Poem #34: Letter to My Sister by Anne Spencer

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleLetter to My Sister

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.


It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;
To taunt them with the tongue's thin tip,
Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,
Or draw a line daring them to cross;
The gods own the searing lightning,
The drowning waters, tormenting fears
And anger of red sins.

Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly--
Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,
Be kind, or sweat agony drops
Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;
If you have beauty or none, if celibate
Or vowed--the gods are Juggernaut,
Passing over . . . over . . .

This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you'd die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.


There's a powerful message here about perseverance that is rather stirring. While the message could be potentially universal, Spencer grounds it particularly in women, and motherhood in particular (lay your quick body over your feeble young), recognizing their unique struggles they experienced.  Of course, as a Black woman, there are many more struggles to speak of in her life and in the history of Black enslavement that add layers of meaning to this poem. 

It's that layering that makes the poem heavy with implications, especially as we look at each of the stanzas.  The first stanza, the speaker warns about being defiant as it fuels the gods to seek out vicious punishment upon the woman.  The second stanza doesn't frame it any easier for the meek, who obedience will not diminish a woman's suffering any less.  So in the third, the speaker points to a containment strategy that holds tight to all the feelings but never shows them to the world outside.  

This reminds me very much of Dunbar's The Mask in how it speaks to holding tight to one's true self and never sharing it for fear of what the world will do to the authentic self in a world that doesn't allow for Black people to be their fullest selves.  But if we pull to consider the title of the poem, "Letter to My Sister", it makes me wonder further about what inspired Spencer to write this poem to her sister.  Had something happened to her sister that was the catalyst for this poem or was it the result of collective experiences or shared conversations between the two of them?  Was the poem reflective of Spencer's experience and offered as such to her sister?  

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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