In downtown Indianapolis there is a 30-foot mural of Mari Evans, and it almost rises to the height of her poetic acclaim and majesty. Evans was among the leading literary lights in the 1960s and thereafter, establishing herself as a gifted wordsmith, critic and editor. She was 93 when she died last Friday, March 10, in her hometown of Indianapolis.
The huge painting by Michael Alkemi Jordan is just one of several forever moments for the famed writer. Her visage stares out from Ugandan and Ghanaian stamps, and she is one of 12 African-American writers to be so honored.
Evans was born July 16, 1923, in Toledo, Ohio. A product of a traditional Black family, she attended the University of Toledo. She began teaching in various schools in the Midwest, including Indiana University, Purdue and later at Spelman College. Along with her literary achievements—and she was also a playwright—Evans wrote, produced and directed “The Black Experience,” which appeared on local television in her hometown.
Perhaps her most notable contribution to the African-American canon is “Black Women Writers—1950-1980, A Critical Evaluation,” which she edited in 1984. It featured assessments of such notable writers as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Margaret Walker. In the preface of the book, after thanking Marie Brown for her indispensable vision for the project, Evans said her goal for the anthology was to bring together “39 African-American writers and critics for the single, serious purpose of discussing the creative works of contemporary African-American women.”
Of course, Evans is among the writers evaluated, particularly for her poems and children’s books. One of her most memorable poems was dedicated to Malcolm X and included in a volume edited by Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs. It was entitled “The Insurgent,” and began “Give me my freedom/lest I die/for pride runs through my veins/not blood/and principles support me so that I with lifted head see liberty…not sky! For I am who dares to say I shall be free, or dead…today.”
There is a passage in “Black Women Writers” that is
vintage Evans as she defines the essence of African-American poetry and literature. “I insist that Black poetry, Black literature if you will, be evaluated stylistically for its imagery, its metaphor, description, onomatopoeia, its polyrhythms, its rhetoric. What is fascinating, however, is that despite the easy application of all these traditional criteria, no allegation of ‘universality’ can be imposed for the simple reason that Black becomes catalyst, and whether one sees it as color, substance, an ancestral bloodstream, or as lifestyle—historically, when Black is introduced, things change.”
Things changed when Evans, endowed with a roomful of plaques and an honorary doctorate, focused her genius, lifted her pen to paper and began to ruminate, to articulate the expressive nature of her people’s prose and poetry.
At the Broadway United Methodist Church, Evans was an active and energetic member, recalled the Rev. Mike Mather, the church’s pastor. “She was always feisty and smart,” he said. “She was insightful and interesting…and she wasn’t afraid to share her opinion, and like most thoughtful people, she chose her words very carefully.” And this thoughtfulness was something she shared with this writer and the world.
In one of her poems, “The Rebel,” she reflected on her death and how people will come and gawk just to see if she was really dead “or just trying to make trouble.”
Yes, there will be thousands at her funeral or memorial services should they occur, and she will present no trouble to the multitude who loved and respected her.