The sun has come out to play, and so should you! We've got you covered with our adventure-ready "Get Outside & Read" Bundle! Get the much-anticipated Summer 2024 Outside Issue + some adventure essentials today at OA Goods!

Become A Member Shop Login

Photographs by Ebony Blevins | Demonstrators gather in front of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock on June 1, 2020.

Issue 109/110, Summer/Fall 2020

"This Story Cannot Be Told Unless We Start from the Beginning"

A conversation on Black history, sorrow, and protest

A conversation on Black history, sorrow, and protest


“I wanted to go there because it was there, okay?” Minnijean Brown Trickey, speaking from her home in British Columbia, told me this when I asked why she volunteered to integrate Little Rock Central High in the autumn of 1957. Back then, she was a sixteen-year-old sophomore: tall, vivacious, stunningly brilliant, and unafraid. “I was brought up in the Jim Crow South and had family who just convinced me that I was really important, really special,” she said. “I hate to admit that I believed ‘liberty and justice for all.’ I really thought that going to Central was going to be fun.”

What happened that autumn has been well recorded, told and retold: the nine Black students, including Minnijean Brown, faced white mobs opposed to integration; President Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops to defend those students’ right to attend the school, defying segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who had mobilized the National Guard to keep the students out; inside the school, the students suffered taunts and abuse for the entire year. James Baldwin called it a “convulsion.” For Little Rock, the crisis was “the old wound reopened by every racial conflict since,” writes Jay Jennings in his book Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City. This spring, the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis once again moved Little Rock’s racial history to the foreground. To bring perspective to the present protest moment, the Oxford American, which makes its home in the city, invited two women with deep roots here to join me in a conversation: Minnijean Brown Trickey, who followed her role at Central with a long career in activism and education, and Crystal C. Mercer, a poet, performer, artist, and activist and the daughter of Christopher C. Mercer Jr., an attorney and advisor to the Little Rock Nine.


Ihave my own family history with the struggle for education and equity. In Memphis, where I grew up, the NAACP selected thirteen first-graders to begin integration in 1961. The Memphis 13 were spread across four schools and were escorted by local police to ensure their first days were without incident. Yet, in a 2011 documentary produced by Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis, now-grown students remember harassment, feelings of isolation, and fear, as if they “didn’t feel free.” They also noticed that their new schools had cleaner buildings and newer books.

After I attended pre-school at a Catholic academy, my mother sent me to kindergarten and first grade at Springdale, one of the institutions the Memphis 13 integrated. Springdale was also among the first group of optional schools the city’s school board created—“high caliber schools” specializing in advanced “academic, artistic, or vocational subject areas” in an effort to stem the tide of white flight. When my father was in first grade, his father was a new principal at Wonder High, a secondary school serving Black students in West Memphis, Arkansas, built after the original schoolhouse burned down in a fire of mysterious origin. When school integration came to Arkansas, many of the Black high schools shut down. Wonder High stopped serving students beyond the ninth grade, as did Horace Mann, where some of the Nine attended school before signing up for Central. 

I moved to Little Rock one year and two months after my father died. Just as I was settling in, a month and a half after the movers dropped off the last of my belongings, Frank Scott Jr., the city’s first Black mayor, announced a curfew in efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. The city reported its first detected instance of community spread of COVID-19. Public health departments everywhere were slow to report coronavirus data by race and ethnicity; by the end of March, Milwaukee confirmed that the majority of its cases were African-American men of middle age. As the pandemic progressed, and the country failed to contain the virus, many adhered to stay-at-home orders; others went out to perform “essential work.” Soon it became clear that African-American citizens would bear the brunt of the suffering. Funeral homes and morgues filled to capacity; nursing homes and prisons struggled to contain their outbreaks. By the end of June, APM Research Labs reported that one out of every fifteen hundred African Americans had died of the virus. 

It was in this atmosphere that video of George Floyd’s brutal murder circulated. On May 25, he died of asphyxiation, face down on the ground, the knee of officer Derrick Chauvin compressing his neck for more than eight minutes. By May 26, protestors had taken to the streets in Minneapolis, and then everywhere, including Little Rock: at the State Capitol, blocks from where I live; in front of North Little Rock’s City Hall; on Interstate 630; and at four different Walmart locations around the city.

