings were reported in Virginia, but an earlier allusion to the 1892 Roanoke lynching of Will Lavender connected his death with the reluctance of African American men to have even courteous interactions with white women. “American white women are, in numbers of cases, used to treating Negroes publicly as the dirt beneath their feet. Very well, says the Negro, courtesy is not expected of dirt.”
Later in the issue, Spencer would find Virginians looking with hope toward the future. An advertisement for the Richmond-based Southern Aid Society, an early black-owned insurance company, referred to “the great unrest” of the Red Summer but reached out to customers with the slogan, “The Future Is Bright!” Through economic cooperation, African Americans could insulate themselves from some of life’s uncertainties, if not the hardships of living in a segregated society.
Anne Spencer would go on to publish more poems in The Crisis, as well as other journals and anthologies associated with African American activism and the Harlem Renaissance. Just as Anne Spencer opened her Lynchburg home to prominent African Americans, bridging northern and southern states at the height of the Great Migration, The Crisis connected regional literary figures like Spencer to a wider audience. With her first publication, Spencer was joining a new African American literary canon—and a national conversation.
-Becky Schneider, Senior Reference Librarian