Crystal C. Mercer Erin Wood

Most working authors in 2021 would tell you it’s a hard time to be writing a children’s book. Few working authors would be able to tell you how hard it is to be stitching one. Four hundred and sixty-seven hours of stitching went into Crystal C. Mercer’s new children’s book, “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair.” Out on Et Alia Press March 20, the hardback book’s narrative was conceived during Mercer’s time living in Accra, Ghana, and is told through “textile renderings that blend cloth, culture, and the superpowers of the kinky, curly coif.” We talked with Mercer about family, Black hair and the book ahead of its release. 

You’re known in Little Rock for many things — as a poet, as an author, as the owner of a fabric and textile business, as the daughter of the late and legendary civil rights lawyer, Christopher C. Mercer, Jr., from whom you take your middle initial. And when I think of you as a theater and spoken word performer, and often, as a model for your own work in textiles, I think first of your silhouette, of which your hair is a vital part. Can you talk a little about your relationship with hair and how it led you to make this book, at this particular moment? 

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My relationship with my hair — I’ll start with why it’s important right now. As much as I love my hair now, I didn’t always love it when I was growing up, because I was teased. Sometimes people said it looked like I got struck by lightning, because my hair was so big, like insinuating that I got electrocuted. Or my mother, like most mothers — and especially the Black mothers, in the Black community — you want your children to look acceptable. You want your children to look presentable so they’re not out in the world embarrassing you. Recently, my mom has been sending me a lot of pictures of when I was a kid, and there are so many pictures of me on school picture day with my hair pressed. And that’s not how my hair looks all the time.

So it’s just like, “If you want that job, you have to straighten your hair or pull it back, restrain it in some way.” And I did that for years, until I went to college, and I was just like, “Fuck that. Like, this is what my hair looks like.” 

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… . It’s important now because my nieces, Claudia and Bianca, who are the main characters in the book as Gisele and Elise — their middle names — they love my hair. It’s cool to be natural now. It’s like, “Black Girl Magic.” “Natural Hair Queen.” “I’m a 4C.” And all these different products. When I was a kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was not accepted. It was not beautiful. It had to be contained. And when my nieces look at me — I didn’t know somebody could love me so much. And vice versa. They’re like, “Oh, I’m gonna wear an Afro like you,” or “Oh, Auntie CC, I love your Afro puffs! I wore my Afro puffs to school the other day!” If I change my hair, they notice; “Oh, Auntie, CC, I love your twist.” They just build me up in a way that I want to build them up. So it was important to tell this story to them, because in the book it is a family story that’s tied into me pouring into them how beautiful they are — the way they are, the way that they look.

Et Alia Press/Arshia Khan
Crystal C. Mercer’s “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair”

And there was a bit of redemption and healing for that little girl who was teased. People pulled my hair. It was terrible. Like, the violation of a little Black girl’s hair, that you’re expected to look and be a certain way to be accepted, when that’s not how you look. Now they’re in a position where they don’t care about that. They’re little. They’re honest. They like what they like, and they love their Auntie, and they love my hair, and because they love my hair so much, they love their hair. And I want all little girls to experience that. 

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Sometimes it’s dope. Yeah, get a blowout. Get your hair twisted. Get your hair braided. Those things are cute. You can switch it up. That’s the magic of our hair. But not as a way to contain you, or say that you don’t look acceptable the way you are. You wanna wear it straight? Boom, go get that blow dryer and that hot comb. You wanna wear it out? Bam, put a little shea butter on it. Let your soul glow. You can do all of these things. It doesn’t have to be one thing, or the many things, that people think you should be. It can be whatever you want to be. I didn’t have those choices, and now they do. 

Your silhouette, too, is now something I walk past in my own neighborhood — there’s an image of you in the series of Seventh Street murals here in Capitol View — stitching, appropriately — with the words “Power to the Peaceful” beside you. I guess I’m wondering how those words resonate to you right now, only a few days into this year that’s been marked with tumult and violence. 

Those words are something that I got, I don’t know how many years ago, from Minnijean [Brown-Trickey]. When she lived in Arkansas, several years back, she had a bumper sticker on her car that said “Power to the Peaceful.” And I was like, “Man. Dang, I like that.” And it just became something that I said, because as much as I believe in the good fight, I’m not gonna engage somebody in violence. That’s not my way. That’s not how I’m gonna interact with people on the road to justice that we’re all on. It’s something that I say in all my videos. It’s something that I mean. And I don’t feel differently about it. I’m using my power for good. I’m using my power for peace and social justice and art and freeing Black people, and I feel like that’s who I want to share my power with — those who are peaceful, those who are honoring people who are in the margins. To widen those margins.