I spoke with Brown Trickey, now seventy-eight, and Mercer, thirty-six, in a Zoom conversation on June 18. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows. 

—Danielle A. Jackson


109110 Blevins 02Tiffany Patton speaks about her son, Tyler Ashford, who was shot and wounded by Little Rock Police in 2019. In March 2020, he disappeared and was found dead of gunshot wounds. 

Minnijean Brown Trickey:  So where are you? 

Crystal C. Mercer: Oh, I’m back in Little Rock. I miss Ghana every day. 

How long were you in Ghana, Crystal? 

CCM: I lived there most of 2018 and came back at the end of the year, and I just miss it terribly. If I was younger, I would move there. But it’s never too late. W. E. B. Du Bois was in his nineties when he moved, and he passed away there a few years after. 

Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve been up to since we’ve been quarantined? How have you been dealing with the pandemic? How have you been working and navigating what life is right now? 

MBT: I’ve been quarantined for three months, ever since I came from the congressional pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham. I came home [to British Columbia] and I have been here. So what do I do? I garden. I read and I watch YouTube.  I’ve been binge-watching Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder. I think if I learn any more things, this computer’s going to crash, right? This one [points to head]. So, I do a lot of gardening. I have a spectacular flower garden and vegetable garden, which I go out to look at every morning just to calm myself down. 

All my speaking gigs were canceled. I had several, and what I do is mostly try to interact with young people because I’ve given up on old people. I’m totally honest about that. It’s really fun and positive to interact with kids in fifth grade. Since the pandemic, I’ve talked to many kids on Zoom: kids in Norway, kids in Canada, kids in the U.S. I’ve kept busy. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old grandson who is just the light of my life. So I’ve actually not found quarantine to be a burden. I’ve actually enjoyed it. 

I try not to watch too much news because it brings me down. But when I was watching the news, I went into a period of sorrow that was so horrific that it scared me. It actually scared me. I kept thinking, Am I going to come out of this? Will I recover from this sorrow and sadness? And that is about being seventy-eight years old, spending practically a whole life working with people across all cultures, religions, classes . . . to feel at this point in my life, that part of my life didn’t matter? I’m in and out of it. My daughter asked me, what would make me feel better? And I said a lot of chocolates and vanilla ice cream. But it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t go. 

I was wondering about the grief of the moment, because it seems like we’re still having the same conversations that my mother told me she had with people when she was a child. When, in school, she got hand-me-down books from the school that Elvis went to. 

MBT: We’re doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over. And that, I think, is where the grief lies, that you’re talking about your mother. Oh my God. 

In this grief, I went all the way to every sad thing that ever happened to me, including the death of my dog when I was three. I went to every single “cut” of racism that got buried because we can’t walk around keeping hold of that. We have to throw it out, get it out, just put it so deep that it never comes to consciousness. And in that state, it all kind of bubbled up. The things that I remembered were from a time when I didn’t even have any concept for what racism was. I was crying for me. I was crying for the families [of the slain]. I was crying for everything. The sorrow is so deep, and it’s not about getting sympathy. Andrew Young tells a story about how Dr. King would get depressed. And I realized, that’s what his feeling was: I’m working. I’m trying to engage a nation that can’t hear me. I’m trying to do it peacefully. I’m talking about love. I’m talking about the beloved community, and it’s not happening.

Crystal, how are you spending your time during the pandemic? How are you navigating the layers and layers of grief, the generations of grief that we’ve all inherited? 

