By David Hoppe
When I Die
I will have a
Big Funeral …
Coming to see
Trying to make
— Mari Evans, “The Rebel”
“When I was five I knew that life was a game one played and that controlling the board or the pieces would be difficult. Nobody told me that, I just understood it. And I knew that the game board was about color and control, and nobody had ever said that to me, but I knew it.” (1)
The words are Mari Evans’. They recollect the first stirrings — in her family’s 1920’s Toledo, Ohio household — leading up to her life’s work of writing, speaking out and rigorous social criticism. Evans died in Indianapolis on March 10, 2017 at the age of 97. Toward the end, there were honors and awards — from, among others, the Indiana Historical Society, the DuSable Museum in Chicago and the Indianapolis Public Library. Even a likeness, painted several stories high, on the side of a building in one of her adopted city’s more fashionable districts, Massachusetts Avenue.These tributes honored a singular and courageous voice. But they also begged a question: how much were people really listening to what that voice had to say?
I met Mari Evans for the first time in 1988. I had just arrived in Indianapolis, for a job with the Indiana Humanities Council. My first assignment was to edit a book of essays by Indiana writers about their sense of place, called Where We Live.
Our initial contact was via telephone. Ms. Evans, I could tell, was wary. Her tone was polite, but experienced, implying her time was valuable and, since writing well required not just time but energy, committing to a project being advanced by, for all she knew, a white whippersnapper would take more than mere enthusiasm. It demanded trust. She wanted to stop by the office for a talk.The writer I met on the appointed afternoon carried herself like royalty. She was quiet, deliberate and precise in word and gesture, with a way of searching you from under her slightly hooded eyelids for telltale signs of disingenuousness or naivete. Without saying so, she made it clear that anything less than plain dealing, good faith and creative competence would be a waste of her time. To my everlasting good fortune, our meeting seemed to satisfy her. The consequence was an essay I considered to be the most powerful in our collection, “The Importance of Ethos to Creativity.”
She worked hard on that essay. Held nothing back. At times she called or stopped in to reassure herself that her editor didn’t think she was going too far. That’s because she was crafting lines like these about her experience of being a Black creative artist in Indianapolis:
“When the planned obsolescence of a thriving Black community near the heart of the city eventually succeeded it resulted in the demolition of schools, private homes, churches, small Black business, private social facilities, public recreation areas, and most importantly the general destruction of a sense of community and a way of life…” (2)
“The indelible message, one that cannot be misconstrued, is that Black life is expendable; Black humans do not count as ‘people.’” (3)
“What we find is that racism, in this up-South city at the end of the twentieth century, is like a steel strand encased in nylon then covered in some luxurious fabric.” (4)
I didn’t think she was going too far. I knew just enough to understand that I didn’t — perhaps couldn’t — know what going too far meant in her case — but that I was improbably blessed to have Mari Evans as guide, mentor, and ultimately, my friend. This friendship, like all friendships, was deeply enriching. But my introduction to Mari’s writing and thought was also radicalizing in ways that I am still wrestling with today. That’s why, in what follows, I have tried to stay out of the way, to let Mari speak for herself. The words here are drawn from her remarkable collection of essays, Clarity As Concept: A Poet’s Perspective, published in 2006.
Mari Evans was born in 1919. “My parents, hardworking and private, were highly respected in both the white community that surrounded us and the middle-class Black community of which they were a part.” (5) Hers was one of three Black families living in what she called “the DMZ between an all-Black community to the south and an all-white community that stretched for miles to the north.” (6)
Before Evans could read or write, she could see, and what she saw impressed her deeply. From the start, there was color — starting with the differing skin tones in her own family.“Our family, like all Black families, ran the gamut when it came to color,” she wrote. “But there, the similarities stopped abruptly. We, it seemed, had it all backwards. Somewhere along the line, the group had reversed the value process; black gave you extra brownie points.” (7)“Children,” Evans observed, “are color conscious, aware of and reactive to the color of an individual’s skin…From the time I was five…I was aware that color was an issue over which the society and I would war.” (8) How, exactly, young Mari came by this awareness remains, in her telling, mysterious. At five, she wrote, “I had not been politicized; no one had talked to me about race.” (9)Yet, at five, she was also wily and defiant enough to make this burgeoning awareness part of her play. She recounts sitting on the top step of her house before dinner, “freshly bathed, braided, be-ribboned and before-supper splendid in a colorful little cotton dress,” where she is joined by a small friend. Together they wait until a tall white man comes walking into view:
“I left the step skipping. My playmate joined me and together we air-floated down the sidewalk until we met and passed him. Then, circling back we stopped a few paces from his feet. And he, momentarily impeded, stopped and tolerantly looked down at what I imagine he saw as two clean, but audacious little pickaninnies. And I, looking the length of his tall frame into a face whose sole significance was its whiteness, spoke to him, to my innocent playmate, and to myself I suppose…’That,’ I said to and about this tall white presence that I subliminally understood to be my ultimate and ongoing adversary, ‘is one reason I’m glad I’m culled!’” (10)
Mari called her mother “that generation’s liberated woman.” (11) She was a skilled cook, active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and drawn to gatherings held by visiting psychics. She “gardened, scalded the chicken after my father had wrung its neck, helped him on his second job by dusting the office area while he did the heavy cleaning around an ice house.” (12) She also did piece work for neighboring white women; the wife of a ginger ale bottling company executive sometimes paid her in gefilte fish.
