Writing as a Woman of Color

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mari Evans’s work in the last decade of the twentieth century remains as original and striking as it did when she published her first poetry in the initial stages of the emerging social revolution in black consciousness in the mid-1960’s. The title of her second collection, I Am a Black Woman, became a signature statement for a generation of African American women, proclaiming in unapologetic, forceful terms the fundamental facts of existence for a hitherto nearly invisible, effectively silenced people. Her poetry, like that of Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Carolyn Rogers, was a profound demonstration of the aptness of Robert Frost’s claim that poetry should be “common to experience but uncommon to expression”; the work of Evans and others provided, for the first time in American literary history, the vernacular language, particular rhythms, and psychological perspective of African American women in published form. In addition, she shared the political awareness of such poets as Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones) and Haki R. Madhubuti (then writing as Don L. Lee), who insisted on the obligation of the poet to speak as the forceful voice of a suppressed segment of the population that had been victimized—or terrorized—by racist society.

While poetry has always existed in an oral form in the African American community, very few black men, and even fewer black women, were able to break into print during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the critic Barbara Christian has pointed out, the “rich, oral tradition” of African American culture ran “counter to the accepted norms of European poetry,” so that the highly gifted Phillis Wheatley, for example, fashioned herself into a convincing replica of an eighteenth century English poet in her published work. Moreover, anthologies of black poetry present little work by women of measurable poetic accomplishment before Margaret Walker (born in 1915) and Gwendolyn Brooks (born in 1917). The implication of this apparent dearth of preservable poetry was that poets such as Wheatley seemed like unusual exceptions rather than the voices of a neglected mass; when Evans, among others, found the means to get her work into print, its first appearance had the exhilarating effect of opening a huge field, introducing a voice largely unfamiliar to most readers or listeners.

Writing as a Craftswoman

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The pioneering aspects of Evans’s work are undeniably significant, but they may have tended to obscure other elements that are equally important in terms of her achievements and that are an integral aspect of her continuing poetic interest. Like Brooks, Evans has worked from a thorough familiarity with the traditions of English poetry and with the dedication to craft that is the mark of the serious artist. As she mentions in the essay “My Father’s Passage,” she learned from Langston Hughes the necessity for a commitment to writing as a way of living, and this led her to a definition of writing as craft, “a rigorous, demanding occupation, to be treated as such.” She worked as an assistant editor at a chain-manufacturing plant, the “first Black employee to work anywhere in the company other than the foundry or delivery,” and for three years apprenticed, in a sense, with a skilled professional writer whose demands for revision were not initially welcomed but who gave her the basis for her command of style and form. At the same time, the openly racist arrangements of the company led her toward the position taken by many other members of her generation who saw themselves as the vanguard of the Black Arts movement. Consequently, Evans has combined her mastery of traditional English with a sensitivity to the particulars of what Madhubuti has called a “blackening” of the language, insisting on an awareness of how writers working within the African American tradition have used language devices in unconventional fashion.

This widening was a part of a post-World War II embrace of the concept of the poet who could incorporate into poetry the language of citizens...

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Developing an Assured Voice

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The feeling of assurance, the emphasis on the “I” observer as a seer, and the willingness to exhibit and share strength are characteristic of Evans’s subsequent poetry. To combat the enforced impression that there is something inferior about being black and a woman, Evans creates an initial image of a soulful beauty enduring through centuries of tribulation, “the music of my song/ some sweet arpeggio of tears/ is written in a minor key.” This introduction leads to a compressed historical survey, moving from the agony of the middle passage (“I saw my mate leap screaming to the sea”), through the pain of slavery (“I lost Nat’s swinging body in a rain of tears”), when rebellion usually ended in death, to the sacrifice of African American soldiers at Anzio, Da Nang, and Pork Chop Hill in wars fought for a democratic ideal unavailable to African Americans. Bringing the poem to the present, Evans shifts from mourning fallen warriors to active involvement in political action (“Now my nostrils know the gas”). In a second section, she acknowledges the protean, mythic quality she embodies and connects her existence to the cosmos, claiming an eternal, life-affirming essence previously denied:

Iam a black womantall as cypressstrongbeyond all definition stilldefying placeand timeand circumstance assailed impervious indestructible

In a summary statement of unquenchable optimism, speaking like a prophet in a voice that encompasses historical epochs, she counsels, “Look/ on me and be/ renewed.”

The strength of Evans’s voice in this poem is built on a historical foundation of silent yearning. The unspoken heritage of black experience is expressed in language that is both contemporary and biblical. Because of its assurance, there is no dramatic sense of a poet progressively gaining control of means and material; instead, from the start the work gives the impression of a mature style that gradually ripens and becomes somewhat more reflective. Although she declares that “a black woman” is “beyond all definition,” the unspoken assumption of the poems that follow is that Evans will be able to offer some sense of how she has been formed, of what matters to her, and of how she lives. The example of her spiritual mentor Langston Hughes, who “sang the shimmering depths of Blkactions,” gives her a strategy that depends on the conviction that the richness of the culture she expresses can be captured and conveyed in poetry and the belief that this poetry is a vital contribution to “an evolving Family/ Nation.” The subjects that engaged Evans in her first book remain the ones that continue to interest her, as well as to extend—in her responses—the “definition” of black womanhood. Their treatment across her three major collections is a more effective method of considering her work than a division within each volume.

A crucial component of the cultural vitality she considers and celebrates is the figure of the hero, sometimes seen in the form of a...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Offers a context for understanding Evans’ writing. Particularly helpful is the chapter entitled “Afro-American Women Poets: A Historical Introduction.”

Cook, Mercer, and Stephen E. Henderson. The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. An examination of the mood of the 1960’s, when a great deal of poetry designed as political protest was written. Evans is covered briefly but as a significant figure.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Includes Evans’ important essay “My Father’s Passage,” in which she describes her philosophy of composition. Contains considerable additional information about Evans and two critical essays on her poetry.

Keys, Romey T. Foreword to Nightstar, by Mari Evans. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, 1981. A brief but incisive introduction to the second major volume of Evans’ poetry.

Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Refers to and discusses Evans’ work in the course of interviews with Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Russell, Sandi. Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. An overview that does not go much below the surface but that provides a historical perspective from a trans-atlantic point of view. Evans is mentioned only in passing.