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.”


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.


There’s A New MJ in Town: Review of This Will Be My Undoing

Reading is highly subjective. We all know this. So for me, the stories that I love most are those that allow the ordinary, everyday experiences of human life to commune with the divine. Writers whose stories oscillate easily between micro and macro, and who center their characters, real or fictional, with feet firmly rooted in history and the present-day are the ones I return to again and again. In her first essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins intricately unfolds formative moments in her life and grapples with the decidedly non-monolithic concept of a “black woman,” and is the most extraordinary voice I’ve come across in a long time.


An Education for EVERYONE

Near the end of her first piece titled “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins tells us that this collection of ten personal essays is for everyone. “It is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary.”

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of authors say this. Every modern artist creating today wants their work to be consumed and appreciated by as many people as possible. They try and craft an experience that is marketable to every audience.  But from what I’ve read and seen, very few artists are actually able to do this, because the artists want to be marketable, they also want to be unique, and their endeavors to be unique often box their art into niches that can only be accessed and enjoyed by a select few. But like I told you in the title, there’s a new virtuoso in town, because Morgan Jerkins is one of those artists.

This collection is obviously about an experience of being black and female in America. Jerkins says so in the title. Each essay is a personal endeavor into deeply intimate moments of Jerkins’ life, from being called a monkey after trying out for her elementary school cheerleading team to her stepfather’s death, and each one incorporates Jerkins’ black and female identities and their shaping of those experiences. But her prose is so elegantly consumable that she transcends any barriers of understanding that might exist between her words and the reader.

There are no throwaway sentences in this book. Each word is precisely chosen and weaved into a narrative that is both a history lesson as well as a portrait of an artist as a young woman. Jerkins is a writer reminiscent of bell hooks, whose intellect shines on the page. She pores over and pours into her ideas with a depth of a woman three times her age (she graduated from Princeton in 2014), but her stories remain accessible and grounded in a language that anyone can read and enjoy.

A Journey through Time and Space

It’s challenging to write about this essay collection without giving away all of the interesting bits of Jerkins’ work (which is honestly all of it). She writes a beautiful letter to Michelle Obama in “A Lotus for Michelle” and thanks her for giving her an “actual image of black ascendancy,” all while enduring years of ridicule rooted in racism against black female bodies. She unapologetically embraces her own body and hair in “The Stranger at the Carnival,” and delves into the historical implications of language surrounding black hair, with loaded words like “kinky” and “nappy.” She exquisitely navigates the black identity politics of inhabiting the physical space of Harlem after growing up in white-centric New Jersey in “Human, Not Black.” And while these are all topically fascinating, it’s Jerkins’ abilities as a true artisan of language that makes her stories extraordinary.

Jerkins’ writing undulates inward and outward constantly, from her own microcosmic existence as a black woman just trying to emotionally and physically survive to the macrocosmic, centuries-long trajectory that led her mind, body, and spirit to this time. The historical oppression of her ancestors and the modern-day ramifications of that oppression exist side by side on the page, but it’s never burdensome for the reader, because Jerkins doesn’t allow it to be. She dexterously moves between time and space in her storytelling, and conveys a wisdom that is both educational and inspiring.

In “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” Morgan Jerkins creates a step-by-step guide for black women on how to maneuver through this world while preserving their mind and spirit. At one point, she reminds them that they are not alone, and that there is always someone out there rooting for them. She says, “There is a cosmic wavelength of our universal spirit” that binds black women together. Jerkins taps into that wavelength with every word of her outstanding essays.

My Verdict:

Every great genius has her beginning, that moment of introduction when everyone else looks up and says, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this before.” This Will Be My Undoing is Morgan Jerkins’ beginning, and you owe it to yourself as a citizen of this world to read her words.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

#ThursdayThoughts: The Burden of Diversity

When I decided to blog my venture into reading literature written by women of color, I did so for many reasons:

  • To expand my own reading past a library dominated by white men,
  • To understand myself better and to contextualize my position as a woman of color living in the U.S., and
  • To actually understand intersectionality and the experiences of women who don’t share my ethnicity.

All of these reasons are valid and well-intentioned, in my opinion. So, feeling proud of myself and my own growth as a human being, I began Googling and assembling my Avengers-esque lineup of WOC authors. Side note: who would YOU rather have at your side in battle – the Hulk or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri?

My pile of books grew, and I threw myself into learning and reading with abandon. I lived a day in the life of a soon-to-be-deported Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. I learned what it means for a Nigerian woman to become black upon arriving to the United States in Americanah. I was pumped about my learning and sharing that learning with the world. And then, I read Wintersong.

After finishing S. Jae-Jones’ first novel and reveling in the wonderful story that she told, I found myself asking, “Why did she choose to write about a German girl and her encounters with the underworld?” S. Jae-Jones is Korean-American, so for some reason, I had assumed that her novel would be somehow related to that experience. The real question I was asking was, “Why didn’t she incorporate her ethnicity into this book?” And with that assumption, I unintentionally placed an all-too familiar burden on this author and her writing.

The literary world and society at large expects people of color, and especially women of color, to enlighten them about what it means to be marginalized or oppressed. To share some insight about their “ethnic” or “cultural” experience as someone who is NOT a white man. So if you’re brown or black, it somehow becomes your job to teach white people about your life and your experiences.

This is an egregiously unfair and completely unrealistic burden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to write about those experiences. We need more diversity in literature – diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, etc. But we cannot box POC or WOC into a corner and expect that all they have to offer the world perfectly aligns with their marginalization. People are much too complex and interesting to be suffocated in this way.

I only realized that I too was adding to this systemic burden when I read this article on Fantasy Cafe, written by the author of Wintersong herself. Jae-Jones perfectly articulates the expectations we place on artists who happen to be non-white and non-male. She discusses the different cultural and literary influences that led her to write Wintersong.  And she also writes about how despite the fact that this story was hers in the sense that it was a beautiful amalgamation of so many stories and aesthetics she had grown to love, readers still questioned her authenticity, and ultimately her adequacy as a Korean-American woman. Somehow, she became less in the eyes of some of her readers, because she wasn’t writing a Korean-American story.

S. Jae-Jones is allowed to write a story about a German girl falling into the clutches of the Goblin King, because that is the story she wanted to write. That’s all that matters. She is more than just a Korean-American – she is a human being who has been deeply shaped by all of the books, movies, relationships, and experiences in her life. Who hasn’t? She shouldn’t have to justify what she writes about to anyone. And that includes me!

I am grateful for her story and the time that she took to eloquently educate me and the literary community about the burden of being a female writer of color, which she calls an “albatross about [her] neck.” And I also thank her for reminding me of my own complexity, and of the many varied and seemingly paradoxical influences in my life.

Just like S. Jae-Jones was shaped by Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I can name W.B. Yeats and Joy Harjo as some of my biggest literary inspirations. I’ve also been equally molded by my love of romantic dramas and time travel. Maybe my first novel will be some great fusion of all of the above, or maybe it’ll be about an Indian-American girl growing up in Virginia Beach. Who knows?

All I do know is that it’s time for us to relieve people of color of this enormous weight. Artist or not, people of color are not responsible for educating or enlightening anyone about their marginalized experiences. We need that education, for sure, but we CANNOT demand it.

What do you think about this issue? Leave your comments below, and happy Thursday!


Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash