Mari Evans, multifaceted artist, humanitarian and activist, departed this life on March 10, 2017, at 97 years old — a date of transition shared with Etheridge Knight, another iconic Hoosier wordsmith, who died nearly three decades ago.
Evans, a native of Toledo, Ohio, and longtime Indianapolis resident, published her first work “Where Is All the Music?” in 1969. Her seminal, and arguably most well-known, work “I Am a Black Woman,” was published in 1970. Evans also worked as a producer, writer and director of “The Black Experience” (1968-1973), a historical television program that aired on prime time in Indianapolis.
She taught at a number of institutions including Indiana University, Cornell, Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis, Spelman College, the University of Miami at Coral Gables and the State University of New York at Albany. Her writings have appeared in numerous anthologies and have garnered several high-ranking recognitions, including the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award in 1981.
She was many things to many people: a respected elder, loving relative and friend. Her humble presence, for some, cloaked her in a veil of mystery. Others who were fortunate enough to know her beyond the pages and accolades recall that she was a woman confident, yet unassuming, in her exquisiteness, a woman shaped by her experiences and divinely destined to “move amongst kings yet retain a common touch,” as one colleague put it.
Evans’ imprint will be felt and seen in Indianapolis and around the world for years to come … in a Mass Ave. mural, artfully created by painter Michael “Alkemi” Jordan; in her poetry, commissioned by artist and architect Alpha Blackburn to grace a section of the Indianapolis International Airport; and in the hearts of readers and admirers, alike.
“I thought about this earlier,” shared Christopher Phemster while discussing his grandmother’s impact. “For myself and my brother, she was our grandmother. We called her Ma’ Mari. For us, she was the foundation of our family. She made sure she wasn’t the center of everyone’s universe, but she was a heavy influence on things.”
Phemster, who is a veteran officer of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said his relationship with Evans was one of mutual respect, and that from her guidance, he gleaned many lessons. She was a single mother in the early 1940s, having raised Phemster’s father and uncle on her own. Her convictions and principles, Phemster noted, were strong, and she was unwavering in them. “When I was born, she gave me the middle name Immamu. She put an extra ‘m’ in there, but it’s Swahili for spiritual leader. Even though I held the title, she actually exercised that. That’s what she lived for us,” he said. “Me being a police officer for 17 years, doing SWAT and undercover narcotics for over a decade … when we hit these houses and I see how people live, I would never pass judgment on any of it, but I just thought how lucky I was to have the people I had in my family.”
Phemster mentioned that growing up, he was well aware of his grandmother’s background as an educator, but he didn’t realize the breadth of her “huge shadow.” That moment for him came in two instances: one, when he first saw her face on an international postage stamp, and another via a photograph of her speaking at an event in the 1960s where Minister Louis Farrakhan was in attendance. From his understanding, Phemster said it was likely his grandmother was the only woman asked to present.
“It says a lot about her being a strong female leader,” he said. That strength, quiet and humble, was evident in many ways until her last day. Close friends Vickie Daniel, Carl Hines and others gathered with Evans last week for a jam session at her home, where they played the piano, sang, conversed and did the things they loved to do with one another, not knowing it would be their last time. The group played a tune from “Eyes,” the musical Evans created. She beamed; the creator was in her element, surrounded by art and those who loved it as much as she did.
Evans’ grandson continued: “For several decades, she lived with a tumor in her head, and she said, it’s a matter of will. Can you will yourself to be better? She said, of her passing, that she’d go when she’s ready to go. That’s exactly what happened … she went as she wanted to.
“She was the last of the elders in our family. We may have lost the person, but her spirit still lives with this family, through my children, myself and my brother. Her spirit lives on, without a doubt.”
Tall as a cypress
Evans’ critically acclaimed works are considered by many scholars to be foundational to the Black Arts Movement of the mid 1960s and ’70s. Though her contributions were vast, colleagues and friends agree she was never one to fall into the trap of becoming self-absorbed. Her focus was instead on creating definitive works, designed to change hearts and nurture eager minds.
“(Evans) was one of the finest writers the culture has ever produced,” said Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti, founder and president of Third World Press. Madhubuti, another iconic figure of that movement, came to know Evans through his post as professor at entities like Howard and Cornell; she would come as his guest to speak to students. Later in their relationship, Madhubuti’s company published two of Evans’ books —her last collection of essays, Clarity as Concept, and I Look at Me, a children’s book she donated to Third World.
Madhubuti describes Evans as steadfast in her Black Nationalism and love for her community. “We will remember her in the same ranks as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden … her contributions were so large and so magnificent she was able to hold her own,” he said.