This was in the middle-1920’s, a period coinciding with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. During the ‘20s, the Klan’s reach extended north of the Mason-Dixon line, gaining particular traction in Midwestern states like Ohio and Indiana. National Klan membership was estimated in the millions, and Klan-sponsored picnics, parades and other social gatherings, including cross-burnings, were increasingly common occurrences. In 1925, at least 40,000 Klansmen marched through the heart of Washington, D.C. in a bold assertion of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. This event was featured in newsreels that played to moviegoers across the country. (13)
In Toledo, at this time, Mari Evans would join her mother and father on the front steps of their house beside her mother’s prized rosebush. “I was scarcely settled and warned to stay put,” she writes, “when I heard the cadence of marching feet.” (14) That sound anticipated “wave after wave” of Klansmen, dressed in full, hooded regalia. Her description of this parade is not celebratory; Mari, the child-witness, registered its implicit menace: “No music. No beauty, no creativity, nothing here to inspire me or make my heart rejoice. Just feet, heavy with purpose, moving down our street, past our house. I saw no neighbors. I looked around for my parents, for an explanation. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder, straight and immobile behind the rosebush, African Gothic, defining courage…oh, how I loved them, and respected what I did not understand: their bravery.” (15)
There were great, staggering, losses in Mari Evans’ life. Her beloved mother died when Evans was only seven-years-old. When she was ten, her father, with the best of intentions, sent her away to a convent school in southern Ohio. It wasn’t long before Evans ran away.
She married a man who physically abused her; the marriage produced two sons. Rather than stay in the marriage, Evans left, taking her boys with her, raising them as a single mother. She would outlive one, and then the other, absorbing grief upon grief.Through it all, she wrote. Her father saved her first printed story, written in the fourth grade for the school paper. “By this action he inscribed on an impressionable Black youngster both the importance of the printed word and the accessibility of ‘reward’ for even a slight effort given the right circumstances.” (16)At about the age of ten she discovered Langston Hughes’ collection of poems, Weary Blues. “He was my introduction to a Black literary tradition that began with the inception of writing in the area of Meroe on the African continent many millennia ago.” (17)
Hughes would become her mentor, “the most generous professional I have ever known. What he gave me was not advice, but his concern, his interest, and, more importantly, he inspired in me a belief in myself and my ability to produce.” (18)For Evans, this would mean first mastering what she called traditional “literary criteria”, such as imagery, metaphor, and rhetoric, then putting these tools to use in order to describe the American Black experience, “…for Black life is drama, brutal and compelling…” (19)
This process was almost alchemical: “When traditional criteria are refracted by the Black experience they return changed in ways that are unique and specific. Diction becomes unwaveringly precise, arrogantly evocative, knowingly subtle…it is the hot breath of a people — singing, slashing, explorative. Imagery becomes the magic denominator, the language of a passage, saying the ancient unchanging particulars, the connective currents that nod Black heads from Maine to Mississippi to Montana…” (20) Evans’ audience was assertively defined: “If there are those outside the Black experience who can hear the music and catch the beat, that is serendipity; I have no objections. But when I write, I write according to the title of poet Margaret Walker’s classic: ‘For My People.’” (21)
Evans’ writing was rooted in what she called “the language of resistance.” It proceeded, first, from the recognition that Black Americans are, “Connected, irrevocably, not by ancestry alone but by an almost 400-year iron-like bond forged by one of the most uncommonly brutal, genocidal experiences this world has seen, bar none. “ (22)
She sought to reclaim a hijacked birthright: “We began as a highly spiritual people, attuned to the mysteries of the universe, able to decipher the galaxy’s codes…Our confusion began, in depth, and destructively, with our forced removal and relocation from our continent to alien lands, alien Spirits, and alien practices…” (23)This disruption was traumatic. The belated willingness of white institutions to allow for assimilation through civil rights legislation couldn’t begin to heal it. For Evans, the eventual opportunity to join America’s seemingly bountiful society amounted to an invitation for self-annihilation. In her analysis, the dominant culture in America was pathological. As she wrote in 2003:
