A Poet’s Work
Mari Evans and the poetry of
black midwestern freedom
IN THE POEM “VIVE NOIR” from her 1970 book I Am a Black Woman, Mari Evans wrote: “i’m gonna put black angels / in all the books / and a black Christ-child in Mary’s arms / i’m gonna make black bunnies / black / fairies / black santas”
And so, it seems, hers was always the work of building a world that she didn’t or couldn’t exist in. The poet Mari Evans died in Indianapolis last month after living ninety-seven years, most of them split between Toledo, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite never completing her degree at the University of Toledo, she was renowned enough by the sixties and seventies to take on several teaching appointments. While the Black Arts Movement was exploding on the nation’s coasts, formally established in Harlem in 1965 and then spreading to cities like Chicago and San Francisco, Mari Evans was in Indiana, writing both into the movement and away from it. I Am A Black Woman, was published in 1970, and spoke to the core ethos of the Black Arts Movement: liberation, freedom, the desire to create an artistic framework that faced a black audience. But Evans’s poems turned an eye toward black womanhood as a way to translate the message of freedom, a point of view that made her unique among artists in the movement. In the book’s title poem, she writes “I am a black woman / tall as a cypress / strong beyond all definition / still defying place and time and circumstance / assailed / impervious / indestructible.”
Evans left Indiana to spend the eighties teaching in St. Louis and New York. But she was a Midwesterner for the majority of her years, returning to make her home in Indianapolis during the second half of her life. What I’ve always enjoyed most about Evans’s work is that it mapped her location with honesty, precision, and realistic goals. For many black poets in the middle of the country, myself included, the first desire might be to build romanticized images of place, in order to compete with the coasts and the glory of writing about them. What Mari Evans understood is that the middle of the country is a smaller reflection of the America writ large, and with that comes a set of political experiences that, as a black person (and specifically as a black woman), were met with at least a closer proximity to direct and uncomfortable resistance, which made the work both more urgent and easier to abandon. The place that has an intimate knowledge of its racism is both more comforting and more dangerous than the place that thinks itself not racist. Confederate flags and slurs hurled out of windows let you know where you stand, and leave nothing to the imagination, but also have the ability to make you tentative, unmoving.
The true work of Mari Evans was the work of taking up space, and of allowing others to occupy that space with her. In 1984, she edited the book Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, one of the first books of criticism dedicated strictly to the work of black women. Many of her poems weren’t about place in the specific way that we might think of the grand poem about Ohio, or Indiana, or some of the work that Gwendolyn Brooks dedicated to Chicago. But in many of them you can feel the tension that comes with being black anywhere, but specifically in the Midwest. Her work was of and about place—not explicitly, but implicitly. Her work was of the body’s reaction to the place it is in. Of Indiana, she said: “For after all, Indiana is merely a microcosm of the country itself. And, as a Black person born in this country, I have felt more an uninvited guest, free to roam at will, to work, to play, to experience but always at the level of an experience nuanced by color.”
It occurred to me, then, as I mourned her loss last month, that we lost a great Midwestern archivist, often forgotten in the legacy of black Midwestern poetics because she spoke of, perhaps, too broad a landscape for other black Midwesterners to find a home in, so many of us dedicated to the places we’re from, even when we must confront the uncomfortable things about those places, and the impact those things have on us. The work of Mari Evans, in her poems, essays, and even the children’s books she authored, was about home in the most visceral sense: what it does to you, what it pushes you to be capable of, and what it pushes you to see in yourself.
Her geographical disconnect from the Black Arts Movement, the school she was most frequently considered to be aligned with, may have pushed Evans to find a new way to enter the conversation she was tasked with being a part of. There is freedom in this, too, enough distance from the common path for you to pave your own, at your own pace, to open the door wide enough for your people to walk through. Mari Evans’ people were black—they were black women, they were black people who perhaps went days in the Midwest without seeing many other black people, they were black people who dreamed of New York but lived in Ohio or Indiana or Kentucky. There are many ways to sing the song of home, particularly if your home is complex, and particularly if there are fewer people fighting for the same chorus. Mari Evans was, in a lot of ways, the greatest Midwest poet. The one who left and came back and kept working. An activist who worked on the ground, fighting against prisons and corporal punishment. I think, now that she is gone, about how much of a poet’s work is the work of archiving the singular experience of whatever home they’ve chosen, no matter the vastness of that experience, or where it carries them. And I think of this while remembering Mari Evans’ poem “Who Can Be Born Black,” and how it closes:
can be born
and not exult!