When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir By Patrisse Khan-Cullors (with asha bandele; introduction by Angela Davis)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 272 pp., $24.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susana Morris
The words “Black Lives Matters” come together to form a simple, declarative phrase. It plainly states that Black life— which has been under siege in the wake of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and Trumpism, simply put—matters. Yet, since the hashtag burst into the public consciousness in the wake of the death of Mike Brown in 2014, the words have taken on an even more profound meaning. For some, Black Lives Matter is the clarion call for a new generation of organizers and activists to resist racism and police brutality. For some, Black Lives Matter rebukes lazy post-racial thinking in favor of a deliberate focus on the how far race relations still need to come. For some, Black Lives Matters elevates one race above all others, for shouldn’t “all lives matter”? For some, Black Lives Matter is the rallying cry for crazed, far left, anti-white “Black identity extremists” who are just as bad as the white nationalists on the alt-right. For some, “Black Lives Matter” reflects the sad state of contemporary activism, in which Blacks are not even seeking power but just basic recognition of their humanity.
For those invested in the phrase Black Lives Matter, it is neither a reflection of the anemic state of activism, nor an example of the violence of the “altleft,” nor evidence of “reverse racism” (which is actually not a thing). Instead, the notion that Black Lives Matter rests on the assumption that if Black lives truly mattered in our society then all lives would, in fact, matter. For when the most historically marginalized people are recognized in the fullness of their humanity then all of us can truly be free.
Although, the term “Black Lives Matter” gained national momentum during the Ferguson protests, the phrase was coined in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of another unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Three Black women organizers, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors joined forces in response to the seemingly never-ending cycle of state sanctioned violence against Black people. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a full-fledged movement with chapters across North America. The Black Lives Matter network identifies itself as a global entity, a decentralized “chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” This network is just one of over a dozen of grassroots organizations that also come together as the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of progressive groups devoted to supporting, protecting, and preserving Black life in the face of pervasive anti- Blackness and state violence.
In When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan- Cullors, one of three Black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement, traces her life her working class roots in southern California to the organizing and activism that characterizes her identity today. The memoir is in the tradition of Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm, Elaine Brown, Maya Angelou, and so many other Black women freedom fighters: it illustrates how the personal is in fact the political.
Khan-Cullors’s early life is characterized by a close-knit family beleaguered by poverty. Her mother works 16-hour days for low pay just to keep her family clothed and fed, her father figures flit in and out of her life as they navigate factory closures, addiction, and jail time all the while trying to parent.
While the recent Great Recession of 2008 plunged many American families into financial peril, Khan- Cullors’s memoir is a reminder that for many families of color the 1980s and 1990s were also a time of hyper-unemployment. As a child, one of her favorite forms of escaping this reality is watching the popular early 1990s drama Beverly Hills 90210, which is a sharp contrast to her Van Nuys neighborhood, where the only grocery is store is a 7-Eleven. Unlike the pristine white neighborhoods she watches on TV, police in her community “circle blocks or people… like hungry hyenas.”
Police surveillance and frequent arrests for petty crimes, such as tagging, or for actions that should not be deemed crimes—like standing in public while young, Black, and male—plague her family. Some of Khan-Cullors’s earliest memories involve the terrifying presence of the police patrolling her neighborhood, harassing residents, and targeting her neighbors. The men in her family—her brother Monte, in particular—are repeatedly terrorized by the police. Monte’s story becomes a touchstone in the memoir, as mental illness and the carceral state collide in his life again and again. Monte suffers from schizoaffective disorder, something he is not diagnosed with until he is well into his twenties and already has a rap sheet. Monte’s experiences illustrate the deep failings of the prison industry and mental health; Khan-Cullors notes that “there are more people with mental health disorders in prison than in all of the psychiatric hospitals in the United States added up.” Khan-Cullors’s memoir asks us what would happen if we as a nation focused on providing access to quality physical and mental health rather than the building of more prisons?
Throughout the book, Khan-Cullors explores what terrorism looks like. Despite the fact that neither she nor her comrades espouse or commit violence, they are frequently depicted as terrorists.
There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter. The document gained traction during the first week of July 2016 after a week of protests against the back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis. At the end of that week, on July 7, in Dallas, Texas, a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter protest that was populated with mothers and fathers who brought their children along to proclaim: We have a right to live.
Despite the backlash, she and her fellow activists press on. In countless examples throughout the narrative, Khan-Cullors rejects the notion that she and others who fight for justice and speak truth to the power of white supremacy are, in fact, terrorizing others. Every detailed account of police brutality and lack of accountability flies in the face of the lie that those who seek to expose and disrupt terror are truly the ones to fear.
The book soars in its ability to make meaningful the phrase “the personal is political.” In her story, Khan-Cullors’s family history of poverty and incarceration is not about individual failings but about collective and systemic ways in which Black and Brown folk are set up to fail. And just as she shares the dark times that shaped her life, so does she share the times of love and laughter that spur her onwards. A progressive high school becomes the author’s lifeline, where she learns that even, or perhaps especially, as a youngster that she can make a difference. Her experiences as a queer woman navigating romantic and platonic love are poignant and unabashed. The prose, though heartbreaking at times, is also poetic and triumphant, formed by the deft hands of both Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, a noted writer and political advocate.
In many ways, the book reads not just as a memoir of Khan-Cullors’s own individual life but as an autobiography of the movement, as its subtitle “A Black Lives Matter Memoir” suggests. This is not because her life is not compelling but rather because Khan-Cullors so convincingly leads readers to understand how system oppressions shape the lives of marginalized folk in similar ways. And the memoir also traces a trajectory to activism that although far from trite feels familiar (see the autobiographies of community organizers from Shirley Chisholm to Barack Obama and you’ll see some of the path that Khan-Cullors follows and blazes a trail for). And, undoubtedly, co-founders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi could tell similar stories of their path to activism while living the complicated lives that Black women fighting to be free often do. Ultimately, When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir that tells the story of both one incredible woman and of a generation.
Susana M. Morris is associate professor of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is author of Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature (UVA Press, 2014), and co-editor, with Brittney C. Cooper and Robin M. Boylorn, of The Crunk Feminist Collection (Feminist Press, 2017).