“African Americans are living within the physical boundaries and literally under the control of another nation larger and identifiably different than ourselves. Given America’s arrogant display of power in the world community, and given its past and more alarmingly its present history of aggression against its perceived enemies and against perceived threats, it should be obvious that disenchanted, disillusioned, dissident persons of color have no safe harbor.” (24)
“So far,” she wrote, of such American military actions as the Gulf War, Desert Storm and Desert Shield, “African-Americans have not appeared to make a critical connection between these seemingly disparate military moves and themselves as an embattled, identifiable, national minority at war with the same military mindset.” (25)
Her essential insight was based on her uncompromising understanding of power. Simply because a dominant culture was dominant didn’t make it healthy or right. African Americans, having once been enslaved by agents of this culture, could see and understand it in ways no one else could — so long, that is, as they resisted the temptation to gloss over their experience for the sake of finally being accepted: “We deserve to own ourselves; we have earned the right. Being controlled by another people is so familiar, going to the source of power for permission or favor in our various areas, seems normal. We have no option but to continue to struggle: Informed, and committed.” (26)
“One,” she wrote, “could give the State benefit of the doubt…” But: “Americans, regardless of color, gender, or socioeconomic status, run as hard as their feet will pound, from reality. As an oppressed people, we, on the other hand, cannot afford to run, for only our understanding of reality will allow us to survive America’s cauldron and to prevail over its chicanery.” (27) She lamented, however: “We continue, it seems, to be a people programmed to disbelieve what we experience.” (28) And this, she saw, could be a problem not just for Black Americans, but for us all: “Do we have the consciousness and information necessary to understand the peril of continuing our present colonized relationship to a nation whose worldview is clearly distorted and out of control; a nation moving in directions that bode no good for the average American, regardless of color…” (29)
Evans found her literary voice during the Black Arts Movement, which she dated as spanning the years 1955-1989. (30) “According to the late poet/activist David Llorens,” she wrote, “the literature of the Black Arts Movement was a literature of love. ‘A love poem,’ Llorens stated in the late Sixties ‘is any poem that tells the victim how to get the attacker’s hands from around his throat.’ And that syndrome, that determination to prevail over oppression…provided the pulse…to sustain the spirit, and to nourish the soul of an identifiable Nation within a nation.” (31)According to the Academy of American Poets’ website, the Black Arts Movement was, as the cultural critic and playwright Larry Neal put it: “the artistic sister of the Black Power Movement.” (32) Artists aligned with the movement, including Neal, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, aimed at creating a transformative Black voice. For Evans: “…literature of the Sixties became drumbeat and survival music, a vital spiritual and rhetorical pulse fundamental to struggle in North America. This conscious melding of literature with political activist concepts presaged the second significant phase in the historical forging of a Black political aesthetic: the propagation, by the masses (as opposed to a purely intellectual elite) of literature as a political rallying point…produced by people who had somehow caught a glimpse of ‘what it could mean to be free.’” (33)
Evans began to enjoy her first publishing success, most notably with her collection, I Am a Black Woman, in 1970. Other books followed, including the ground-breaking anthology, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation; Nightstar; and A Dark and Splendid Mass.
But if these successes were satisfying in themselves, they were tempered by her understanding of the larger political/cultural predicament. “We still, in more ways than we knew, belonged to ol massa. We were, in fact, still confused. Not clear. For when the checks began to come and the titles — when some of us began to be sought out to head this group or that (all government sponsored, of course), and when some us were invited to join the Mayor’s Commission, or the Governor’s Task Force, given an assistant professorship at a university, or asked to head a drug rehab clinic, or given a city council spot — when these things began to happen, we knew they (the government, the white folks) had seen our anger, smelled the smoke from our fires, felt the bite of our hands in their pockets long enough that they had ‘gotten the message,’ and we had won that war.
“Actually, we had never seriously engaged them in battle…We had yet to learn the basic tenet of democracy: An identifiable minority, clearly distinguishable from the majority population, is not supposed to be in control of itself.” (34)
Although Evans spoke unabashedly, explicitly, to and about her people, she had a larger point for anyone willing to listen. The challenge — for Black people certainly, but for the rest of us as well — was to find a way to break free and transcend the insidious cultural colonialism that is part and parcel of living in an empire. Although she wrote the following over 20 years ago, she might have been talking about “fake news”:
“Let us consider the awesome power of words. Our concern is rooted in the fact that we are a society that has, without appropriate resistance, found it necessary to incorporate words such as ‘double-speak’ and ‘disinformation’ into our lexicon; a society so accustomed to the use of hyperbole, unsupported derogation, insinuation, euphemisms and half-truths in the reports we hear about our selves and our neighbors, locally and globally, that we do not often challenge the veracity of what we hear and read, we merely incorporate it into the rest of what we think we know. With the diffidence that is the hallmark of much of our approach to life in the Nineties we accept as informed, insightful and timely, the words that both paint our canvases and then interpret the pictures for us.” (35)
I knew Mari Evans for almost 30 years. We shared meals and conversation, called each other up and went for drives around Indianapolis. We talked about art and politics and, unfailingly, family. She lived in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods; kept a .38 near at hand, a talisman for self-defense and sufficiency dating back at least as far as “Little Mary,” the handgun her Aunt Lula carried in her purse (“the women in our family have always been comfortable with revolvers”). (36) People, she confided, were always telling her to move somewhere more fitting, more safe — which, she seemed to imply, meant someplace more white. She’d look at me when she said this, from under those hooded eyes, with equal parts weariness and stubborn — and then she’d sigh. How on earth would she ever move all her books, the exhaustive archive she had amassed documenting the Black Arts Movement, or her beloved piano? No, she was staying put. And besides, while she understood its advantages, being safe, as far as Mari was concerned, was never a priority.
1. “Family As Foundation,” Clarity As Concept: A Poet’s Perspective. Third World Press, 2006. Pg. 13. 2. “Where We Live: The Importance of Ethos to Creativity,”Ibid. Pg. 30.3. Ibid. Pg. 32.4. Ibid. Pg. 35.5. “In the Absence of a Colored Museum,” Ibid. Pg. 174.6. Ibid. Pg. 174.7. “Family As Foundation,” Ibid. Pg. 1.8. “In the Absence of a Colored Museum,” Ibid. Pg. 1799. “Family As Foundation,” Ibid. Pg. 13.10. Ibid. Pg. 13.11. “In the Absence of a Colored Museum,” Ibid. Pg. 175.12. Ibid. Pg. 175.13. “Ku Klux Klan, American in 1920s, Primary Sources For Teachers,” http://americainclass.org.14. Ibid. Pg. 176.15. Ibid. Pg. 176.16. “My Father’s Passage,” Ibid. Pg. 15.17. Ibid. Pg. 16.18. Ibid. Pg. 16.19. Ibid. Pg. 19.20. Ibid. Pg. 18.21. Ibid. Pg. 18.22. “How We Speak,” Ibid. Pg. 46.23. Ibid. Pg. 46.24. “Preface,” Ibid. Pg. xiv.25. “Clarity: More Than a Concept,” Ibid. Pg. 73.26. “Preface,” Ibid. Pg. xvi.27. “Clarity: More Than a Concept,” Ibid. Pg. 68.28. Ibid. Pg. 66.29. “Preface,” Ibid. Pg. xv.30. “Appendix B,” Ibid. Pg. 191.31. Ibid. Pg. 191.32. Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org), “A Brief Guide to the Black Arts Movement.” Posted February 19, 2014.33. “Political Writing As Device,” Clarity As Concept: A Poet’s Perspective. Third World Press, 2006. Pg. 96.34. “A Virtual Grounding African-Style: Race as Power/Democracy as Paradigm for Colonization,” Ibid. Pgs. 79-80.35. 34. “In the Absence of a Colored Museum,” Ibid. Pg. 161.36. “Family As Foundation,” Ibid. Pg. 4.