E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet, educator and literary activist, shared those sentiments. Miller, who first came to know Evans when he was a student at Howard University, was responsible for the Ugandan stamp that bears Evans’ image.
When given the opportunity to do the stamp project, Miller was asked to identify 12 African-American writers whose likeness could be featured. The process, he admits, began democratically, but in his mind, there was no doubt Evans would be included.
“I think she’s in good company,” he noted. Other stamps included Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston and Evans’ close friend, the late Dr. Maya Angelou.
“It was a wonderful thing. I think she was really surprised to know that I had selected her, because she was very humble, but I saw it as an opportunity to highlight her work and who she was,” he said. “When we first started celebrating the Black Arts Movement, we couldn’t get past all the men. I think as we begin to really study this period and as new scholars emerge, she will definitely get her due.”
Look on me and be renewed
Beyond her work as an artist of numerous mediums, Evans was a mentor and a “sister friend” to those blessed enough to know her in that way.
Vickie Daniel, a renowned vocalist, first made Evans’ acquaintance as a little girl playing in the sandbox of Lockefield Gardens apartments.
“She walked by and I would see her with this very short skirt on, and she was going to play tennis,” said Daniel. “I’ve seen her all my life … just around, being great.”
As Daniel grew, so did her relationship with Evans. Of her many fond memories, which include hanging out with Evans and her contemporaries such as Angelou and Giovanni, Daniel notes the personal talks and encouraging words as the most cherished.
“When she loved you, she loved you,” said Daniel. “She was an only child, and I was an only child. She helped me to stand in my only-childness in a way that, if she weren’t my friend, I don’t know if I’d ever get there.”
Pearl Howell, a close friend of Evans’ for more than 47 years and former co-producer of Evans’ television show “The Black Experience,” remarked that the late artist made it a point to instill confidence in those around her. “When I was feeling a little hesitant, she would just say, ‘Oh, you can do that! Just do it.’ She had a lot of confidence in me, which caused me to be more confident in me.” Howell, who now lives in San Francisco, traveled with Evans frequently on various excursions out of town — to Chicago to spend time with her former tennis partner, author Lerone Bennett, or to the West Coast for a speaking engagement, and everywhere in between. Their trips were by train, with blankets and homemade snacks in tow, as Evans had an aversion to flying. The most recent trip, a few years ago, was to James Madison University, where Evans was being honored.
At home, Evans would experiment with recipes, as she was an avid chef. She even took up creating stained glass in her basement as a hobby.
“I learned so much from her,” said Howell. “She lived her poetry. You know that one, ‘I am a Black woman, look on me and be renewed’? I really felt that. I felt renewed; she opened up a new world.”
Dona Stokes-Lucas, historian and genealogist, shared that Evans’ humanitarian efforts were another unique part of her being. Stokes-Lucas owned Xpressions, a now-closed bookstore and art gallery where she and Evans would host events. The pair got to know each other quite well through their work and shared interests.
“I have so many stories I want to share, but one that sticks with me is during Hurricane Katrina when many of the flooded residents were displaced and sent by bus to various cities,” she said. “The nightly newscast had reported that the Red Cross in downtown Indianapolis would receive Katrina survivors around midnight. (Mari) called me on the phone and said, ‘I think we should go and volunteer.’ She said, ‘We need to be there, they need to see people that look like them when they step off that bus and know that our community cares.’”
Stokes-Lucas said that level of compassion was par for the course. “I’m going to miss her and all she stood for.”
Community activist Mashariki Jywanza is another longtime friend of Evans.
“In the African tradition, it’s said that when an elder passes away, a whole library is burned,” she said.
Though Evans’ creations and contributions will no doubt last into the future, Jywanza wants the community to know that her love of Black people was undying.
“She had particular concerns around Black boys. She owned a couple houses, and she wanted to turn one into a home for young boys who had been abused, a place where they could go to get therapy and help. She cared a lot about children,” she said, noting that, years ago, Evans noticed a group of students on a bus stop near her home one winter morning without hats and gloves. Evans found out what school the children attended and delivered the items herself.
The desire to give her utmost to others is what Jywanza will remember most. Her work, she shared, “helped guide and direct many, many people.”
Homegoing Service Details:
Wake: Sunday, March 19 from 2:00-5:00 pm at Stuart Mortuary, 2201 N. Illinois Street
Funeral: Monday, March 20 beginning at 1:00 pm at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St. Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez are slated to speak.