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.


Let’s Joyfully Destroy That Patriarchy: Review of Sister Outsider

The best recommendations I’ve ever gotten for new books or writers have come to me not from fellow readers, but from the authors whose stories have stayed with me over the years. I had heard Audre Lorde’s name before as an English major at UVA, but I never sought out any of her work until I read that two of my favorite poets, Joy Harjo and Adrienne Rich, both listed her as one of their favorite writers. Rich and Lorde have had multiple conversations discussing writing and racism, and Harjo dedicated a typically gorgeous poem about survival to Lorde. Seeing both of these women, whose works have inspired me so much, endorse Audre Lorde drew me to the incredible catalogue of writing that Lorde created in her lifetime. And I thank them so much for it.

Published in 1984, Sister Outsider documents a collection of speeches and essays curated by Lorde over an eight-year span. I can’t articulate how seminal of a collection this is. Chimimanda Adichie wrote that We Should All Be Feminists, and if you consider yourself a feminist who wants to upend the racist patriarchy we live in, you should read Sister Outsider. Lorde’s experiences as a black lesbian poet and activist inform every moment of this volume. Sister Outsider serves as a crucial reminder that even in the 30+ years that have transpired since its publication, we have a lot to learn from Lorde and other visionaries of her time.

sister outsider

Erik Killmonger Should Have Read This Book

Yes, Lorde is so relevant that her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” applies to the core philosophical debate in Black Panther. It’s one of the shorter essays in this volume, and in it Lorde discusses the tendency of American academics to separate women’s experiences into categories like race, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. Lorde cuts through this tendency immediately by demanding intersectionality, and argues that in our country, “racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable,” as are the experiences of race, age, class, and sexuality. If we want progress, we cannot use the tools of an oppressive patriarchy (racism, etc.) to take down the patriarchy. Lorde maintains that instead, we must “recognize difference as a crucial strength” and create new tools. New tools include understanding each other because of our differences and not in spite of them, and accepting that the existence of differences does not mean one group is more dominant than the other. These tools are the way to take the patriarchy down.

(minor spoilers for Black Panther ahead that you can probably glean from movie trailers, so just keep reading)

So now, Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE. The primary antagonist (not villain) of the film is Michael B. Jordan in the role of Erik Killmonger. Killmonger wants to take the vibranium-rich technology of Wakanda and give it to all the oppressed peoples of the world, so they can rise up and oppress their oppressors. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, king of Wakanda, wants to continue with tradition and keep their advancements safe from the general shittiness of the world. Since Killmonger grew up in the United States and witnessed the centuries-long crimes against his black brothers and sisters, it’s easy to understand how and why he developed his agenda (and there are other spoilery reasons for his anger as well). And even though Killmonger’s intentions are good, because he chooses the tools of the master (oppression) rather than cultivating new tools, the movie sides with T’Challa. Because director Ryan Coogler KNOWS Audre Lorde, or at least this particular argument, he knows that if you want to take down the master’s house, you’re going to need a whole new toolbox.

Eros as The Ultimate Creative Force (Nerds, Unite!)

The relevance of Sister Outsider not only extends to modern-day conversations about America’s racial inequality, it bleeds into discourse about we can improve our daily, personal lives. Lorde unexpectedly upends our understanding of the erotic and addresses the lack of creativity in our society in “Uses of the Erotic.” The traditional Greek concept of eros is defined as romantic or passionate love. Lorde argues that by historically attaching this idea to only personal, sexual relationships, we have created a world in which we feel less joy. By opening the bedroom door and unleashing eros from being chained to only sexual pursuits, Lorde recreates a world in which we are passionately in love with all aspects of our lives, “whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.”

Despite the number of affirming coffee mugs and hashtags we use every day, I can’t say that I know too many people who actually live their lives with this kind of passionate love. I know that I don’t, for a number of reasons. We are socialized not only to respect fear, as Lorde iterates, but also to accept a sense of painstaking boredom. We push the passionate and the romantic to the fringes of society, and deem them obsessive and “other.” For the longest time, our pop culture icons and idealized heroes have been haughty and aloof, uninterested and therefore “cool.” It hasn’t been acceptable to be passionate. Thankfully, the tide is changing. Shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory are bringing nerds to the foreground of our culture. Nerds in my mind are the ultimate passionate players, because they do what they do simply because it brings them joy. It’s a lot cooler now to be passionately in love with our lives, whether they involve cosplay or not. I’d like to think that Lorde would celebrate nerds as highly erotic beings. So, feel more joy, friends. Read that book. Sing that song. Climb that mountain. Do it with the same level of passion and intensity we associate with the boudoir.

My Verdict:

There are thirteen other pieces in Sister Outsider, and Audre Lorde’s genius is radiant in every single one. Her writing transcends her time period and provides specific and prolific insights on how to live intersectionally and joyfully. If you, like me, want to live that kind of life, read Sister Outsider. We still have a lot of work to do.


Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash