The first time I read “I Am a Black Woman” by Mari Evans, I was a sophomore considering a major in English Literature. I sat in Professor Horton’s evening Black Arts Movement course, grappling with both my blackness and my womanness at a small, white liberal arts institution in the Midwest. These were the years I wore a large afro, regularly under a head wrap, and large, wooden, pick-shaped earrings, and served on the executive board of the Black Student Union. I was that black girl on campus. I can still hear the way my professor rolled the words off her lips delicately into my eardrums:
“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” (“I Am a Black Woman” Evans).
I often felt isolated and alone on campus. I can still feel the tears rolling down my face because “I am a Black Woman” resonated with me as both my being and melancholy melody. Since graduation, I have gone on to work in communities, mostly on the westside of Indianapolis where Mari grew up, and eventually I made the westside my home. I am a writer, culinary artist, and musician/singer, committed to using my art to raise awareness about critical issues in the community and to empower those who are underserved. When I look to role models who have committed their lives to peacefully and ethically serving the community, I think of Mari Evans. Peaceful and ethical engagement looks like protecting the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of persons in a space, while caring for their perspective beliefs, both spoken and symbolic, and personal histories.
Mari Evans is the epitome of how an artist should engage with community. Her work has inspired my life through her commitment to use the community-building approaches of authenticity, highlighting community voice, sharing one’s talents, and understanding the history and political landscape of a community.
Recently, as I study Mari Evans in greater depth, it’s clear to me that she knew who she was from a young age. Or at least, it was quite clear to her who she was not. When Mari was ten years old and in the wake of losing her mother years earlier, her father decided the best he could do for his young daughter was to send her away to a convent boarding school. After only spending a short time there, she knew she must escape, and decided to run away from her school. She wrote this while reflecting on that experience:
“I knew my clear understanding of the ‘danger’ I was in would be replaced by my increasing involvement in their system thus my rationale and their logic, until eventually I would be who they wanted me to be: mindless and ‘theirs’” (“Family as Foundation” 10).
Mari understood the importance of the freedom of her own mind as a black woman. In her reflection, she discusses the segregation of the convent by race and class. She shares that this was a predominately white school, immediately acknowledging she would struggle to belong there. Her understanding of herself as a black woman, striving for liberation, strings passionately throughout her creative work, as her work in Indianapolis and throughout the world. This experience as a young girl seems to be foundational in her becoming a prolific, black, political writer in the struggle for black liberation and be carried with her throughout her life.
In a similar way, artists must explore who they are and what motivates their art. It could be helpful to ask themselves the following questions: “What is my positionality in the world, as it relates to privilege and oppression?” and “How is this reflected in my art and the ways I relate with others?” This deep understanding of oneself provides a foundation for presenting oneself with authenticity. Authenticity is the ability to present the true self, intention, biases, and history. It is a key approach for artist and community relations; communities are historically skeptical of artists and their intentionality. One can look to Mari as an example. In Clarity as Concept: A Poet’s Perspective, her first essay, “Family as Foundation,” shares memories of black women in her life: her cousins, an aunt, a grandmother. In them, she sees her reflection as a black woman. She goes on to write that her consciousness developed at a young age, saying, “When I was five I knew that life was a game one played, and that controlling the board or the pieces would be difficult. Nobody told me that, I just understood it. And I knew that the game board was about color and control, and nobody had ever said thatto me” (“Family as Foundation” 13). This is not to say that one has to fully know who they are to work in the community. Learning that is a lifelong journey. However, the artist who embarks upon working in the community must grapple with the aforementioned questions and keep them in mind while doing the work.
I cannot say I knew entirely who I was when I first started. Or that I know entirely who I am now. This is one aspect of my life’s journey. I have a sense of my positionality in the world, thanks to tender thoughtfulness of my Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies professors. I understand that I am black and a woman—two marginalized identities—but that I am also a third-generation college graduate and come from a two-parent middle class home in Tennessee. I acknowledged that, although I had some commonalities with those I wished to serve, I was not from there and had different life experiences. This knowledge has given me a unique opportunity to learn more about myself through my community work.
