Mari Evans was born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 16, 1923. Her father encouraged her writing by saving her first story, which Evans had written in the fourth grade and had printed in the school newspaper. Evans recounted the experience in her autobiographical essay, “My Father’s Passage” (1984). She studied fashion design at the University of Toledo before focusing on poetry. While working as an assistant editor at a manufacturing firm, she honed her precision with language.
A major figure in the Black Arts Movement, Evans’s books of poetry include Continuum: New And Selected Poems (Just Us/Sankofa Books, 2015); A Dark and Splendid Mass (Harlem River Press, 1992); Nightstar: 1973–1978 (University of California, Center for Afro-American Studies, 1981); I Am a Black Woman (William Morrow Incorporated, 1970); and Where Is All the Music? (P. Bremen, 1968). Her books for children include Dear Corinne, Tell Somebody! Love, Annie: A Book about Secrets (Just Us Books, 1999); Singing Black: Alternative Nursery Rhymes for Children (Just Us Books, 1998; illustrated by Ramon Price); Jim Flying High (1979; illustrated by Ashley Bryan); and J.D. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 1973; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney). She was a contributor to and an editor of the volume Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation (Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1984). Evans was also the author of the plays Eye, a 1979 adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; and River of My Song, which was first produced in 1977.
Among Evans’s honors are fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John Hay Whitney Fellowship. In 1997, she was celebrated with her début on a Ugandan postage stamp.
Evans taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Spelman College, Purdue University, and Cornell. She was also an activist, deeply involved in prison reform, community organizing, and efforts to end capital punishment.