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Spelman Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Mari Evans

March 2017

Mari EvansThe Spelman College community mourns the passing of award-winning poet and author Mari Evans, a former Spelman Scholar-in-Residence (from 1989-1990), who passed away on March 10. Evans is known most notably for her seminal 1970 book of poetry” I am A Black Woman.” In 1984, she edited Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, one of the first critical books devoted to the work of Black women writers. Her work has appeared in more than 100 anthologies.

Most of that work focuses on the celebration of Africa and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement as well as other themes bringing to light the reality of the African American experience. These projects were largely influenced by close friend Langston Hughes, who pushed Evans to write with confidence.  She subsequently became a well-respected figure in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  

Evans is warmly remembered for her time at Spelman. Alumna Fleda Mask Jackson, Ph.D., C’73, former director of Spelman's Living and Learning program, worked closely with Evans during her tenure as a visiting scholar. The Living and Learning Program was a coordination of activities designed to advance discourse and engagement among faculty, students, and staff around various topics. Said Jackson:

blue-quote-leftOne of our activities was the Learning Weekend where participants traveled away from campus to experience first-hand the places they had learned about from assigned readings. Our first trip was to Jekyl Island, St. Simon Island, and Savannah. Among the students, faculty, and residential life directors was Mari Evans. It was then that she and I established a friendship.

I muse when I recall students reciting her poem, “I am a Black Woman,” with such bravado while in contrast Mari's presentation of her own words was a quiet storm. My blue-quote-rightfondest memory of her is from a couple of years ago when my husband and I visited her home in Indiana where she insisted that I sing one of her compositions while she accompanied me on her baby grand piano.

Powerful Beyond Measure In and Outside of the Classroom

In addition to Spelman, Evans taught at other colleges and universities including Indian University, Cornell University, Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Miami at Coral Gables and the State University of New York at Albany.     

Evans literary experience also extends to the theater, where she was a producer, writer, and director of “The Black Experience: (1968-1973), a history documentary which aired on prime time in Indianapolis. She also adapted the musical Eyes (1979) from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God: as well as writing a choreopoem, “River of My Song,” and a one-woman theatre piece called “Boochie.”
Evans has written children’s books that concentrate on Black history and culture. The most important of her countless awards for writing came in 1981 when she received the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award.  Evans' impact on Africa was reflected in 1997 when the Ugandan government issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honor. 

"She was in all situations authentically open, authentically Black and political, authentically Mari! -- Gloria Wade Gayles, Ph.D."

Spelman Celebrates Mari Evans

Photo: “Sistren: Black Women Writers at the Inauguration of Sister President Johnnetta B. Cole” 1988. Dr. Cole, Spelman's 7th president, was responsible for bringing Mari Evans to campus as a scholar-in-residence. Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole and Paula Giddings. Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Cade Bambara. Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Mari Evans. photo credit: Susan J. Ross. ©1988

Reflections From the Spelman College Community

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D.

Among my fondest memories of President Johnnetta Cole's presidency at Spelman were her invitations to extraordinary black women writers to join the Spelman community as professors. Mari Evans was among the first of these writers who taught for a year and with whom some of us maintained a friendship over these many years. A major figure in the Black Arts Movement, she was a lifelong activist, unwavering in her commitment to the liberation of Black people. I remember, as well, her candor, her sense of humor, her seriousness, her grace and dignity.  I especially liked her admonition, "I am a Black woman, look on me and be renewed."  What an inspiration for generations to come.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D.
Founding Director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center
Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies

Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Ph.D.

The memory I will cherish of Mari Evans speaks of her generosity, her own humility, and her quest to advance the legacy of African American literature.  

In 1988, just a few months after I had FINALLY completed my Ph.D., I applied LATE to participate in the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Langston Hughes, held at City College of CUNY.  I knew I was late, but I thought I would at least try.  To my great surprise, my paper was accepted!  I was scheduled for the first day of the conference, on November 18, 1988. Since a preliminary program had already been sent, I noticed that my paper had been substituted for the one that would have been given by Mari Evans.  While I was sorry not to see her there, I was very grateful for the opportunity to present my paper!

The session was held in an enormous auditorium. I saw Robert Hooks in the audience. I remember that Dolan Hubbard was on the panel with me.  I would have to dig up my program to see the other names.  I think Amritjit Singh was on our panel--or on the program that day.  I was young, excited, and thrilled to present: "From Hip to Highfalutin:  Revisions in the Language of Simple's Foil, 1943-1949." 

