Poem #33: White Things by Anne Spencer

Estimated Reading Time:  3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleWhite Things

Anne Spencer

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.
Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,
They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed;
                 The golden stars with lances fine
                 The hills all red and darkened pine,
They blanched with their wand of power;
And turned the blood in a ruby rose
To a poor white poppy-flower.

They pyred a race of black, black men, 
And burned them to ashes white; then
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull.
For the skull of a black is white, not dull, 
                 But a glistening awful thing;
                 Made it seems, for this ghoul to swing
In the face of God with all his might,
And swear by the hell that siréd him:
                 "Man-maker, make white!"


Like many Black poets, Spencer uses poetry to creatively challenge whiteness and a culture that upholds and values it over others.  Right in the first line, the speaker declares that color is found everywhere on earth and above.  She then uses the "most" from "most things" to reiterate that Black men are part of that world of natural things and yet, it is the white men that are free.  It's a clear challenge to the way things are while simultaneously stating things as they are about white people.  The rest of the stanza is a bit harder to follow. For instance, is the "white things" the same reference point of "the white"--because "the white" seems to indicate "the white men" given the start of that sentence.  

But I wonder if the rare white things are white men who visited Africa and first enslaved Africans.  That is, does this poem recount that legacy?  It seems to when looking at different lines such as their lances and wands of power (guns, mayhaps?) and the repeated references to red and blood.  The final stanza seems to draw out this history of violence and emphasize how the very nature of it gave whites the justification for being considered superior.  By having wreaked havoc upon Africans and African Americans, the "young one" (someone of a later generation?) seems to show that as proof positive that white people are God's chosen people (not without some ironic judgment by the speaker).  

I might be overreading this or overstepping the analysis here--it may be focused more on US slavery or even lynching.  I think regardless, the throughline of the richness of Black people and the violent robbery of their lives, justified by whites' claims of religious righteousness seems evident.

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections

This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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