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Remembering Black Arts Movement poet Mari Evans' intense, unblinking life

USA Today Network Will R. Higgins, The Indianapolis Star 9:25 p.m. ET March 20, 2017

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Poet Mari Evans at the dedication of her Massachusetts Avenue mural painted by Michael Alkemi Jordan, at the Athenaeum, Indianapolis, Saturday, August 13, 2016.(Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)

INDIANAPOLIS — When the poet Mari Evans died March 10, early reports put her age at 93. But she was really 97, her grandson Chris Phemster confided to the some 500 mourners gathered for her funeral Monday. "She kept rolling her age back," he explained. "I think she stayed 70 for several years."

It was one of the lighter moments of the send-off for a celebrated artist and social activist known for her intensity and no-nonsense candor.

"You came warrior-woman clear," said the poet Sonia Sanchez, reciting a tribute to her longtime friend. "We were reborn in your spreading sails … Sister Mari."

Sanchez and Evans were among the architects of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They and others, including Haki R. Madhubuti, who also attended the funeral at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, were literary figures, skilled writers, but also civil rights activists. They were in the forefront of promoting black pride.

Evans first caught the public's attention in 1970 with the publication of her second collection of poetry, I Am A Black Woman. The title poem concludes: “I/ am a black woman/ tall as a cypress/ …  Look/ on me and be/ renewed.”

Her poems were realistic and sometimes ironic, but also hopeful, even ecstatic. She ended Who Can Be Born Black? with these lines: "Who/ can be born/ black/ and not exult!"

Joanne V. Cabbin, an English professor at James Madison University and a longtime friend of Evans, was one of seven eulogists. She put a new spin on that line. "Who could know Mari Evans and not exult!" she said.

Cabbin noted Evans' "sharpness, her brilliance" and "her insistence on speaking the truth" but also "her intense love for black people." Some of the mourners were white, and to them Cabbin added: "She loved you, too."

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But Evans was not warm and fuzzy. She lived in Indianapolis since 1947 and found considerable fault with the city. “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,” Evans wrote in her 1988 essay for the Indiana Humanities Council's Where We Live. “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.”

On Monday, Evans lay in a casket, wearing a mostly olive African-print dress. Her white hair was brushed back. Communion wafers were in each hand. Evans was described as a devout Christian and an avid church-goer. She was a member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church though in recent years attended services at Broadway United Methodist Church. The Rev. John L. Lambert, formerly at Bethel, said he once urged her to return to Bethel. "I'll decide that," she said. "You just preach."

The funeral was held at St. Luke's Methodist because it could accommodate the anticipated large crowd. Several of her poems were printed in the program, including The Rebel, which goes: "When I/ die/ I'm sure/ I will have a/ Big Funeral.../ Curiosity seekers.../ coming to see/ if I/ am really /Dead.../ or just/ trying to make/Trouble..."

A photo of Mari Evans looks up from a program during

A photo of Mari Evans looks up from a program during the Celebration of Life memorial for Dr. Mari Evans Phemster, held at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Monday, March 20, 2017.  (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)

Lambert and others described a woman who, despite a soft voice, had strong opinions and never shrank from expressing them. The Rev. Michael Mather of Broadway United recalled one time, after witnessing poor parenting, she took the opportunity to "coach" a young mother. Evans, who wrote several well-received children's books, was committed to teaching and helping children, several people said. Several years ago she called Mather to get the name of a child headed for a Christmas without presents. She took the child shopping, and later Mather asked her, "Did you have a good time?"

"No," Evans said flatly. "But I didn't do it to have a good time."

Early in the funeral service, a video was shown of Evans teaching her great-grandson, Matthew Phemster, the song Amazing Grace. She led, on piano; he followed, on saxophone. He appeared to be about 14, and his play was shaky. She interrupted several times with corrections and admonitions. She insisted on do-overs. They were blood, she was "Ma Mari," but this was serious, it was a lesson.

After the video, an only-slightly-less-youthful Matthew was introduced to warm applause. He stood in front of the sanctuary with a saxophone and, accompanied by pianist Carl Hines, delivered an Amazing Grace that was both polished and soaring.

Matthew's progress was stunning and uplifting. The mourners beamed, and they cheered.

Follow Will Higgins on Twitter: @WillRHiggins.

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Remembering Black Arts Movement poet Mari Evans' intense, unblinking lifeThe Rt. Rev. Anne Henning Byfield, the Presiding Bishop"Amazing Grace" is played by Matthew Phemster duringFamily and friends greet before the Celebration ofFamily covers the closed casket for the Celebration"Round Midnight" is played during the Celebration ofA photo of Mari Evans looks up from a program duringPoet Sonia Sanchez pays tribute during the CelebrationEric Phemster, left, hugs Christopher Phemster afterChristopher Phemster hugs his son Matthew after heRev. Michael Mather, Senior Pastor from the BroadwayThe casket sits peacefully surrounded by flowers andduring the Celebration of Life memorial for Dr. MariThe Rt. Rev. Anne Henning Byfield, the Presiding Bishop"Amazing Grace" is played by Matthew Phemster duringFamily and friends greet before the Celebration ofFamily covers the closed casket for the Celebration"Round Midnight" is played during the Celebration ofA photo of Mari Evans looks up from a program duringPoet Sonia Sanchez pays tribute during the CelebrationEric Phemster, left, hugs Christopher Phemster afterChristopher Phemster hugs his son Matthew after heRev. Michael Mather, Senior Pastor from the BroadwayThe casket sits peacefully surrounded by flowers andduring the Celebration of Life memorial for Dr. Mari
during the Celebration of Life memorial for Dr. MariMatthew Phemster smiles after playing "Amazing Grace"Poet Sonia Sanchez pauses with emotion as she pays"Amazing Grace" is played by Matthew Phemster duringChristopher Phemster speaks about his grandmother duringVickie Daniel sings "I want Jesus to Walk with Me"during the Celebration of Life memorial for Dr. MariMatthew Phemster smiles after playing "Amazing Grace"Poet Sonia Sanchez pauses with emotion as she pays"Amazing Grace" is played by Matthew Phemster duringChristopher Phemster speaks about his grandmother duringVickie Daniel sings "I want Jesus to Walk with Me"
The Rt. Rev. Anne Henning Byfield, the Presiding BishopFamily gather during the Celebration of Life memorialThe processional ends the service during the Celebration
Family and friends pay their respects before the Celebration
Eric Phemster speaks about his grandmother during the
The casket is loaded after the service processional
The Rt. Rev. Anne Henning Byfield, the Presiding BishopFamily gather during the Celebration of Life memorialThe processional ends the service during the Celebration

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