To my enormous surprise, at lunch I saw Sister Mari Evans!  I was really in shock, since that was the day and time her paper should have been presented.  Indeed, Sister Mari attended all the sessions in the three-day (or two-day) program. On the final day, at the final panel, in a much smaller lecture classroom space, one participant did not show up.  In that missing person's place, Sister Mari gave the paper she had been scheduled to give all along.  It was a brilliant explication of Langston Hughes's very short story "Saratoga Rain."  The audience was much smaller.  Robert Hooks was no longer in the audience.

After the panel ended, I went up to Sister Mari and asked how I ended up giving my paper in the time scheduled for HER paper.  She said she had told Raymond Patterson, originator of this conference in 1972, to give her spot to me.  She said she wanted to encourage these "young scholars" and give them an opportunity. 

My heart was filled to overflowing. She had truly encouraged me, and she had given me a flying start to my Langston Hughes career!  Fortunately, years later, as President of the Langston Hughes Society, I was able to invite Sister Mari to be our keynote luncheon speaker at the College Language Association, and I asked her to please give that paper on "Saratoga Rain," which she graciously did--to a bigger audience than she had greeted in New York in 1988.  However, the spirit of her generosity has always remained in my mind and in my heart, and I always encourage young scholars who want to express "gratitude" to me to instead "pay it forward."  I haven't yet been "big enough" to have a space to give to a newly minted Ph.D. who is excited and eager, but I look forward to doing that.  No matter when and how I pay it forward, I will always remember the kindness, the generosity, and the wisdom that Mari Evans showed to me.

Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Ph.D.

Fuller E. Callaway Professor of English, Spelman College
Campus Coordinator, UNCF-Mellon
Vice President, College Language Association

She Brought us Someone Whole -- So We Celebrate Twice as Much

I will be bringing you someone whole
and you will be bringing me someone whole
and we be twice as strong
and we be twice as true
and we will have twice as much
of love
and everything -- Mari Evans, excerpted from her poem, "Celebration"

A Mural of Mari Evans from Big Car Collaborative on Vimeo.

Gloria Wade Gayles, Ph.D.

The passing of Mari Evans is too great a loss for us to weigh at this time. Mari was not only one of our most brilliant poets. She was also one of our most brilliant and radically daring political thinkers, a fact that explains, in part, why she never received the applause and the awards she deserved, and deserves, even from those of us who love literature, love teaching, and "speak truth" through activism.  I am grateful to Mari for five years, if not more, of lengthy long-distance phone calls that lasted late into the evening. 

I confess that I felt rather special because Mari was trusting me with "inside stories" about Black nationalism, about the Black arts movement, about artists and about black nationalist thinkers, and about us as a gifted people who do not fully understand us as a gifted people. I fancied myself by believing that the stories, shared in lengthy long-distance conversations, were meant for me. Truth is, they were not  really "inside" stories and, although I was hearing them through the wires, they were not meant only for me. Truth is, whatever Mari believed found expression in compelling stories she shared with anyone. She was in all situations authentically open, authentically Black and political, authentically Mari!   

I am also grateful to Mari for teaching me what "the papers of" cannot say about doubt, worry, and even pain honored persons might experience in releasing their personal and cherished belongings/papers for total strangers to see, hear, and, in some cases, touch. I say this because Mari talked frequently, and with anxiety, about releasing her life to Randall, whom she trusted, and to Emory University, which was a place of distinction. For Mari, letting go of her papers/possessions was difficult, unsettling, and painful. Because of Mari, in every exhibition I will visit that bears the name of a person deserving recognition, I will look for stories that are not referenced in naming/information cards, but are very central to an understanding of the person being honored. And I am especially grateful to Mari for saying yes to my ask that two Young Scholars in SIS spend two days with her in her home in Indianapolis. Mari said yes. Those students were Mia Dunlap and Elizabeth Alexander. The year was 2011. A tape of their experience with Mari is housed in our archives. We will pay a special tribute to Mari Evans, brilliant poet and thinker, in the third volume of the SIS anthology, Their Memories, Our Treasure: Conversations with African American Women of Wisdom.  

Mari Evans was my friend and my political sister. 

I valued her.

I will miss her!

Gloria Wade Gayles, Ph.D.
Founding Director of the SIS Oral History Project
Faculty Mentor for Spelman's Independent Scholars

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