“I, Too, Am a Movement:” A Conversation About Personal Growth and Creative Activism with Crystal C. Mercer and Michelle Smith-Richardson
Crystal C. Mercer is a poet, playwright, textile artist, actor, activist, designer, and an all around Afrocreative. Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the daughter of who she calls the “first CC Mercer,” legendary late civil rights attorney Christopher C. Mercer, she fuses her passion for the arts with her activism in innovative and inspiring ways by using theatre, poetry, and textiles to tell social justice narratives. Mercer is the recipient of grants from Pen America and The Dramatist Guild Foundation, which help her continue her work as a storyteller. She is also a graduate of The Clinton School of Public Service (MPS). From Little Rock, Arkansas to Accra, Ghana, Mercer has made an international impact as an artist and an activist. She is always looking for the next adventure that will unearth her poetic, textile, and dramatic magic.
Michelle Smith-Richardson: I think I mentioned to you, my dad bought your poetry book for me a few years back, and I’ve been following you ever since. Being able to speak with you right now is very exciting for me. The big thing I wanted to touch on with you was just the way that you fuse the arts with your activism, and I am really curious to know if that was something that came naturally to you, considering your upbringing and your father’s legacy, or if it was something that you had to intentionally develop.
Crystal C. Mercer: I think for the most part, it was definitely my upbringing. Jingle jangle, like to make some noise, people know I’m here (as she spoke with her hands, the instrumentation of her bangles made a clarion call to her ancestors). I definitely would say my father, the attorney Christopher C. Mercer Jr – he’s the first CC Mercer, hence my handle, @ccmercertoo, too as in also. But growing up with my dad and then my mom, she was a little hell cat around the edges. Cause her era was like the sixties and seventies. So when things were really amping up and people were in the street and this veneer of fear began to melt in the way people engage activism.
It was definitely a part of how my parents taught me how to engage in the world and be thoughtful about what it is. I’m saying, what it is I’m doing, who it is that I’m around, like making choices that are just going to advance our people. We don’t have time to lollygag, even if someone is like, oh, well you don’t have to do it. Or, oh, we can do it next year. And I’m like, We are generations behind; I don’t have next year. I don’t have next week. The time is always now. So that’s how I have been able to fuse all the things that I love, because those are part of me, too.
I’m fighting, so I don’t have to fight. I’m fighting, so someone behind me doesn’t. I want to chill. I want a life of ease. I don’t want a life of adversity. It’s not cute. So it’s like, well, let me knock a few trees down and clear the path for someone behind me. So it’s a little easier for them. And I feel like, definitely my parents, other people that we look up to who are notable figures, people in my community have definitely cleared enough of the org so I can see our way forward.
MSR: That’s awesome. I’ve noticed in a lot of your work a connection, not only to your direct family, but also ancestors and the larger history of Black people in America.
So how has your journey been just unfolding all of those layers to understand these generations after generations of historical trauma and how has your healing process and understanding through all of that been?
CCM: I will say when I lived in Ghana, for my 35th birthday, just a couple of days after, and I had two really good friends who came to visit me, I was like on the precipice of being homesick as wonderful as Africa was, and we went to the slave castles in Cape Coast, Ghana. So to answer your question, I’m having a sankofa moment, like, I’m looking back to go forward. Going to the castle, there’s like all this opulent beauty, from the ground up, there’s this brick and mortar and path and art. And then there’s this row of cannons that look out to the ocean because it was a fort. And then underneath, it’s like the denigration and the dankness and the pain of the dungeons, where Africans were kept before they came to this country we live in today and standing in front of those cannons and looking out at the ocean, seeing the Atlantic ocean from that side. I’ve been to Jersey; I have been on the East Coast facing West – but to be on the West coast of Africa, like looking back, I felt my infinite rage and my infinite peace and knowing that those two things could co-exist in me without destruction – destroying myself, destroying anyone else, being destructive in how I approach my work. I’m calling on the predecessors, like people who were here before me, elders, people that I admire, I’m calling on the ancestors because from the primordial ooze, or our limited understanding of science – who knows? I wasn’t there, I got here in 1983, but knowing I have parents and I have grandparents and I have great grandparents, and everybody who ever was that has poured into their life and came together at whatever point to make me when I came. Even when I think about my dad, because this month (November 2021) marks the ninth year of his passing, sometimes grief is maddening in a way where you’re grasping on to everything.
You don’t want to forget. I’m like he is in me and as terrible as that was in the very beginning, like right after he passed I was like, I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to talk about that. It still hurts – but no, he has never left. I don’t have to imagine if he existed or not, because I exist.
So now that my father’s an ancestor, he’s teaching me different lessons that he couldn’t teach me when he was alive. And like the importance of legacy, the importance of understanding all of the hardship and things that we’re still sifting through, but also understanding that our joy is resistance, too.
