I want to speak to you in terms of art and migration because art is our best way of expressing the human spirit and migration has been the best way of ensuring the permeation of our art, culture, and history around the world.
I’m Idris Nasir Mitchell, and this is my Crystal Stair.
Art makes Us…
In the 1930s my great grandparents landed on Ellis Island from their native Caribbean home of St. Martin. Settling in New York, they birthed and raised eight incredibly strong-willed, courageous, and dynamic women. Creating family in a post-Harlem Renaissance New York meant that one common factor that attracted, married, eventually procreated and thus grew my family, was art.
Art in all forms–music, theater, dance, poetry, paint–has become an indelible part of my identity, and I feel most at home when surrounded by the creative expression. I drew inspiration from so many of my trailblazing ancestors including my great-uncle, prolific artist, activist, and writer, Romare Bearden. Simply put, I was raised knowing creativity was in my blood.
Art connects us…
My father died when I was three, but I still learn from him…He kept an old version of The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, now my favorite novel. I often run my fingers over the worn, yellowed pages, reading and rereading the marginal notes he made, laughing at the same things he laughed at, questioning the same parts he questioned, sharing these intimate moments–that conventionally wouldn’t be possible–between a father and his son. I feel his presence in the work I do and am proud to carry on his legacy in the ways that I can.
Art heals us…
The number 2 is important to me. Specifically, because it reminds me of my 2nd year of college at Yale University. Further, it was the 2nd day of the in the 2nd month of that academic year when I experienced a severe bipolar manic episode, so intense that I had to take a medical withdrawal from school and later be checked into a mental hospital. I was on track to get all A’s that semester and I begged and pleaded to be able to finish my finals… to no avail. I told my professors I’d write my final essays in pen by hand, but please…just please let me finish. Because pens were seen as a hazard to the patients, they only offered me one thing…most artists’ beginner tool.
I knew I couldn’t complete my finals in crayon, so instead, I drew. Art–in the many forms I practice–facilitated catharsis, while I focused on recovery and prioritizing myself first.
It’s now in this story that I give a moment of silence to mourn the old me. The stages of grief, that often accompany death, apply similarly to the death of a former self. As dynamic, determined, likable and intelligent, as he was…or used to be…. he reveled too much in this counterfeit high of status and other’s opinions. That meant that his crash from what felt like a rising star hurt like hell. By way of losing his mind, his relationships, his stability, he actually lost the need for operating within a comfort zone.
I was starting to grow (as if my 6’ 4’’ frame wasn’t big enough already).
The Idris that was born from those experiences values having a sound mind in a sound body– Idris Nasir (Arabic for “helper of man”) Mitchell; the Idris that is now about to graduate with a joint Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in political science, who has created a platform to support and advocate the mental health issues prevalent in young black men; the Ron Brown Scholar and campaign manager Idris. This Idris is not only here to stay but is also here to ensure that other’s too can live mentally healthy lives while expressing themselves creatively, and it excites me to see what he’s capable of.