Evans, Mari 1923–
Mari Evans 1923–
Poet, writer, educator
Poet and writer Mari Evans initially gained fame in 1970 when her second collection of poetry, I Am a Black Woman, was published. “The volume heralded the arrival of a poet who took her subject matter from the black community,” Wallace R. Peppers wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, “and who celebrated its triumphs, especially the focus on the beauty of blackness that characterized the black arts and civil rights movements, and who would mourn its losses, especially the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.” Since then, Evans has published several volumes of poetry and children’s books, and written for television, radio, and the theater. Her work has appeared in over 30 textbooks and has been translated into several languages, including German, Swedish, French, and Dutch.
Evans was born on July 16, 1923, in Toledo, Ohio. As she was growing up, her father was her greatest influence. Evans recalled in the essay “My Father’s Passage,” which was included in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, that her father saved her “first printed story, a fourth-grade effort accepted by the school paper, and carefully noted on it the date, our home address, and his own proud comment.” After attending public school in Toledo, Evans enrolled at the University of Toledo, where she majored in fashion design. However, the subject did not hold her attention for long, and she left without taking a degree.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Evans began to make her name in the public arena. From 1965 to 1966, she was a John Hay Whitney fellow. Three years later, she received a Woodrow Wilson Foundation grant. From 1968 to 1973, Evans was the producer, director, and writer for the highly acclaimed television program “The Black Experience” for WTTV in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 1968, Evans published her first volume of poetry, Where Is All the Music? Like many African American poets of the time, she celebrated her heritage while rejecting the conciliatory attitude of African American poets from the 1920s and 1930s. “Though she was born during the Harlem Renaissance, Mari Evans’ poetry reveals little of the inclination toward compromise with white values and forms that was cherished by most black intellectuals of that period,” Alan R. Shu-card wrote in Contemporary Poets. “Quite the contrary, her work is informed by the uncompromising black pride that burgeoned in the 1960s.” In the poem “Who Can Be Born Black,” Evans showed her awareness of the differences between Harlem Renaissance poets and poets of her own generation. Evans’ poem is a response to Countee Cullen’s mid-1920s sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel,” a long list of the horrors God has created, the worst of which is “To make a poet black, and bid him sing.” In contrast, Evans wrote, “Who/can be born black/and not/sing/the wonder of it/the joy/the/challenge… Who/can be born black/and not exult!”
In 1970 Evans published her second poetry collection entitled I Am a Black Woman, which brought her wide critical attention, and an award for the most distinguished book of poetry by an Indiana writer. Each of
Born Marl Evans, July 16, 1923, Toledo, OH; married and divorced; children: William, Derek. Education: studied fashion design at the University of Toledo.
Career: Instructor in African American literature and writer in residence, Indiana University-Purdue, 1969-70; assistant professor of African American literature and writer inresidence, indiana University-Blooming-ton, 1970-78; visiting assistant professor, Northwestern University, 1972-73; visiting assistant professor, Purdue University, 1978-80; visiting assistant professor, Washington University, St. Louis, 1980; visiting assistant professor, Cornell University, 1981-83; assistant professor and distinguished writer, Cornell University, 1983-85; associate professor, State University of New York-Albany, 1985-86; visiting distinguished writer, Miami University, Coral Gables, 1989; writer in residence, Spelman College, 1989-90.
Selected awards: John Hay Whitney fellow, 1965-66; Woodrow Wilson Foundationgrant, 1968; Indiana University Writers Conference Award, 1970; First Annual Poetry Award, Black Academy of Arts and Letters, 1970; Copeland Fellow, Amherst College, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1981-82.
Member: First World Foundation, African Heritage Studies Association, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
the poems in the collection is written from the viewpoint of a different character, and marked her movement toward more politically-based poetry. This is most evident in her third volume of poetry, Night star: 1973-1978, which was published in 1981. “At the heart of Mari Evans’ Nightstar is a questioning of the ways in which we know ourselves and are known, and a recognition of the subtleties of identity,” Romey T. Keys wrote in the book’s introduction. “Her language can compass a range of people and things, sounds and sights, places and times.”
Evans launched her academic career in 1969, which has included positions at several prestigious universities. From 1969 to 1970, she was an instructor in African American literature and writer in residence at Indiana University-Purdue. The following year, Evans moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and accepted a job as assistant professor of African American literature and writer in residence at Indiana University. She taught at Indiana University until 1978. From 1972 to 1973, she combined her job at Indiana University with an appointment as a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her academic career continued with teaching appointments at Purdue University from 1978 to 1980, at Washington University in St. Louis in 1980, at Cornell University from 1981 to 1985, and at the State University of New York-Albany from 1985 to 1986. Evans has also taught at Miami University-Coral Gables, and Spelman College in Atlanta.
Apart from the world of academia, Evans has served as a consultant to several organizations. From 1969 to 1970 she worked with the Discovery Grant Program for the National Endowment for the Arts. She also served as a consultant in ethnic studies for the Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company from 1970 to 1973.
In addition to poetry, Evans has written plays, essays, and short fiction. Choreographed versions of two of her plays, A Hand Is on the Gate and Walk Together Children, have had successful off-Broadway runs. She has written several books for children, including J.D.(1973),/ Look at Me! (1974), Singing Black (1976), and Jim Flying High (1979). Evans also edited an anthology, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, which was published in 1984.
By the mid-1980s, Evans’ place in the annals of African American literature was assured. As Peppers wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography: “Her volumes of poetry, her books for adolescents, her work for television and other media, and her recently published volume on black women writers between 1950 and 1980 ensure her a lasting place among those who have made significant contributions to Afro-American life and culture.”
Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, 1989.
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, Gale Research, 1985.
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