So it’s like finding joy in the work, because if not, I mean, a lot of people who do activism work, who explore deep topics, friends who I know that are artists that are sifting through their Filipino history, their Cambodian history, their Nigerian history, all of the terrible things that humanity has inflicted on each other. It’s like, where are those pockets of joy? And not ignoring that these things happened, but I definitely approach my work from a place of joy. And what story am I telling? Because now that my father has passed on, it’s like, oh, this is fun. Happy I’m here. But when I leave this place, what am I leaving behind? Is this something that somebody will pick up? Is it something that is worthy of study? I don’t know, but I want to honor those that came before me because there will be a point that I have come before somebody else. And so I’m just working on leaving something worth leaving behind.
It can get a little maddening, Michelle. I don’t sleep. I work fifty ‘leven jobs. I’m looking at some work that’s right in front of me. This table is…whew, it’s rocks over here. It’s all kinds of stuff. It’s just like things that I’m working on. Right. It’s making complete sense to me. It looks chaotic, but it definitely has order. That’s the world around me. I can control this. I understand this order, but you can’t control what’s around you. You have to interact with it. So it’s like, what am I doing to move people forward when I do my work?
MSR: How are you able to stay so centered? Like I know for me, once I started understanding more fully what was going on around me, I found myself in constant states of anxiety, worry, and fear. It’s been a journey to figure out how to balance understanding the very real issues that we’re facing while also, like you were saying, allowing myself to experience joy. So how have you been able to maintain that balance and stay grounded?
CCM: In the words of Janelle Monáe, “you got to tip on the tightrope” because there are days I, too, tackle anxiety. I’m a very high functioning major depressive person. There are a lot of bad things that happened to me that were not in my control. And then it’s just, how do I show up in this world? And a lot of times my misery, which does exist, because everybody goes through waves – my misery doesn’t like company. I like to retreat, and in my retreat, that’s when I work. I’m working anyway, but it gives me time to be by myself and find moments where I can let others in without hurting them.
That’s the impact on me. I’m very aware of my power and my influence and my vibrations to shift the room and sometimes how it shifts me. The older I get, I’m more deliberate about how I move because I was not always as centered or poised. I was a little hellcat myself, and like ready to fight, ready to curse someone out at any point. I mean, you know, like going back and forth, not just attacking people, but I felt a strong passion and need for what I believe to be right to be understood by someone, even if they didn’t believe it. I used to just get in the most ridiculous conversations with people, and I’m like, this is not what matters. I need to stop wasting my time on this because they don’t care. I really don’t care if they care. So why am I just not doing my work? And that’s where it began to shift.
I just turned 38 this summer (2021), so I’m not an elder, but I’m not in the youth category anymore – but black don’t crack, so it don’t matter. There was something that happened to me, and I was really young and it started making more sense when I got older. I attended the historic Little Rock Central High School, and my father worked with the NAACP during the unfortunate crisis year when all the things went down in Little Rock in 1957. All of my siblings, I have eight brothers and sisters, all of us attended Central High School. Myself and my youngest brother were the last to graduate, and this happened my junior year. This white guy, in between class, the student, he wasn’t a classmate of mine per se, but he attended the school – he called me a n-gger. I slapped the European out of him; my handprint was on his face the entire day. I was just like, that’s right. You ain’t going to call me that. I just got all big and bad. I was real puffed up. I went home; I told my dad about this incident. I’m like, can you believe, it’s 1999, and this is still happening? He was listening with such disgust; I could tell he was disappointed in me. He wasn’t saying anything, and that was not a good sign, that there was no interaction. In the middle of me explaining this and seeing his face and knowing what he has worked for all his life, I realized my reaction is probably why he responded that way. I just broke down crying and I was like, I’m so sorry; I need to learn how to handle myself better because I can’t put a handle on what people are doing, how they were raised, what they ate for breakfast, how they’re feeling, whether what they believe about me is true or not. Sometimes you gotta let people believe their own lie and walk in your truth.
So it’s not easy. It was not easy growing into that, but now that I have, I’m deliberate about how I choose to interact with people and what it is that I want to leave behind. I don’t want to, even though that happened and it will be left behind because it was legendary, but I don’t want to leave behind that I go around slapping folks in the face because they called me the N word. I was 16. So now at 38, it’s just like, there are other ways to engage and I’ve been on the other end of that. Somebody saying, oh, well I just don’t like Black people. That’s okay. I don’t like ignorant people and walk away. That’s a real life thing that happened to me when I was in my mid twenties. I’m evolving too. I, too, am a movement. Those are the things that we have to hold on to.
MSR: I love what you just said; I, too, am a movement.