The summer before my last year of college, I began to do that work through food and writing. I placed myself in the position as student and servant to neighborhood residents’ teachings and needs. I learned I am attracted to community work because my parents raised me in a loving church community of family and family friends, at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. My grandparents were faithful members to that church, which was surrounded by a historically black farming community, Oakwood, TN. My great-great-great grandfather, Jim Ledford, helped create that community through self-reliance and self-determination as a freed slave in post emancipation period after working as a sharecropper for many years. This is where my father’s mother was born and saw the power of a community of black farmers actualized before her eyes. This is the history from which I sprang and working with the community in Indianapolis helped me reflect on my steadfast connection to community, food, and land.
Highlighting community voice is essential for an artist to engage peacefully and ethically with that community. In Mari Evans’ essay “How We Speak: The Colonized Voice; Resistance Singing in Many Keys,” she writes, “Listening is a special art. It is a fine art developed by practice” (43). She expresses that listening is a powerful tool that is developed by working at it consistently. Using deep listening to develop trust between the artist and neighborhood residents is a strategy in highlighting community voice. This also looks like incorporating community perspectives into the creative work one is displaying. Artists who are not from the community in which they are working have a greater responsibility to work with neighborhood residents and other local artists on projects. This can include talking with community organizations on what they hope to accomplish and contacting local artists to partner or offer feedback on their work.
When I first began working in the community, I conducted a participatory observation of the Community Controlled Food Initiative (CCFI), a local food cooperative in Indianapolis sponsored by the Kheprw Institute. I highlighted community voice in my project through conducting open-ended interviews with the project coordinator and neighborhood residents who benefited from the program. I used quotes from the interviews to highlight personal histories and the mission of CCFI. When I sat in on planning meetings, I used deep listening techniques to understand the cooperative model and promote community and economic development. I saw the community members I interacted with as the experts of their own challenges, and acknowledged their expertise and labor for building their own solutions. Ultimately, highlighting community voice is a peaceful and ethical practice because “… listening is an art cultivated as a critical element in a spiritual evolution for those of us who aspire to be human” (Evans 44).
Sharing one’s talents is another approach artists should use when interacting with communities. This can be approached in a variety of ways, including mentorship, education, or artist performance. It could be a weekly or one-time class, community service, hosting an art showcase, or serving on a panel. Evans always sought to serve through education. Annually, she donated hats and gloves to a local IPS school (Adams “Late Indianapolis poet Mari Evans leaves history of social justice”). In a conversation with one of her mentees, Imhotep Adisa, Executive Director of Kheprw Institute, I learned that she volunteered at the KI Community School, giving feedback and recommendations on the organization’s work (Adisa 01/22/19). When she served as a judge for a national literary competition for youth writers, she made a point to donate books to students in local neighborhoods where she was traveling (Adams “Late Indianapolis poet Mari Evans leaves history of social justice”). She had a true passion for young people and education, and this showed through her writing and service.
One way I give back to community is through volunteering with the CCFI program. Twice a year, I offer my culinary knowledge to the cooperative by hosting a demonstration at their monthly Good Food Feast. During the demonstration, I interact with neighborhood residents, answer questions, and pass out recipe cards. I share meal ideas for those with plant-based diets, as well as vegan options. I also volunteer monthly with the cooperative, performing various tasks, including customer service with shareholders, food delivery, and sorting produce on delivery days. I mentor young women in Indianapolis and coordinate a girls’ program, where the focus is to build confidence and skills in STEM. Giving back to community is a peaceful and ethical practice because it shows neighborhood residents that one is committed to doing community work. It also shows that one acknowledges that it is a privilege to hold artistic talent. The artist shows a heightened level of mastery when one can teach and mentor others in their craft.
Evans possessed a strong conviction of using her writing to forward the liberation of black people. She writes in the preface to Clarity as Concept:A Poet’s Perspective,
“I see myself as a political writer whose responsibility as a writer is to not only call into view the nature of oppression … but to point out how much we are in the bed with the oppressor in so much that we have become a materialistically committed people” (i).
