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

When They Call You a Terrorist was much more than I expected. It isn’t only about the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also a deeply personal memoir of family, survival, incarceration, mental health, feminism, community and more. It is a beautifully told story, that is as inspiring as it is disheartening. 

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Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.

The central message and biggest take away from this book, is the power of community. Not only to activate, but also to heal, to inspire, to respond, and to nourish. Khan-Cullor’s community, one that she actively cultivates through out the book, shows us the power of marginalized people to stare down oppression and systematic abuses. To enact change, to create safety when there is none. When They Call You a Terrorist has no happy ending. Which is true for America’s Black folks. But the ending isn’t important in this book, it is about the journey of one woman, fortifying her life with like minded people and fighting like hell for her their voices to be heard, and listened to.

Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Khan-Cullors is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to people suffering inequality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country―and the world―that Black Lives Matter

Kahn-Cullors (along with bandele) lets us into her life. She uses her own unique experiences to contextualize a more general Black American narrative. Her own father’s incarceration is an avatar for the hundreds of thousands of Black men who were imprisoned along side him. The abuses her brother suffers as mentally ill man in prison, become a glimpse into the many men who are abused when proper medical help would have sufficed. She combines deeply personal experiences into something relatable. In the doing, she puts a face on mental illness,  mass incarceration, drug abuse, racism, and police brutality. She humanizes Blackness. 

Something that is often overlooked in society is the role of Black and Brown women, especially queer women, in the progress of society. This book calls out this erasure, and correctly credits them with much of the social progress we have all benefited from. Khan-Cullors, demands we acknowledge the contributions, both in her own life (her mother, her friends, her lovers) and in the bigger picture (the activists she works with, and the victims of police brutality #sayhername). Bravo, for calling out women who very much are and very much have been the center of the movements toward justice and equality.

The one part of When They Call You a Terrorist that I wanted more from, was the discussion of life inside the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, of course we hear about BLM and its formation, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, but it comes late in the book. There are moments in Ferguson, MO, as she helps organize around BLM, but there is not much about what life as a leader of such a powerful movement is like. I would have enjoyed more on that. 

I listened to this book, and Khan-Cullors reads it. She does a great job. Her voice is calming and direct. She tells her own story beautifully. It made me want to meet her. It made me want to fight alongside her. 

There is no doubt this memoir is moving. It is one woman’s story, and a slice of history. The book speaks to a bigger picture and moment, and I think we will look back on this book as one of the important texts of the decade. 

  • Audiobook: 6 hours and 29 minutes
  • Publisher: Macmillan Audio
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; Reprint edition (January 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on When They Call You a Terrorist Amazon

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