I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
defying palce and time
on me and be
When Mari Evans wrote "I Am a Black Woman" in 1970, the poet was, as in all her works, "reaching for what will nod black heads over common denominators . . . from Maine to Mississippi to Montana."
Evans knows what forces her to write, to grab snatches of time when and wherever she can. And with the publication of Black Women Writers (1950-1980), which she conceived and edited, Evans hopes readers will better understand what motivates other writers to commit fleeting thoughts to paper.
The 15 women in the book (including Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks and Evans herself) talk compellingly about why they write, some in flowing prose, others with spare phrases. But Evans, a professor of African-American literature at Cornell University, wants it known that the book is primarily a critical evaluation.
"I wanted to make sure we paid the work of these women some attention in a scholarly way, not just that we heard it occasionally or read it and said 'This is a good novel, why don't you read it?' " she said during a stop in Washington. "Let's dig into it the writing and give it the same critical assessment that has been given to letters in this country and in the world for years, for centuries.
"The women are as diverse as any 15 people you could pull out of clear air. The one thing we can observe that ties them together is ethnicity. They are all black and therefore they've all experienced the black experience, in quotes," she adds, "which is a nebulous kind of thing. They've all experienced it in different ways, in varying times, and their material comes from that experience.
"In that way, they share something . . . They share being black and being female."
Evans says she chose the three decades of 1950-1980 specifically because of the social changes during that period.
"By selecting that era we have the period before the turmoil of the 1960s, the turmoil of the '60s and the quietude that followed. I felt there would be a good chance to follow the movement writers' approach, their writing styles and how much, if at all, various writers were influenced by the turbulence of the 1960s."
Some of the women whose work is critiqued have focused on the degradation of blacks in general and black women in particular. Others, like Paule Marshall (The Chosen Place, The Timeless People) and Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, have reached back to a Caribbean or African past to illuminate the present.
Writers such as Gayle Jones (Corregidora) and poet-novelist-essayist Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among many works) have illuminated the psychological abuse of women.
In Evans' collection, there are stories of large, vibrant cities and small dusty towns, of women beaten down, and those who triumph, uplifting others in the process.
The critics, drawn from around the country, point out that the writers convey their varied messages in different voices, ranging from the singsong rhythms of the street to the structured cadence of a classroom teacher.
George Kent, for example, a writer and a literature professor at the University of Chicago, writes of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, author of such works as A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen and The Life of Lincoln West:
" . . . As part of her mission to help inspire the bonding of blacks to each other, she wanted to write poetry which could be appreciated by the person in the tavern who did not normally read poetry . . . The imagery remains realistic on a very simple level; diction and syntax approach the reader as old friends and the narrator is an intimate chorus."
Of her own writing, Evans says, "I make a statement as a black person that is outside my experience of being a woman. I am concerned about the concerns of the group women , and even though I experience all of the restrictions and impositions -- at least I imagine I do -- that women everywhere do in varying degrees, I am concerned with writing as a black person primarily.
"I think," she muses, "that the 15 women in the book might come pretty close to understanding blackness in the same way. I'm not sure we would come up with exactly the same wording for a definition, but I think our understanding of blackness might be the same. I think that we'd all feel there was something deeper than a skin color, something deeper than race involved."
In Black Women Writers (paperback, $12.95; hardback, $22.95; 543 pages, Anchor Press/Doubleday), she says, "Who I am is central to how I write and what I write. And I am the continuation of my father's passage. I have written for as long as I have been aware of writing as a way of setting down feelings and the stuff of imaginings . . .
"Imagery becomes the magic denominator, the language of a passage, saying the ancient, unchanging particulars, the connective currents . . .
"If there are those outside the black experience who hear the music and can catch the beat, that is serendipity; I have no objections. But when I write, I write according to the title of poet Margaret Walker's classic: 'for my people.' "
Evans' career has included writing for a black weekly newspaper and, in the mid-'60s, writing technical works for a manufacturing company. She has taught on the college level for 15 years, including the last four at Cornell. Her works have included short stories, poetry and critical essays. She is now at work on a play and a volume of poetry.
Among the biographies on the writers in the book, Evans' is one of the briefest: Born, Toledo, Ohio. Attended University of Toledo. Divorced, two sons. When asked for more, she firmly declines. "I prefer to let my work speak for me."
Regardless of other pressures, she always, she says, finds time to write.
*"All of us have trouble finding time to do things. I have more trouble finding time to have a meal than I do finding time to write. I can get on a plane and write. I can't get on a plane and have a chicken sandwich."