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.