Crystal C. Mercer
Crystal C. Mercer

I feel very afraid sometimes in this country, because we see the stark differences, and nothing is being done. Even in reference to what happened at our nation’s Capitol, the Capitol was breached. It’s like, isn’t somebody gonna come down and break this up? Hours that day, I’m glued to the television. It’s like, well, people have been saying this for years, or in tweets, in think tanks or in actual communication, and nothing was done. That’s why I have to devote my energy to people who want to do something and don’t want to be engaged in that way. Because that is America. That wasn’t a dark day in America, that was a day in America. 

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So I do believe in giving my energy for peace, particularly with the book and these beautiful images of Black women and these beautiful images of young Black girls. I’m not a rocket scientist. I don’t work on national security. But that’s my part; I stitch and I know things. 

And I want to give the appropriate amount of credit to Tanya Hollifield, who was the artist of the mural on 7th Street. She has done several murals down there, and all of them are beautiful. She came to me with this concept for Peace Week, and the quilt that she painted me stitching was an actual quilt that I’m working on.

Et Alia Press/Arshia Khan
From Crystal C. Mercer’s “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair”

The level of sensory detail in the book’s imagery is so crisp; every page is hand-stitched, and the whole stitching/”illustrating” effort alone took nearly 500 hours to complete. How did you do this, technique-wise? Did you draw it first and then transfer to the cloth? 

It took 467 hours, so nearly 500 hours. That was just the stitching. And that was in between me doing a fellowship with the Winrock International I-Fund, running Mercer Textile Mercantile, holding down two contract jobs, recovering from surgery, surviving the pandemic. I didn’t sleep for four months! All I did was work on my fellowship and stitch. I took over the dining room. There was fabric everywhere. I probably napped, and there were days when I slept, like, two hours, three hours. … Erin Wood, at Et Alia, gave me freedom, and that was kind of unconventional. The amount of work and attention to detail she put in — she just let me do my thing, and I let her do her thing. The grammar, the layout, the margins — that’s what she focused on, and I got to focus on the art. You know, when you work with a publisher, and you want to find a central image for a story, you choose something and then that’s what you render or paint or generate. You don’t take the amount of time that I take for one page. It could be anywhere between 10 and 30 hours to stitch one page.

Et Alia Press/Arshia Khan
From Crystal C. Mercer’s “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair”

You mentioned that the inspiration for the book came to you while you were living in Ghana. Was there a moment, or was it more cumulative than that? 

I didn’t know it was gonna happen in this way, but my nieces love books, and when I wrote the first draft, it was just a pen and ink drawing in a leather journal that my friend Ganelle gave me as a going-away present — just some poems, no story involved. And when I read it to them, they loved it so much. So I was like, “OK, I’ve got to do something with this.” When I moved back home to finish my last semester at the Clinton School [of Public Service], the year I graduated, I showed Erin, and she was like, “Yeah.” So the little sketches I did expanded. It didn’t leave me, so that’s how I knew I had to do it. 

You’ve included a hashtag, #ancestors, in the glimpses of the book you’ve made public so far, and the book is to be released on March 20, on the birthday of your late grandmother, who figures prominently in the story. What was she like? Why was it important to get her into the book? 

My grandmother is, still, as an ancestor, the matriarch of our family. She’s the oldest of her siblings. She took care of everybody — my mom, my aunts and uncle, her younger siblings, her community between Pelahatchie, Miss., and Pine Bluff, Ark. Just a very loving, caring, intelligent, compassionate, fun person. Like, she’s the grandma everybody wants to have, And when I lived in Ghana — I didn’t know this before I left — she was diagnosed with dementia. Right before I left. And so I didn’t see some of the changes — the memory loss, the confusion — but it became more prominent the longer I was away. Getting people mixed up, seeing people who had already passed on. … I’d have to remind her that I was in Africa and that I couldn’t come see her today, but I would come see her soon. And there was a moment toward the end of a conversation where she said, “You know, Lucy” — that’s what she called me sometimes, after Lucille Ball, ‘cause she always wanted to be in the show, and I was in the theater — she was like, “Lucy, I’m glad that you’re over there in Africa, and I think that you’re doing a good job.” And I was like, “Thank you!” I was excited she remembered it. And she was like, “I’m gonna tell you this. I want you to have some fun and help somebody along the way.” And I said, “I think I can do that, MeMaw.” So she was just a person who loved life and loved people. And her place in the story is: What everybody tried to tell me was demonic or unpresentable or unmanageable or unruly about my hair, she was the one who would reinforce something positive. She would grease my scalp. Or braid my hair so I could go out and play all day and it wouldn’t just be all over my head. I could let it down at night. Or rub my temples, sitting on the porch snapping peas. Those little grandmotherly things where you don’t realize you need to be hugged or you need a word or you need to be touched. How she said things so simply, but they made a big impact. Like, “have some fun, and help somebody along the way.” That’s how I want to live my life. That’s what I think this is all about. 

Pre-order the book here.