After months, Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Library remains the nexus of Mari Evans' written legacy, as artists and scholars frequent her papers, held in the Stuart A. Rose Library. The winter tribute to Evans still has readers and writers of all ages jonesing on Evans' song. These lines from Mari Evans’ poem “The Rebel” describe the intention and the success of the event:
coming to see
trying to make
“There is no place on this planet, no ground, no air, no sanctuary, no wharf, no hermitage, no refuge, no time, like… when Black poets descend on an unsuspecting space and it becomes...” Although Nikkey Finney’s words are speaking about a Black writing retreat held yearly by Cave Canem, these words rather appropriately capture the space made out of the Robert W. Woodruff Library’s Jones Room on a Wednesday night. Poets who held the roles of researchers, scholars, students, activists, and mentors filled the room.
We know that the history of a people lies in the members of a body. We know that Mari Evans hosted a body. We see what she did with the head, the heart… Just over a week ago generations of Black Arts Movement artists and scholars congregated to collectively stir Mari Evans’ legacy, to imprint her into the few hours of “The Rebel: In Celebration of Mari Evans.” Opening the night were student poets such as Kira Tucker (C20), Daquon Wilson (C21), and Maya Mitchell (Spelman C18) who conjured Evans’ voice into the space by reading her poems.
Dr. Joanne Gabin, Dr. Althea Tait, and Dr. Bettie Parker Smith sat on a panel led by poet Dr. Opal Moore. The room was filled with poetry. From Evans’ poems to haikus used to introduce the panelists, this was entirely a poetic gathering. There was music, too. A jazz backdrop filled with songs by artists like Evans’ friend Wes Montgomery grew soft in the shadow of conversation and reunions. In this gathering sat years of relationships, both familial and those cherished by old friends.
Dr. Joanne Gabin began the panel discussion in the way she knew best to remember Mari. She spoke about the day. Gabin and Evans shared many phone calls to do this very ritual. There is something about following a sequence of events that situates you. Gabin situated the audience in the current national dialogue, by opening up conversation on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Repeatedly, Gabin said “Mari would say…” and she shared words derived from years of an experienced relationship.
The purpose of this event was to honor Evans, and to bring attention to the fact that Emory University’s Stewart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library now has Evans’ papers. To have a poet in file is to have a body in preservation. Evans’ papers were enlivened as many of the individuals she corresponded with were in the room. Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles and Dr. Bettye Park Smith are among the many voices in Mari Evans papers. These voices are still writing, singing, speaking. To attend this event was to watch an archive breathe with the life of its host again. Mari Evans was loved, and is dearly missed. This is a given. However, the power of her legacy is undying.
As a Mellon Fellow researching Mari Evans for some time now, this event was nothing short of church. It was as if each speaker gave a hard-hitting sermon and the audience partook in this form of communion. After huddling over Mari Evans’ poems with my mentor, Dr. Jericho Brown, and leafing through files of Evans’ papers with Charmaine Bonner, Project Archivist at the Rose Library – the most rewarding part of this program was the engagement. From the moment the first guest arrived, there entered laughter and song. It was truly a celebration of life.
A lineage established itself from Mari, to the speakers, ultimately reaching the audience. Black women scholars filled the room. This is a testament to her legacy. Her community and those who aspire to be artists and academics gathered together. While Mari is in her poems, in the people she knew and loved, she is acutely present in the materials of the archive. This entire event was built upon it. Consider her papers a recipe. Speaker by speaker we cooked up her legacy, conjured her. Mari was in the laughter and the stillness. Call it a Celebration.
I will bring you a whole person
and you will bring me a whole person
and we will have us twice as much
of love and everything
I be bringing a whole heart
and while it do have nicks and
dents and scars,
that only make me lay it down
An you be bringing a whole heart
a little chipped and rusty an'
sometime skip a beat but
still an' all you bringing polish too
and look like you intend
to make it shine
And we be brinigng, each of us
the music of ourselves to wrap
the other in
Soft as a choir's last
lingering note our
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