When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an essay arguing against affirmative action in the college admissions process. Rooted in the belief that non-white students deserve to be treated exactly the same as white students, I argued that the only true way to achieve this kind of equality was through a merit-based system. I competed in the original oratory event at forensics (public speaking) competitions several times that year, and I contended each time that affirmative action was not beneficial because it wouldn’t actively undo the oppression my peers’ ancestors had gone through. It was an inadequate apology at best, and at worst, a reduction of hardworking students to statistics on the page. I won 3rd place at the state-level competition that year, and I reveled in my win.
I didn’t know then how naive I was.
I was educated, both in the classroom and outside of it, to believe that I lived in a post-racial country, and that oppression and segregation were relics of a bygone era. The movement for racial equality started and stopped with the acquisition of new amendments and laws in my mind and in my textbook. I truly didn’t understand that many of my peers were held back because they didn’t have access to the resources I did, and that this lack of resources was a deliberate attempt by those in power to keep other groups down. When I graduated that spring with a handful of medals and trophies from various forensics competitions, throughout which not one adult called me out on the inaccuracy of my argument, I didn’t know what Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ story asserts in When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir: that Americans “rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact.”
Written by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, and asha bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist is an unapologetic indictment of this country’s culture and a rallying battle call for all of us to step out of our comfort zones and into the truth of black America. The memoir focuses in on pivotal moments and relationships in Khan-Cullors’ life and how those shaped her into the activist and artist she is today.
Art and Health = Vital to Movement & Healing
In their discussion of the origins and evolution of Black Lives Matter, Khan-Cullors and bandele take you behind the scenes in Ferguson, just weeks after Michael Brown is shot and killed in August 2014. Many of us remember reading and hearing about the protests that erupted there and all around the country, but what wasn’t visible to us on the news and online were the deliberate efforts to take care of the protesters, to ensure their mental and emotional well-being after weeks of intense grief and anger.
The organizers of Black Lives Matter not only coordinated a Freedom Ride into the city for their first in-person protest, they created a “healing justice space” for protesters to recover in a church basement. This converted basement offered therapy, an art station for people to express themselves silently, a physical place to just rest. bandele and Khan-Cullors write that “…in the fullness of our humanity, we need this, too, along with protests.” They needed a “place to restore.”
The fact that BLM took the time and energy to create such a space is a testament to the depth and power of this movement and its extraordinary leadership. Every organization, professional or volunteer, should prioritize this type of creative restoration for its members, particularly when there’s trauma involved. After working for several years as an educator, I’ve seen that the most impactful teachers and school leaders are the ones who actively encourage our students, regardless of their behavior in the classroom, to express themselves emotionally. Every human needs this kind of deliberate emotional healing, and I love that Khan-Cullors and Black Lives Matter made it a key part of their first in-person protest.
Consumable Yet Uncomfortable: A Non-Fiction Surprise
I have to admit, reading non-fiction and writing about it is a challenge for me. It usually takes me weeks to get through any non-fiction read, regardless of subject matter. As a child, I read books to escape the gloom of adolescence and school, so I naturally gravitated to fiction, a genre that allowed me to easily surrender myself to completely foreign worlds. Non-fiction does not allow me to do that. I find my feet firmly planted in truth and reality, both revelatory and uncomfortable, and I can’t inhale it in a matter of hours. So while I’ve started reading more non-fiction, in an attempt to understand things about the very real world around me, I would usually much rather pick up a good fiction book instead.
It took me less than 24 hours to finish When They Call You a Terrorist.
While their writing is dotted with historical anecdotes, documents, and statistics, very much in the vein of Morgan Jerkins’ This Will Be My Undoing, Khan-Cullors and bandele create a searing and profoundly lyrical story about the birth of Black Lives Matter, and more particularly, about the life of one of its founders. They draw beautifully intimate portraits of the people in Khan-Cullors’ life, from her brother Monte to her biological father Gabriel, and by the time I finished the book, not only was I more fully invested in the movement, I simply wanted Khan-Cullors to be happy. I wanted everyone in her life to be happy and successful. Isn’t that the mark of any great book, whose characters and words you fall in love with? This memoir invites empathy, because it does what any good piece of popular fiction does – it brings you into the story, and it breaks your heart.
When They Call You a Terrorist is not a comfortable read in any sense of the word, but it’s not supposed to be. bandele and Khan-Cullors know what they’re doing with their words, and they’re not here to sugarcoat the fact that black men, women, and children still suffer daily at the hands of modern American systems and structures. They’re here to remind us that the idea that “black lives DON’T matter” is pervasive in the way we depict black Americans in the media, the way we discuss their culture, and a myriad of other ways. I was upset throughout the book, and while I did have to put it down a few times during those 24 hours to digest and temporarily recover, it was only a matter of minutes before I picked it back up again. When They Call You a Terrorist isn’t comfortable, but its writing and storytelling draw you in on every page.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is an incredible and profound read. Read this book. Buy this book. Share this book. If this past year of American life and politics has taught me anything, it’s that we need to be sharing and uplifting the perspectives and narratives of marginalized citizens, especially when they’re saying something that causes us discomfort. Thank you, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, for giving us this story.