Born 16 July 1923, Toledo, Ohio
children: William, Derek
Poet, dramatist, short story writer, and author of children's books, Mari Evans has made significant contributions to the tradition of 20th-century African American literature. Influenced as a child by the writing of Langston Hughes, her own poetic voice emerged out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, exploring both personal and political struggles within the black community. Dedicated to the promotion of black pride, Evans uses vibrant images and powerful language to analyze, inform, and inspire.
Her first story, written when she was in the fourth grade, appeared in her school newspaper. Her father, an upholsterer who was Evans' primary caretaker after the death of her mother when Evans was seven, saved the story, showing her "an impressionable black youngster, …the importance of the written word." She discovered Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues when she was ten and was greatly inspired by his words. He later became a mentor and a friend who, with her father, encouraged her to aspire to become part of the black American literary tradition.
As an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, Evans wrote a column for a black-owned weekly. Her discipline as a writer was further enhanced by an apprenticeship as an editor at a predominantly white manufacturing plant, despite the racism that plagued her while there. Her first published poetry appeared in 1963 in Phylon, Negro Digest, and Dialog. In 1965 Evans received the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, the first of her many writing awards.
The poems in Where Is All the Music? (1968), Evans' first collection, explore individual struggles for human closeness in direct language and powerful images. Her second and best-known poetry collection, I Am a Black Woman (1970), shows a shift in theme from personal struggles to the wider political issues of the African American community and asserts black pride: "Who can be born / black / and not exult." Highly praised for its sense of realism and authentic voice, the book received many awards, including the Black Academy of Arts and Letters First Poetry award (1970). Like Hughes, Evans draws on African American oral traditions to make her poems speak to and for the community. A third collection, Nightstar: Poems from 1973-1978 (1981), contains powerful explorations of earlier themes and contemporary tragedies.
While primarily a poet—with poems appearing in over 200 anthologies, textbooks, and periodicals—Evans is also known for her stories and contributions to theater, television, and other media. She has written six children's books and seven plays including Eyes (1979), a musical adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Much of her writing has appeared on record albums and in television specials and off-Broadway productions. In 1968 Evans began to produce, direct, and write a highly acclaimed weekly television series The Black Experience. The series, which focused on political and social issues from an African American perspective, aired on WTTV, Indianapolis, from 1968 to 1973. It was one of the first television shows produced by an African American woman.
Evans is also known as editor of an extensive anthology of biographical and critical essays entitled Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation (1984). This collection highlights 15 black women poets, novelists, and playwrights, including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde. Black Women Writers was welcomed by critics as a much-needed addition to African American literary study. Since 1969 Evans has taught or been writer-in-residence at a number of colleges and universities, including Purdue, Indiana University, Northwestern, Washington University at St. Louis, Cornell, State University of New York at Albany, and Spelman College.
Besides editing her own anthology, Evans has contributed her poetry to numerous collections gathered by others, particularly in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968) and Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature (1968) were the earliest of her career, while The Premier Books of Major Poets: An Anthology, Anthology of Children's Literature, and 3000 Years of Black Poetry: An Anthology followed in 1970. The year 1972 brought contributions to Afro-American Writing: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature, and The Magic of Black Poetry. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Music as Poetic References (1973) and Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Black Americans (1975) completed the series.
In 1975 Evans received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Marion College. Among her other awards and honors are a Woodrow Wilson Foundation grant, 1968; Indiana University Writers Conference Award, 1970; Outstanding Woman of the Year (Bloomington, Indiana), 1976; and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award, 1981-82.
Evans' recent book, A Dark and Splendid Mass (1992), further explores social issues in the context of the African American culture. While not widely known, the book reinforces her strength and depth as an author on this subject. An anniversary edition of Singing Black, published in 1998 as Singing Black: Alternative Nursery Rhymes for Children, is a poetry book for children aimed at encouraging young African Americans to take pride in their heritage.
Evans currently lives in Indianapolis. Although not as active publishing as in the past, she continues to draw the respect of the literary community for her contributions to African American writing.
J. D. (1973). I Look at Me! (1974). Rap Stories (1974). River of My Song (1977). Jim Flying High (1979). Whisper (1979). New World (children's musical, 1984). Boochie (one-woman performance, 1985). Portrait of a Man (1985).
CANR (1989). CP (1991). DLB (1985, 8 May 1999). FC (1990). Negro Almanac (1989). NBAW (1992). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WW in Black Americans (1992). WW in Writers, Editors and Poets (1992).
—MARY E. HARVEY,
UPDATED BY CARRIE SNYDER