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Lift Every Voice and Heal – Review of When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

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.”

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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.

My Verdict:

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.

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Black Readers Matter: Review of The Hate U Give

Some books don’t need an introduction, an engrossing connection to “my life” as a reader/blogger and what I’ve been doing with it. The Hate U Give is one of those books.

(very mild spoilers ahead)

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Written by first-time novelist Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give opens with protagonist Starr Carter at a party in her Garden Heights neighborhood. What begins as your average high school party quickly devolves into the worst situation imaginable: Starr screaming in a car as she watches a police officer shoot her childhood friend Khalil three times in the chest. Khalil dies of his wounds, and Starr and their community are left reeling. The rest of the novel follows Starr as she tries to grieve for and do justice by her friend and navigate a world that has just gotten a lot bigger.

Thomas started writing this story following the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, whose final day was chronicled in Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station. And while many writers, politicians, activists, and global citizens have written in response to and because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formally established four years later after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Thomas’s direct and powerful appeal to the black youth of this country sets her words apart from the rest.

Confronting Friends When They’re Being Offensive

Most of the young and older people I know, including myself, have little to no idea how to confront their friends about things that bother them. Most of us are not trained to have constructive and direct conversations with our peers, and we tend to hide behind our screens and rely on passivity to convey our frustrations, even if our frustrations are minor. So I was mesmerized and impressed when Starr, whose prep school friends have no idea that she was the witness to Khalil’s shooting, decides to assert herself and ask her white friend Hailey about her offensive behavior and language about people of color.

The resulting conversations are fraught and painful, but are so incredibly essential to the message of The Hate U Give: the only thing that will move this world forward is speaking up and out about injustice. Starr very easily could have ignored her friend and cut her toxicity out of her life altogether, but Angie Thomas instead creates a protagonist that chooses to reflect on her friendship and faces everything that is uncomfortable and painful head-on, which gives younger readers everywhere a character who is both relatable and inspiring.

Choosing Languages

Starr Carter belongs to two very different worlds in The Hate U Give. One is her neighborhood, Garden Heights, which encompasses the majority of her family and their predominantly African-American community. The other is her mostly-white, affluent prep school, where she fits in by suppressing any part of herself that makes her seem like a stereotypical black girl. For Starr, this means speaking one language in Garden Heights, and a completely different language at school. Starr says early in the novel “Slang makes them [her non-black classmates] cool. Slang makes [me] hood.” Starr “holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the angry black girl.”

As someone who grew up hearing and attempting to speak Bengali at home and switching to English at school, this internal rift created by language really resonated with me as a reader. There are some ideas, to this day, which I feel can only be expressed accurately with Bengali words, and I find myself stuttering to reorient my brain to explain myself in English. But while Starr’s struggle resonates with my bilingual brain, her conflict is much more rooted in racism and the way we as a country determine what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” for public consumption.

As a teacher who worked for primarily Hispanic and black kids, I can’t tell you how many times I was instructed or encouraged to make sure that they expressed themselves “professionally” at school. I learned quickly that “professional” didn’t just mean no cursing or demeaning language, it meant no cultural slang. I disregarded this for the most part, and stuck to ensuring that my students felt safe and comfortable being themselves in my classroom. While these instructions might sound well-intended, because of course we want students to be successful in school and in the real world, asking them to change the way they speak when their words aren’t harmful is just another way of ostracizing them.

Starr censors herself because she’s already not like most of the kids in her school, in terms of her race, cultural background, and financial means. But Angie Thomas is hitting on something here that is prevalent across the United States: we are telling kids, both through implicit and explicit messaging, who aren’t white that their language isn’t normal or acceptable, even when it’s still English. This is mind-boggling, because how can we expect students to actually attain success and feel that success when they’re not being themselves?

Non-Black People, This Book is Not FOR You (and That’s Okay)

They say that once you write a book, the work is no longer yours. It belongs to whoever is reading it, and those readers will shape what the book becomes in this world. I love The Hate U Give it for its humor, for its completely raw emotion, for its insights into a community that isn’t mine but is American. I love everything about this book, but it’s not mine. Angie Thomas didn’t write it for me. She didn’t write it for the mostly white publishing industry who gave it rave reviews. Angie Thomas wrote it to validate and uplift the black kids living in fear in America today.

Starr Carter tells us in the second chapter of the book that she had two big milestone conversations with her parents when she was twelve. One was about sex, and the other was about what you should do if a cop stops you. When I read this, I knew this book doesn’t belong to every reader, it belongs to black readers. My parents never had to sit me down and tell me, “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.” This conversation, like the one about sex, is one given out necessity. But I would bet everything that I own that this conversation isn’t a rite of passage in every American household.

The Hate U Give literally gives space to African-American readers to exist and breathe without fear. Thomas validates the complexity of this community with every word that Starr speaks or shouts, and each chapter of this book reminds her young, black audience that they are worthy of being seen and listened to. Simply put, Thomas is telling her readers that she sees them, she hears them, and that they matter.

My Verdict:

Anyone, regardless of race, creed, or origin can read this book and find something to love about it. Thomas draws a brilliant protagonist that we can all learn from in Starr Carter and makes you think about what we define as acceptable language in this country. And while I hope you all take the time to read this book, don’t forget what Thomas is trying to tell us: black readers matter, and so do black lives.

Photo by Sticker You on Unsplash