CCM: The pandemic in the United States opened up the truth of what that nation is about. Like a volcano, truth just came pouring out. Just layers and layers and layers. I keep hearing this stuff about, well, in America, we’re exceptional. Are you kidding? I never thought that, never felt that, never even considered it. American exceptionalism? Please. I think, see it, look at it, look at it. It’s a country where every possible kind of venom just bubbles out. It’s definitely visible. I think a lot of things you said, Jean, have deeply resonated with me—about the grief. I haven’t been this heartbroken since my father died. I’m crying. I’m writing a lot. I’m stitching a lot. I’m doing all the things that I can do to keep me as together as possible. But my patience is razor thin and my sorrow is ocean deep. Pre-pandemic, the last week of February, I had surgery. I got some fibroid tumors removed, which has just been a part of some of my ongoing medical issues. Then two weeks after my surgery, I was let go from my job.

I’ve been home recovering and trying to get back into the swing of my artistic practice. Being back in Little Rock after living in Ghana and being able to experience being Black, without question, being in a country that’s so deliciously Black and free and beautiful and temperate and all the things that brought me joy meant that moving back home, which is so big a part of me, was also the death of me. I’ve carried a lot of sadness being back in Little Rock. I’ve been trying to channel my father and remember what he told me or imagine what he would say in certain moments. Because he lived through every catastrophic event of the twentieth century, being born in 1924. Something that came to me just a couple of weeks ago, ’cause I’ve been in quarantine for about the last three and a half months, is that I hear him telling me to respond rather than react, because I have had some moments where I’ve just gone completely off.

And I mean, rightfully so. This righteous anger, this rage, is just bubbling inside of me. But it’s from the deep frustration of wondering if my father’s life was in vain. Was his sacrifice, his work, in vain? Were all the things that he did for the eighty-eight years that he was on this planet for nothing? It’s been unsettling to be back after being so free in a place that did not reject me because of my color or where I was from.

MBT: One of the things that was part of my thinking is that we shouldn’t have to keep passing this on to our kids. With all the work your father did, things should be perfect. Right? And we’ve had some of these conversations before at my mom’s dining room table. This is not a new conversation for us. I shouldn’t have to be thinking about what’s going to happen to my grandchildren. That’s ridiculous. And that’s part of the sorrow. We keep doing it. We don’t want to learn, we don’t want to change. But then we’re saying it’s the best place in the world to live and blah, blah, blah, on and on, on the great illusion of perfection that I never bought. 

109110 Blevins 03Kris Woodruff, a protestor at the Arkansas State Capitol.


Crystal, can you talk for a little bit about your father’s work and his connection to Minnijean and her work?

CCM: Yes. My father is still the most magnificent man that I know. He is Attorney Christopher C. Mercer Jr. He was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on March 27, 1924. He grew up like most Black people at that time, in segregated school systems and neighborhoods, but he triumphed in every way possible after finishing school at Arkansas AM&N, which is now UAPB [University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff]. He enrolled in law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville School of Law, where he was the third Black student admitted. There were no Black people anywhere. He couldn’t live on campus. He couldn’t go to events on campus. He couldn’t be on campus after sundown. He had glass Coke bottles thrown at his head that pierced the skin.

He still showed up every day and went to school, passed the bar with the highest score, and became an attorney on the day of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision. That was May 17th, 1954, when he got his license. Then he moved to Little Rock, which is where the history of our families, mine and Jean’s, come together. I came a little later, but they were here, you know, they were laying down the groundwork. 

My father worked with Daisy Bates and L. C. Bates from the NAACP, and during the 1957 desegregation crisis . . .

MBT: Let’s not forget Thurgood Marshall and Wiley Branton. 

CCM: Definitely, Wiley Branton Sr., who was also in Fayetteville with [my father]. My dad used to babysit Wiley Branton Jr. shortly after he was born. He’s a retired judge now. And, yes, also Thurgood Marshall. They did a lot of the legal research legwork. At my father’s wake—he died eight years ago—Elizabeth Eckford said that he was one of the people who sat down with the students, with the Nine, and explained to them what was going on. Like, he spoke to y’all like you weren’t children. 

MBT: Yeah. Our first day, watching a mob? We were children no more.

CCM: He was in the thick of that. And Jean used to tell me how handsome he was. [Laughs]. 

He was an advisor to Mrs. Bates. Is that right? 

MBT: There was a whole group. He was a young lawyer and then there was Thurgood. Every NAACP lawyer appeared in Little Rock, so he was in a good group. He and Wiley Branton were the locals. There may have been others who I don’t remember. 

