Black man running
Thru the ageless sun and shadow
History repeated past all logic
Who is it bides the time and why?
And for how long?
—Mari Evans, “Alabama Landscape”
Mari Evans, born 90 years ago today in Toledo, moved to Indianapolis as a young adult. Poet, elder, activist, and editor of one of the first critical volumes devoted to Black women writers, Evans has been celebrating blackness and speaking truth to power throughout her distinguished career. In light of the George Zimmerman verdict this week, I’ve been reading and rereading Ms. Evans. I know poetry will not resurrect Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till or Michael Taylor, the 17-year-old who allegedly “committed suicide” in the backseat of an Indianapolis squad car while his hands were cuffed behind his back. But Evans’ crisp mind—her way of stating, as she once said, “the Truths that are part of my pulse”—illuminates what some would shroud in mystification (“Ethos and Creativity” 28). And that light of consciousness can provide a way forward.
Her best-known poem “I Am a Black Woman” makes use of a persona who bears witness to history—the terrors of the Middle Passage, the slave rebellion of Nat Turner, key battles during the Vietnam war—much as Langston Hughes’ multi-epoch speakers do in “Negro” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Buffeted by violence, Evans’ narrator nonetheless concludes: “I / am a black woman / tall as a cypress / . . . . Look / on me and be / renewed” (12). Like Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Tenebris,” with its cypress likened to a “black finger / Pointing upwards,” Evans’ poem renders the tall, thin, elegant tree an emblem of uplift and aspiration.
If one way of suggesting a consciousness both personal and communal is to use a first-person, trans-historical narrator, another way is to write a series of persona poems that give voice to a chorus of black women. For example, in the ironically titled “When in Rome,” the domestic worker Mattie is told by her employer: “the box is full / take / whatever you like to eat.” But Mattie is less than thrilled with the woman’s endive and cottage cheese. “Whew!” she exclaims. “If I had some / black-eyed peas.” Rather like the Hattie Scott character in a suite of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Mattie’s lines—in parentheses—suggest the subversive activity of a free mind at work, even if those thoughts don’t get uttered aloud. At the end of the poem, when the employer has offered a sampling of yet more unwelcome foods from the fridge, Mattie rejects both the employer’s paternalism and the foods themselves, thinking, “Hope I lives till I get / home / I’m tired of eatin’ / what they eats in Rome…” (I Am a Black Woman 57).
Evans’ alertness to social ironies also gets revealed in “Ladies Waiting at the Mall,” a poem in which aging white women, “quiet now and shrinking / from the sear of public scrutiny . . . . wait in the glitz, the aimlessness / of chic and failing shopping Malls.” The conclusion, with end rhymes and alliteration for emphasis, depicts these once haughty matrons newly vulnerable and dependent: “Gone the grandeur once so carefully contrived / the firm if fragile flesh, the haughty stride / the unrelenting judgment, the clear demanding eyes / All that remains / a head averted slightly / and a ragged clutch of pride” (A Dark & Splendid Mass 42).
In contrast, Evans’ poem “The Elders” showcases community pillars who “strode through dust bowl and depression / Smiled through smoking Watts and / Newark.” Like “Torn tents pitched / at the foot of the mountain / having moved from can to can’t,” she writes, “they be our national treasure / they be / our priceless charge” (A Dark and Splendid Mass 47-48). So you are, Ms. Evans. Keep your words coming.
I Am a Black Woman appeared from William Morrow in 1970 and A Dark & Splendid Mass from Harlem River Press in 1992. See also Mari Evans’ essay “Ethos and Creativity,” about the planned destruction of near-downtown black communities in Indianapolis, in Where We Live: Essays About Indiana, ed. David Hoppe (Indiana University Press, 1989).