Taboo Ecologies: Material and Lyric Dispossession in Anne Spencer’s Garden and Seed Catalogs


  • Jordan Angel Norviel University of Virginia



Anne Spencer, garden and seed catalogs, antiblackness


Harlem Renaissance poet and gardener Anne Spencer drew inspiration from both her garden and reading. In a poem entitled “Taboo,” Spencer described reading “garden and seed catalogs, Browning, Housman, Whitman […] oh anything…” and, in doing so, asserted the significance of her catalogs alongside literary works as inspiration for her poetry. The poem as a whole describes how Black women evade the Jim Crow South through covert activities like reading which for Spencer, importantly included garden and seed catalogs. Where Spencer’s poetry and garden have been the subject of academic research, her catalogs have yet to receive the same scholarly attention. This paper argues that by placing garden and seed catalogs in the same category of taboo reading as canonical poets and conventional forms of journalism, Spencer aligns the botanical with the literary as a form of resistance. The seed catalogs Spencer engaged with reveal a long history of racism in the cultivation and naming of garden plants. This paper examines the history of seed catalogs, showing how the naming of plants is a continuation of the racist logic of possession, reflected in the naming of plants by stripping the plant of its previous context and replacing it with the names of colonial scientists and racial slurs. Spencer’s poetic insistence on dispossession, the literal and metaphorical disembodiment and ejection from property, pushes against conceptions of ownership over the natural world in that it subverts the racist logic of possession. I contend that Anne Spencer actively intertwined histories by drawing on catalogs, poetry, and gardening to create new ecologies in the spaces between reading and writing, lyrical and material. The new ecology of Spencer’s garden far exceeds a place where plants are grown but rather becomes a space that blooms through the material, the lyrical, and social spaces, leaving behind instead a living archive of rebellion.


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Author Biography

Jordan Angel Norviel, University of Virginia

Jordan Norviel is a PhD student in English at the University of Virginia studying garden history and representation in literature with an emphasis on the role of race and colonialism within the garden. Prior to studying at UVa, she received a MA in American Studies at the University of Wyoming. Her MA thesis “Conjuring Freedoms in “Dave’s Neckliss” and “Po’ Sandy”: Toward an Other Human” argues that stories in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman create freedom outside of liberal humanism through connections and embodiments of nature. Her current project traces the changing language in archival garden and seed catalogs between the late 19th and early 20th century.  






Articles: Gardening (against) the Anthropocene