Civil rights family is real. It’s totally real. He also would sometimes drive us to school because they didn’t—in the early stages—they didn’t want our parents to. So we had a relationship with Attorney Mercer. My mama called him “her lawyer.” He did a eulogy at my mother’s funeral. So this relationship is very close and intimate. 

One question I have is for you, Minnijean. I was reading Hannah Arendt’s 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” In it, she says that none of the students got driven to school. That you all were always alone and didn’t have adults with you at any point. That’s one quibble, one of many quibbles, with that essay. But, you know, one thing you said in an interview in 2005 with Betsy Jacoway, Minnijean, was that the story of the Little Rock Nine has never been told properly. 

MBT: Well, only by the actual participants.

Okay. Well, I was wondering if you still feel that way. 

MBT: Hannah Arendt? Okay. She is loved by white people because of her take on fascism, but she wrote things about Little Rock. Ralph Ellison responded to her. She kind of said that Black people should wait until the laws get changed. And we are still doing the same thing. The laws maybe changed, but nothing changed. I pretty much don’t quote her and don’t feel she knew what she was talking about. And she was mostly wrong. So much for the great icon Hannah Arendt. 

Right. I was surprised most of all by the factual inaccuracies, in addition to her conclusions, of course. But anyway, are there things about your experience that you wish people would talk about more? Or that you wish they would get right in how they tell the story? I’m wondering if maybe we keep having the same conversations because we’re not having the right conversations.

MBT: Well, American history is kind of like a fairy tale, with a whole bunch of stuff left out and not examined. Or, and I hate to do this, but the person who is the speaker for the [president’s] administration, he’s saying, what are we going to do next? If we take down statues, are we going to take down George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? 

We don’t have to take down George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s statues, but we have to tell the truth. For twenty years, I’ve been part of an organization called Sojourn to the Past. And we’ve taken almost ten thousand students to ten-day-long interactive history experiences. And something I’ve done for about ten years, with middle school students, is go to Washington [DC]. Sometimes we go to Monticello, and sometimes we go to Mount Vernon. It took historians and storytellers at Monticello to tell the truth about slavery. They didn’t mention it for a very long time. And I think in the nineties they started actually talking about it at Mount Vernon. There’s an amazing slavery exhibit in the basement. It has names, and it talks about people and what they did. And of course the exhibit shows all the opulence that they served. The docent in there says, “Nobody ever comes to that portion of the exhibit.” It’s not talked about. Nobody ever goes in there. My point is, let’s tell the truth. Let’s tell the whole story.

CCM: Something you said, Jean, before we opened the new [Central High School National Historic Site] exhibit space in 2007. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis. And before they opened the doors, Jean, you said, “We cannot talk about Central unless we talk about slavery.” I’m very clear that this story cannot be told unless we start from the beginning and we tell the whole story. When I lived in Ghana, I had the opportunity to go to the Cape Coast slave castle. It was real when you said it in 2007, but being there in 2018 and being in the dungeon and seeing the line of demarcation and the sweat and piss and blood and excrement? And you know, menses? They turned the lights off and you’re just there. This is where we begin to tell the truth, right here in this moment. And you can’t say that it didn’t happen ’cause I’m standing in the place where it happened.

MBT: Right. You are. I’ve been watching, again, binge-watching British slavery stuff. They talk about how many castles . . . we know the Cape Coast castle, Elmina castle, but they said that there were many castles within a mile of each other, all along that coast. 

CCM: There are some in Accra. There’s a place called Ussher Fort. And what they call Jamestown is a place where they have the Chale Wote festival in the summer. At Ussher Fort, I met an artist there that did an installation. It’s where they had the sales; everything is there. This is in the capital city and, you know, Ghana is a coastal country. But there are hundreds of slave castles. They were just harvesting people and putting them there until they were ready to travel.