This might be a difficult question. Are any of your works a favorite? Is there one that you’re more excited about than others?
CCM: Dang, there is, yes. That is a hard question. In a way, everything is my favorite because it comes from me, but there are a couple of standout works right now that speak to me in a different way. A one piece is called A Garden Wedding. It’s a quilt that I recently stitched and it’s on display at M2 Gallery. It is a re-interpretation of what is a pretty iconic scene, the garden of Eden. Instead of Eve, I’ve placed myself in the garden, and instead of sin and the way it’s been interpreted all these years, I feel like the original sin was woman coming into the knowledge of herself. This wedding is a marriage between myself and knowing, and that’s what the piece talks about. I think to date, the process, the technique, like technically, it’s one of my strongest pieces, and the story is unfolding. The more I think about this work, the more I want to have conversations around it.
Then of course, the children’s book From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair, which has 32 pages that I stitched by hand. Right now it’s a strong favorite because everyone always asks me if they can buy pieces that they see with me, and none of the pieces are for sale. I made them as heirlooms for my nieces, which the story was written about. They can keep it, they can hang it, they could put it away. I don’t care. But when they’re old enough to take custody of this work, I will be relinquishing that to them. And I want to do more of that for them outside of work that I’m exploring with, or work that’s for sale. Everything’s not for sale.
I told my gallery that before we signed our contract, it’s some stuff y’all ain’t never going to see. They’re like, yeah, bring whatever you want to bring in. But I am very proud of that work, what it not only has meant to them, but everyone who has come across the work.
MSR: You said A Garden Wedding is still on display, right?
CCM: Yes, A Garden Wedding is on display at M2 Gallery, along with another quilt, the biggest quilt I’ve made to date called CC’s Sweet Shoppe. I did it in honor of Loblolly Creamery’s 10 year anniversary, and they did a sticker pack that’s raising money for the Harmony Health Clinic. I knew a lot of people that volunteered there when I was in grad school. They do a lot of great things. So I’m like, yeah, I’m on board. I can, I feel like it’s my time. So I can command what I want with that time. I could give it away. This was something that I did to help them celebrate and raise money for a place that they care about – and I care about
MSR: Do you have any nonprofit or charity that you’re particularly passionate about?
CCM: Yes. There’s more than one, but there’s one I want to share with you. Outside of my close friends, you are the first person that I am sharing this with.
I’ve recently incorporated a nonprofit called A Black Space. Yes, it’s so exciting. I’m still fleshing out what everything would be, but the idea is infinite freedom. I’m asking, what if Black creatives and thinkers had the uninterrupted domain to produce and sustain and tell their stories – oral tradition, culture bearing ancestral craft from like our indigenous points of origin and also from the lens of the diaspora. The idea would be building a black space – a literal, physical space and some intangible concepts around our existence and our pride and our creativity.
Right now I’m working with my web designer. Her name is Sinovia Mayfield. I want everybody to give her money. She’s the bomb.com. She’s done my personal website. She’s done my textile website. She’s just an amazing individual, just a beautiful, brilliant thinker, black girl coder, and just like all the magical things. We’re working on designing a website now, so I’m building a design diary and the concept visually is black bodies as constellations. When I do build the physical space, which I’m sure will take several years starting from the ground up, and something that I understand well, because I work for a nonprofit arts real estate developer. One of the buildings that I want in this space is going to be a planetarium where there are Zodiacs of Black historical figures, like relatives, ancestors. So just folding back into this story of us from the beginning to the present day. There’s going to be a roller coaster that’s a timeline of Black history. So all of these neat things that are like, I’m taking you through the motions, but it’s also absolutely whimsical and engaging. I want to create modular units and studio spaces, so you can make it your own, and it’s not just walls around you. I want it to look like this table for somebody else where they could come and it’s of little or no cost to them where they can just create without restriction.
Homesteading – there’ll be a farm growing plants for fiber production and natural dying, which is something as a fiber textile artist, I definitely want to get more into, in addition to using traditional cloths that I’ve been able to source. Stay tuned for the website. It will be ablackspace.org – got the domain, got the nonprofit, got the tax exempt. Right now I’m just building everything up where I can really invite people into the vision and do things along the lines of creativity and ancestral craft.
There are 14,000 nonprofits in the state of Arkansas. There are a lot of people who are doing good work that I’ve supported and definitely want people, depending on what they’re into, to look that up and get into that. But I am about this life, so now it’s time for me to usher folks and engage them in a way that I know that I can.
MSR: I’m very excited about that. That’s going to be amazing. Thank you so much for speaking with me today; I am more inspired by this conversation than you know!
For more information on Crystal C. Mercer and her works, visit her personal website, crystalcmercer.com.