on When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

A necessary tension in memoir is that between the individual at the center of it and the broader context—the cultural or historical moments shaping the author’s trajectory into our lives. Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s When They Call You a Terrorist, co-written with asha bandele, with a foreword by Angela Davis, foregrounds this tension: the book is subtitled “A Black Lives Matter Memoir”—a nod to the influential project that Khan-Cullors created with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. Some readers may know Khan-Cullors primarily for the hashtag she created in a 2013 Facebook comment in response to Garza’s post about George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. Her hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, put into motion a decentralized national movement calling for racial justice, centered on the fundamental right to life of Black Americans. The book is a memoir of a movement and of the circumstances that birthed it, but it is also very much a memoir of Khan-Cullors herself, as a person as well as an activist—an assertion that her specific individual life, and the particulars of how that life has unfolded, matter.

Readers who hope When They Call You a Terrorist will offer a justification or defense of Black Lives Matter as a movement won’t find either, at least not in such literal terms. What they will find is an account that kaleidoscopes gracefully back and forth in time, from Khan-Cullors’s childhood to 2016, through different repetitions of incarcerations, of losses, of coming together—an account that illuminates Khan-Cullors’s family and most intimate relationships. At its core, this is a memoir of interpersonal bonds; the authors show us something about how Black life matters by showing us how deeply and unwaveringly the people in Khan-Cullors’s life have loved her and each other. From her earliest memories of family, the pattern drawn is of people granting each other unconditional love and support, though they can’t grant each other access to power, or even guarantee basic safety.

The book challenges readers to learn the blueprint for a kind of love that is more than a balm for injustice and exhaustion, one that also makes possible a specific kind of political visioning. Khan-Cullors writes, “My community. . . this chosen family of mine, loves in a way that sets an example for love. Their love as a triumph, as a breathing and alive testimony to what we mean when we say another world is possible.” Love here is imagined as a political force in addition to an interpersonal one, and the two aspects are joined in the fear and protective drive for those we care about deeply that keeps us going when we might not be able to persevere for ourselves alone, that keeps us committed to a collective future even when it may be difficult to imagine ours individually. Throughout, interpersonal support and communal visions of love and future are integrally linked to Khan-Cullors’s career as a trained organizer and activist. These themes develop through her recollections of joining the Los Angeles–based Strategy Center as a teen, and then enacting the ideologies of conflict resolution and cultural change taken from the magnet school she attends, the social justice spaces she joins, the campaigns she goes on to undertake, and the legislative victories she wins.

When They Call You a Terrorist outlines, ultimately, a political principle of love, or perhaps more aptly one of connection—a commitment to staying connected with, and present for, the community and oneself, even when the weight of the harm experienced by Black people in the U.S. threatens to make disconnection the defining fact of community, family, and one’s life. Again and again the authors highlight the ways the state enforces, incentivizes, and benefits from disconnection: the traumatic disconnections of mass incarceration, of solitary confinement, of school suspension as a pedagogical strategy, of the isolation born of addiction and self-loathing. They highlight as well the degree to which the violent presence of law enforcement invades the safe and loving environment of the neighborhood, the home, and even the marriage bed in the middle of the night. But again and again, the book also gently pushes us to witness the power that can be built from choosing to pursue connection anyway, from doing the profoundly challenging work of returning to and deepening human bonds, even—and especially—when that work seems too difficult.

Unsurprisingly, then, many of the strongest and most compelling elements of When They Call You a Terrorist are scenes of interpersonal interaction, where a theory of what it might look like for someone to matter, to have absolute and unconditional worth, manifests in action. The scenes eschew the lyric or poetic on the level of the sentence for a kind of careful and concrete attention to the moment, an unflinching gaze into what was at stake in that instant—for example, the moment of Khan-Cullors coming out as bisexual to a beloved cousin and facing the cousin’s flush of anger, born of fear for Khan-Cullors’s future; or the surreal and tender negotiation of convincing her mentally ill brother to accept medical treatment by, of all things, winning a pull-up challenge.

Maybe the most powerful scene of the memoir is the long, dark night Khan-Cullors spends with her father, Gabriel. Having tracked him down while he is in the throes of a substance-abuse relapse and the accompanying shame spiral, Khan-Cullors must find a way to stay with him in that moment and offer some sign of the worth he has already decided isn’t possible for him. He tells her “how it feels to not seem to matter as a person in the world. He has never been worth saving, never worth treatment.” Her decision to show up for her father reverberates through the length of the text like the ring of a bell, offering a vision of a movement that values connection over respectability or disposability:

I refuse to turn away. If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me in every moment. He has to matter to me at this moment . . . His life is not expendable. Our love is not disposable. I will not be to him what the world has been to him. I will not throw him away. I will not say he has nothing to offer.

No less valuable than these personal stories is the book’s discussion of pursuing justice within the Black Lives Matter movement and related organizations. The authors write about the Black transgender women who showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, to protest police officer Darren Wilson’s acquittal of Michael Brown’s murder, and who told Khan-Cullors that Black Lives Matter “did little to ensure their visibility, to lift up the fact that our work is being advanced by an extraordinary number of trans women and men.” Khan-Cullors and bandele acknowledge that “Black Lives Matter is pushed to follow the leadership of Black trans women. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed.” The full inclusion of Black trans people and especially trans women, who are pervasively criminalized and profoundly harmed by state violence, is a crucial test of the standard to which Khan-Cullors holds herself in the scene with her father: how, in practice, can a movement ensure that it does not re-enact upon its most marginalized the injustices they have already suffered, or ignore their invaluable contributions?

This question is echoed in the exploration of how Khan-Cullors, Tometi, and Garza were themselves erased from the story of their own movement, seeing the fruits of their labor celebrated while their labor itself was rendered invisible. They watched coverage of Black Lives Matter crop up everywhere, but their names nowhere; the movement was depicted as if it had materialized from thin air, rather than from the hard work and organizing experience of these three women. When They Call You a Terrorist prioritizes explicit acknowledgment, crediting those who have mentored and supported Patrisse Khan-Cullors personally: co-author asha bandele, dream hampton, and Rosa Clemente. (A more in-depth exploration of what it looks like to structurally center queer and especially trans leadership in a movement as intentionally decentralized as Black Lives Matter would be welcome in some other study, even if beyond the scope of the authors’ intentions here: who matters within and with respect to a movement, and how is the action of recognizing it manifested?)

The challenge of reconciling the narrative of a person’s life with that of an historical moment in general is particularly acute when the “moment” is not yet historical at all, but still urgently unfolding. The effect here is less a full accounting, which would be impossible, than a portrait of a subject blurry with motion: a depiction of a certain kind of momentum rather than a fixed destination. Khan-Cullors and bandele accept that none of us can guarantee ourselves or each other any specific future, and certainly not one of any definite safety or peace. It is possible, though, to promise forward motion—the shared envisioning of what potential futures could look like and the heavy, joyful work of striking out toward them.

 

Rachel Kincaid is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis. Her fiction has been published in Threepenny Review, Forklift, Ohio, and Paper Darts.