I see these lines as her life mission, and who she developed to be through life experiences and her artistic practice. She was committed to the liberation of black people and voiced this by criticizing the system of oppression and the ways in which African-American people are implicit in the system. One example of this is her acclaimed essay “Ethos and Creativity,” or “Where We Live: The Importance of Ethos to Creativity,” which she wrote when the Indiana Humanities Council asked her to participate in a project highlighting artist’s perspectives on life in Indiana (Adams “Late Indianapolis poet Mari Evans leaves legacy of social justice”). She is critical of the city’s development plans and how I-65 devastated the black community on the westside of Indianapolis. She writes, “And so it is with Indianapolis. Looking back almost four decades, everything has changed and nothing has changed” (Evans 25). These lines reflect a life devoted to Indianapolis, but critical of the way the local government produces plans and strategies that make no real change. Her work explains that racism and classism causes the lives of African-American people to look much different than white people in Indianapolis (Evans 23). She lived this firsthand as a Black woman living on the westside, and one who was displaced due to imminent domain.
Evans is not unique in her strong political conviction and use of her art to fulfill her life’s callings. She is one example of how one should acknowledge the ways in which art is often political. In years past, artists have served as activists and historians for communities. History shows us this through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, the Beat Movement, the birth and adolescence of Hip Hop, to the present day. Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, James Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Chance the Rapper, Princess Nokia, and Diop are just a few names past and present who have used their platform to raise community and larger political issues. These movements represent just a few moments, where artists are both activist and story keepers. With this historical framework in mind, calling artists to understand the political and historical landscape of communities in which they work is a part of a larger history and connection of art to place and politics.
In recent years, local governments and developers have used artists to forward city development plans that lead to the displacement of neighborhood residents. This is done by commissioning artists to create the culture and look of a space to attract young, upward mobile professions to a city, then pricing out the artists and other long-time residents. This is called gentrification, an urban, global phenomenon where long-standing residents in an area or neighborhood are displaced by upper class professionals due to racism, classism, and environmental degradation. Artists can peacefully engage with communities by being aware of common signals of gentrification, such as when local governments commission artists to do neighborhood beautification, especially when artists are not from that area or neighborhood.
It is not wrong for local governments and organizations to support artists. It is problematic when an artist’s work excludes community voice and is used for the ultimate displacement of the people that once supported their work. Artists can develop their understanding of the political and historical landscape of a city through talking with elders and young people about their personal histories, attending local government and neighborhood association meetings, holding elected and appointed officials accountable for reflecting community needs, and creating art that reflects the community. If an artist wishes to serve a community, they have an even greater responsibility to do these things if they are not from there. This helps the artist to create work that accurately reflects the community.
Understanding the political and historical landscape of a city is an unending work for most people. It is difficult to measure whether one is doing this work. I immersed myself in the local politics of Indianapolis through researching food insecurity and learning that Indianapolis is one of the largest food deserts in the nation (WTIU News Report). This means that many in the city are living in poverty or live more than a mile away from a food source, i.e. a grocery store. Food issues are complicated in Indianapolis due to an out-of-date public transportation system, grocery store closures, changing neighborhoods, and an increase in poverty. One important moment in community in recent history was the closing of the Double 8 grocery stores. There were some complications around Double 8 Foods and in its relationship with community, but it did serve as a convenient food option and provided employment for citizens who found few opportunities, including returning citizens (Adisa 1/22/19). Many neighborhood residents started shopping at other grocery stores even before Double 8’s closure, and still are accessing food sources (Adisa 1/22/19). This historical knowledge is vital, because it often shows that community issues hold more complexities than what is on the surface. Staying up to date with political and local history is an ongoing process. We must all be committed to this for the wellbeing of our communities.
Artists who want to serve community have a unique opportunity through their talents and ability to build relationships. Mari Evans and other prominent artists have paved the way for artists serving as the culturalists and history keepers for communities. They served as activists, community builders, and used their art to speak out against injustice. Evans has inspired me as an artist and activist to engage peacefully and ethically with communities and use my art to serve. The community-building approaches of authenticity, highlighting community voice, sharing one’s talents, and understanding the political and historical background of an area are a few key practices to do this. Artists who wish to serve their community can use these simple strategies to move forward on their journey. We should all be looking for more and better ways that we can build and serve our communities.