2004 Lifetime Achievement: Mari Evans

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Mari Evans

For the span of my memory, this has been a city of opposing wills. — Mari Evans

The not so simple Truth, Mari Evans writes, is that we must be free in order to resist and we must resist in order to be free.

Evans is an unrepentant observer who, even as power bears down upon her, uses language to dissect its shiniest-seeming nuance. In high school, she says, her nickname was The principle of the Thing. Certainly no one comes casually by a nickname like that.

I was probably born political, she writes. I loved myself, I wouldnt have traded color or culture with anybody in the world, but to feel home in the nostalgic sense I understand and respond to as I read the works of white writers recounting their sense of place and home — no.

Evans has lived in Indianapolis for 47 years. For the span of my memory, she wrote in 1989, this has been a city of opposing wills, two faces firmly set toward different directions — one covertly determined to maintain the status quo, to continually block any access to power one, advocating an active morality and its right to inclusion as an equal person rather than a colonized one. This has been a city of perpetual confrontation, however cloaked, between the powerless and those who influence, control and engineer the citys movement in its inexorable and often ruthless march toward greatness, a word for which my definition will hardly suffice.

Yet Evans also calls this place a peaceful terrain.

If Indianapolis can embrace what I write or accept how I present myself, thats fine, she says. There is no doubt that others have accepted Evans and her abundant works. She is author of the now classic poetry collection I Am a Black Woman, as well as Nightstar and A Dark and Splendid Mass. Continuum (New and Selected Poems) is due out this year, as is a collection of political essays, Clarity as Concept: A Poets Perspective, which is in the final stages of revision. Her stage musical, Eyes, based on the work of Zora Neale Hurston, will open in Chicago and a one-woman play dealing with child abuse will open this year in Berkeley.

In 1997, Evans was honored with a postage stamp in Uganda; in 1998 she was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at Chicago State University. In 2002 she was a Grammy Award nominee for Best Album Notes. She has taught at Cornell University, Northwestern University, Spelman College, Washington University in St. Louis, Indiana University and IUPUI.

Children, those among us with least power and so, arguably, the most vivid gauge of our societys sense of justice, run through Evans writing — and her life. In a complex society, to know what you believe is very important, she observes. We dont teach our kids control. We teach them to be nice and get along with control. Political education should begin at the cradle, otherwise the State will give your child its opinions.

Evans remembers her own childhood in Toledo, Ohio. Every summer her father would send her by herself on the train to vacation with relatives in Indianapolis. This meant having to wear an identifying tag so that the conductors and porters would know where she was supposed to go.

One could go, happily, alone from home to — anywhere, Evans writes. But always tagged. Tagging was deliberate, something adults thought up when they were by themselves: It destroyed the spirit. It required pinning a note conspicuously to the chest of the travelers outer garment, after which people could peer at the wearer — me, in this instance — and then at the note, and ones whole history was there. For a child comfortable with withholding information it was agony past description I clearly understood the limitations it placed on me: I was not only figuratively, but actually, prevented from exercising any ability I had to be in charge of myself — to think or plan once that note was on me. So my introduction to Indiana was that it was a place synonymous with serious limitations.

For Evans, this childhood experience has proven to be emblematic. 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.

But over the years, Evans has also found here a place where she can approach her writing on her own terms: New York is a place where you have to fight to stay alive professionally, she says. There are those who thrive off the competition. Then there are those of us who prefer to relax into the serenity of the work.

Mari Evans work is an act of witness, a hymn, a love song and an enduring legacy.

— David Hoppe

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