MBT: The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery is a truth-telling space: Arkansas’s doing really well in the number of lynchings. They’re right up there. One of the things about the United States is we can’t actually talk about power. And with power, there are no names attached to it, but it’s abstract and it’s concrete at the same time. And so the way it’s done in the U.S. is to have people looking to the side, each side and over their shoulder, and never up at power. So the very people who should be in the coalition to contradict power can’t see it. They can’t see it ’cause they’re busy looking at immigrants and Asians and Black people. 

I have met lots of people who say, well, I have a PhD and I didn’t know this. And I said, you can’t help it. You’re American. You know nothing. You can’t because you’re busy. And they would say, well, I just live in this whole white suburb, you know, I just don’t have any contact [with Black people]. Well, yeah. You don’t know if that was structured on your behalf. So when we are in your, as I call it, hashtag profound, intentional ignorance, when we stay ignorant in that way, how do we ever have a conversation? ’Cause you’re trying to talk to people who have constricted their intellect, their bodies, their everything. To the point where they can’t see or hear anything. And if I were to think what you’re gonna ask me, what happened in this, this, sort of, uprising? It’s those bonds broke. And you could no longer have your hands over your ears or over your eyes, especially young people. Oh my God. They know so much. They know so much about us. That’s why I like interacting with young people, ’cause they are knowledgeable. But we’re not going to put all our hope in young people because they can get trained in the mores and beliefs of our national narrative of racism. 

109110 Blevins 04Kalix Ashford, the son of Tyler Ashford, at a demonstration in Little Rock.


I was wondering for both of you, if you feel at all heartened by the young protestors and organizers who are leading the uprisings right now? They seem super well versed in the long view of history. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been talking so much about monuments coming down or if it’s because of the internet and the information that we transfer with each other in that way. Or if it’s because of people like Beyoncé and Ava DuVernay, you know, talking about our past in very real ways, confronting history. A young woman here in Little Rock, Dawn Jeffrey, led a group who shut down four Walmart locations. Goals seem to vary, but I’ve seen specific demands around the defunding of police departments, an increase and investment in mutual aid networks—various strategies and tactics that would loosen the hold of the police state and capitalism over all of us. Do you feel good and energized and hopeful about this?

MBT: First, I’ll say my definition of a movement is people doing things simultaneously all over the place, in the interest of what their issues are. Thank goodness we did stuff. So Ava DuVernay can do what she does. 

CCM: For me, it’s refreshing to see people organized. I mean, they have information because, like Jean said earlier, these are the things that were passed on to us, to them right behind us. And it may sound a bit cynical. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think the life that I see or imagine for myself in terms of relating to people who are not Black, and who have discriminated against me because I am, is going to change before I die. I don’t think I’ll live another hundred years. I could probably live another hundred years, and still I don’t think it’ll change before I die. But that doesn’t mean that I stop working, because somebody behind me will see the changes. As much as we’re having the same conversation or the same things are going on.

Jean went to Central, and I graduated from Central. So that was a direct connection between my dad being involved, the Nine going to school, and me being able to have that opportunity. And I was still called the N-word. And my teachers still gave me bad marks because they favored other students over me and still, still, still, you know, the list goes on, but I do want to keep working. So somebody in my bloodline, in my reach, can see that change. It’s exciting too. I’ve done the marches. I’ve led marches. I’ve been to the protests. I am one person. I don’t have to do all the things. That’s why we organize and educate. So somebody else can do it. Because when a hundred years pass and I’m not here, who’s going to be left to do the work or dance the joy of our freedom or be left behind to tell the stories and keep the memories of us alive? So it’s exciting for me to see everybody who’s like, well, this is our moment. This is our chance to not be swayed by weapons of mass distraction—that we have to hate this person or shame this person, [but] that we can come together and accomplish what it is that we see, what it is that we want. And that’s been very exciting for me.

MBT: I’m inspired because I remember as a civil rights activist, you know, “AC,”—After Central—we actually thought we would die doing what we were doing. And we said we were willing to die because we thought it was that important. Diane Nash, in the Nashville student movement with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. They made their wills. My sister Phyllis Brown was a part of SNCC in Little Rock. So I don’t know if people know how serious we were and how scary it was, because people did die during the civil rights movement. And it’s a long list, and we don’t know all their names. 

