Mari Evans


Honorary Degree (2000)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Myles Brand


I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming
in the night
Can be heard
in the night

-Mari Evans, from her poem I am a Black Woman

"Her creative works are of unquestionable
artistic excellence. To examine them is to examine works of creative genius," says critic David Dorsey. He is speaking of Mari Evans, the Indianapolis-based poet, playwright, educator, essayist, and producer. In a career spanning more than four decades, her artistic vision has guided the discourse of her community and the nation, while her teaching has awakened college students to the liberating possibilities of self-expression.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Evans recollects, in her essay "My Father's Passage," how her father's pride in her first publication, a fourth-grade effort published in her school newspaper, was the greatest influence on her writing career. During the mid-sixties, when she received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1965) and a Woodrow Wilson Grant (1968), her writing began to reach a national audience. At that time she began to lecture and read her poetry at colleges around the nation.

Evans' first full-time position was at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, as instructor in African American literature and writer-in-residence during the 1969-1970 academic year. She went on to a long career combining artistic production with academic teaching, serving as assistant professor and writer-in-residence at IU Bloomington(1970-1978); as visiting assistant professor at Purdue University (1978-1980); and then to positions at Washington University, The State University of New York at Albany, The University of Miami at Coral Gables, and Spelman College. She concluded her academic career as distinguished writer and associate professor at Cornell University's Africana Studies and Research Center.

Evans is also an internationally recognized poet, debuting with the collection Where Is All the Music? (1968) and, in 1970, her celebrated I Am a Black Woman. Other collections of her poetry include Nightstar: 1973-1978, which appeared in 1981, and A Dark & Splendid Mass, published in 1992. While Evans established her place in letters as a poet, this multitalented artist has unceasingly produced treasures in other genres. From 1968 to 1973 she wrote, produced, and directed the television program The Black Experience on WTTV in Indianapolis; she is the author of five children's books, including Corinne: Tell Somebody (1999); she has published numerous essays and articles in, among others, Black World, Black Enterprise, Negro Digest, and First World; and she published a scholarly work, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, in 1984. Her poetry has been set to music by David Baker, distinguished professor of music at Indiana University; the most recent of these compositions (there are five earlier CDs) has been recorded by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

Evans is also a noted playwright. One of her five plays, Eyes (an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God) had its world premiere in 1996 in Indianapolis, at the American Cabaret Theater. Supported by the IU School of Music, the Indiana Humanities Council, and IUPUI, the play was performed to capacity audiences each night of its run. "Eyes continues to have an impact on the city, serving as a benchmark for collaboration across ethnic, cultural, and institutional lines-showing how art can transcend and unite peoples committed to a better life," says William Plater, IUPUI professor of English, dean of the faculties, and executive vice chancellor.

In addition to the activism and community leadership embodied by her writing, Evans is a board member of the Indiana Corrections Code Commission and the National Center for Women in Prison. Among the many awards she has garnered over the years, Evans received the National Council for Black Studies Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Artistic and Scholarly Production in 1996 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Martin University in 1999. "Although Mari Evans is headquartered in Indiana, she is richly known in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, (and) Philadelphia," says renowned writer Gwendolyn Brooks. "She has dignity, warm composure, dear sincerity, (and) vast knowledge."