I met Mari Evans in 1988, during my first summer in Indianapolis. It was particularly hot that summer, a history-making drought. I remember how the sun flattened everything along Central Avenue; there were times the unwavering intensity of it could be nerve-wracking.
I came to the city to work for the Indiana Humanities Council. My first job there was to edit a book of essays about Indiana and, for that, I needed Indiana writers. Someone suggested I call Ms. Evans.
I remember our first meeting — the first of too many to count over the ensuing years. Mari wore a silken headscarf that seemed to make her impervious to the heat. She was wary and alert, but willing to give our project a chance. Most of all, she was regal.
Her essay would turn out to be the most memorable in a collection called Where We Live. Its title, “Ethos and Creativity: The Impulse As Malleable,” was like a major chord, Mari’s way of announcing the seriousness of what she had to say. But if this title seemed a tad academic, what followed was searing, an unflinching takedown of the braiding of race and power in Indianapolis that was, at once, a cry of the heart and mind.
Mari took pains with that piece. Writing, for her, was inseparable from community. Putting things into words, testimony, was how people laid claim to memory and conscience. For some, it was the only dignity they would ever know. I think she thought that this publication might be a chance for her to reach a somewhat different audience — a whiter audience — than usual. She had a story to tell, but didn’t want to pull any punches.
Read that essay today, almost 30 years later, and you’ll think you’re reading from the latest news. So many of Mari’s themes are still with us: the ways, violent and subtle, that race divides our society, the impoverishment of cross-cultural communication, the toll this takes on children and, especially, our delusional capacity to accept abuses of power in everyday life as natural.
“What we find is that racism, in this up-South city at the end of the twentieth century, is like a steel strand encased in nylon then covered in some luxurious fabric,” wrote Mari. “The intent is to avoid, if possible, blatant offenses, to soothe, mollify, if necessary dissemble — while racism, the steel strand, still effectively does the job.”
That job was the perpetuation of power by and among a certain class. For Mari, this domination was not merely inflicted by one group of people on another. As she wrote in her poem, “If There Be Sorrow,” we do it to ourselves through the withholding and restraining of love.
I can tell you stories about Mari Evans. The way she’d watch the interactions between parents and their kids in restaurants if she got a whiff of abuse. How she insisted on staying in her home in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods — and kept a .38 in the kitchen. The who’s who of African-American intellectual and artistic royalty — this country’s true counter-culture — in which she travelled. Her love of sweet salads.
Mari was my Indianapolis. She always will be.