Lisa McNair, who’s the sister to Denise McNair, who was one of the four little girls [killed when white supremacists bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963] said yesterday that white people were saying, “What can I do? What can I do?” And she found out they didn’t even know about Birmingham, about the four little girls. They didn’t know about it. Imagine how tight you have to close off your body and your mind and your spirit and how it must feel and how much energy it takes. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could let all that go and become a full person? Imagine how you have to create fear and get more guns and ammunition for your cops. Imagine what it would feel like if you could let that go. So that’s, that’s kind of how I feel. What a waste of a life to be that constricted.

CCM: I wasn’t taunted [at Central] like the Nine. I mean, people weren’t following me and stepping on my heels and doing things like that. But yeah, there was a student that called me the N-word and I slapped him. I slapped the Europe out of him. And I was so proud of myself. And I went home and told my father about it and he was quiet and I began to cry. And I’m like, this is what we’re talking about. I wish I would have responded in a different way. I was so agitated. I was sixteen. You know, I didn’t have the refinement that I have at thirty-six—I’m about to be thirty-seven in August—and I didn’t have that at sixteen. But I slapped the boy and he never called me the N-word again.

But why is this deal happening some forty, fifty years after the crisis? I’ve worked with a lot of groups with high school career readiness, AVID, TRIO, just different programs to get students thinking about art and theater and poetry, literary arts, visual arts, as a career. And to this day, this is the experience of these babies who are going through these school systems in Little Rock. And it breaks my heart. So I just keep showing up. But that doesn’t mean that I’m less broken.

MBT: Nikole Hannah-Jones . . . people really should read her stuff from before The 1619 Project. She says where Black kids go to school, there’s no support. And where white kids go to school, there is support and resources.

One of the demands is to get police out of schools. Let’s go there. I’ve gone to schools in different parts of the country. I go to one school where they’re mostly brown and Black kids, and there are cops with guns and metal detectors. And twenty minutes away, there’s a school that’s mostly white and they have a resource officer and he’s sitting at a desk. I have gone to schools where students had everything—an iPad and a laptop. And I’ve gone to schools where there was no heat and the kids were wearing coats and it was just horrible. Why would kids thrive in those situations? So we have a way of helping some kids thrive and other kids not thrive. These are the ways we do it. I say the highest value in the U.S. is segregation. The second is war. 

Crystal, you said in an interview with the Arkansas Times last spring that you and Minnijean talk often about home, the home that you share and the home that you both left and have come back to a number of times. You said that she told you, “You don’t have to hate a place to go. You can just go.” I’m just wondering, where can we go to feel safe? Or is that just not really possible? 

CCM: Well, we can’t go to or stay in America. That’s perfectly clear. Ghana is [like]: “Black Americans come home, we will sponsor you, we will put you up . . .” And some other countries feel that way. Every place has its thing. There were some ways, being from the American South, that I stuck out in Ghana. Blackness is not a monolith: So we Black and it’s all good, but it’s different kinds of black, you know? Fifty shades of black. Ghana is definitely a place I felt the most at home because I wasn’t agitated for my Blackness and nobody asked me why I was in a place and nobody touched my hair. And, you know, nobody tried to engage me in a way that just dismantled who I was as a person.

I felt so free in Ghana. It was amazing to feel that. And I thought I was free before: ’Cause my dad was a civil rights attorney and I went to Central and I’m Blackity Black, black, black. And I wear my Afro like, oh, I’m, I’m free. But no, when I went to Ghana, I was like, okay, I’m really free. And I think a part of freeing others is freeing yourself. Because there are things in every place, you really . . . the place that you have to be most at home in is in your skin, in your right mind. Jean talked about learning, always reading, watching too. There will be people who will not give you information. It’s set up in a way where systemically you don’t have access to certain things.

I don’t think that America is safe right now for Black people. I’ve experienced that here in Little Rock and other places that I’ve been. I lived in Baltimore. I had family in New York. I applied to a fellowship in Minneapolis. I don’t know if I got it. They’re still deliberating on the top people for the fellowship. But after the murder of George Floyd, you know, I checked in with my colleagues there, because I’m like, who am I to be dreaming and asserting myself in a place that does this to its own people? Even their officials there said it’s a great place to live if you’re white. So I don’t know where that place is in America. Other than your own self. 

MBT: When I was younger, when I complained to my mother, she said, you can escape. You can do anything. You can, it’s uncomfortable. I’m going to go to The 1619 Project, which really was wonderful to me. And part of the opposition to it was, it placed Black people at the beginning, which we hadn’t really talked about or acknowledged or affirmed. And so there was opposition to that, you know, by academics, everybody opposed it and they gave reasons, but the real reason was it placed Black people in the center.

There’s a Black Canadian poet, Dionne Brand, who has a phrase, “We’re rooted here and they can’t pull us up.” I’m going to keep doing what I do. I’m going to get over this grief or at least use it and I’m gonna keep going. . . . I’m going to do it as long as I can. And I’m going to ask my kids to put rhinestones on my wheelchair or my walker, and I’m going to keep doing it, because it’s worth it. I feel that what I do is on behalf of us all, because the whole thing of—there are all these expressions—If I’m not free, then you’re not free. So I’m looking for the liberation of everybody because it really is a requirement for the, quote, “beloved community.” It is about liberation. It’s about disarming. It’s about looking at climate change. It’s about, stop being anti-intellectual. It’s about a lot of things. And so we all need to be liberated from that power that keeps us confined and frightened and ignorant. So yeah, I’m going to keep doing it. That’s a promise. 

109110 Blevins 05Little Rock’s Mayor Frank Scott Jr. joins protesters in front of the Arkansas State Capitol.

And we are knitted together. 

MBT: We must be, we must be. We must be.

CCM: I’ve been telling folks who’ve been reaching out to me with what you were saying earlier, Jean: “Oh, what can I do?” You can educate yourself. Do not call me. We are generations behind. I have plenty of my own work to do. And just jump in . . . you see this is centuries old? Just get in where you fit in, but don’t waste any time I have pushing my people forward and liberating my people to a space that they want to see themselves in.

MBT: Well, you [folks] claim to know every damn thing else.

CCM: And you know this, ’cause I don’t have it. Okay. I don’t have it for you. It’s in a book; it’s been written. There’s a movie about it somewhere. You know, I can fact check with you if, if that comes about, but I don’t have the time. And if you go and pay Princeton and Yale and all of them, I have tuition as well. You can go ahead and enroll in the university of Crystal C. Mercer for a price, but might I suggest you go learn on your own? Yeah. But . . . we need to just stay threaded together and keep our eye on the prize. Like, there is a prize and I do believe that somebody will see it. I hope it’s me. I don’t think it will be, but I have nieces and nephews. Jean has grandbabies. Somebody needs to see the life we all imagine for ourselves.

MBT: It has to happen. Here’s hoping. It keeps the blood pumping. It’s a life sentence. Those are my phrases. It’s a life sentence.

I’m just so enriched by the people I’ve interacted with and worked with and converse with. And so, thank you all. ’Cause I’m starting to think about how lucky I am and how fortunate I’ve been to learn and do and be. 

Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.


Minnijean Brown Trickey and Crystal C. Mercer, moderated by Danielle A. Jackson; photographs by Ebony Blevins

Minnijean Brown Trickey has a lifelong commitment to social justice activism, including peacemaking, environmental issues, developing youth leadership, diversity education, antiracism training, cross-cultural communication, and gender advocacy. Her education includes a BSW (Indigenous Studies) and an MSW. She is one of the nine African American students who collectively resisted opposition to the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. She lives in British Columbia, Canada.
Crystal C. Mercer is an Afro-creative, textile artist, actor, activist, and author of the poetry collection A Love Story Waiting to Happen and the forthcoming children’s book From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair.
Danielle A. Jackson is a Memphis-born writer and the managing editor at Oxford American.
Ebony Blevins earned a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from Arkansas State University and has worked with numerous publications and marketing companies in Arkansas.