When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir promises to shed light on an often misunderstood social movement. Co-written by activist and journalist asha bandele and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, it gets to the heart of one of America’s biggest current debates, race, and details how to carry the historic civil rights struggle into the 21st century.
When They Call You a Terrorist focuses on the personal experiences of Khan-Cullors, beginning with the traumatic childhood events that led her to pursue social activism. She presents, through the eyes of a child, the devastating effects of addiction, poverty, and a broken justice system, and how systemic inequalities turn these into routine cycles for many African-Americans.
It is these early passages, depicting Khan-Cullors’ familial relations, that most poignantly demonstrate the trauma that first mobilised her. It was after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer that she co-founded Black Lives Matter, and it is as she details the criminalisation of her “big, loving, [mentally] unwell” brother that the parallel injustices become clear: when “it has everything to do with being Black and nothing to do with it”, the personal and public become equally political.
Khan-Cullors and bandele write wonderfully together, so synchronous that it is often difficult to separate their voices. The book flows naturally, almost conversationally – an innovative way of making accessible a movement that may seem confusing to an outsider. By blending the affectingly childish naivety of Khan-Cullors’ early memories and her growing awareness of modern race theory as a social reformer, she successfully demonstrates the institutional and structural inequalities that have sustained the endemic racism she has experienced throughout her life.
There are moments where it seems that the writers get carried away with their prose, sometimes speaking in platitudes and clichés: “I am stardust” comes to mind. Though this may initially seem to undermine the importance of their work, it is important to bear in mind that this is not an academic study. Khan-Cullors is giving her own account of her own story, and while her style might not be to every reader’s taste, her personality and the reality of her experiences ultimately prevail. As she learns as a young woman, “there is something radical and beautiful and deeply transformational in bearing witness to public accountability”, and this emerges as the clearest message of the book.
The dominant media perception of Black Lives Matter might come from the long-lasting unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore and the confrontations between police officers and protesters, but what Khan-Cullors and bandele show is that it is also a movement of unity and inclusion, a necessary project that is trying to radically reshape a fairer America from the grassroots up. When They Call You A Terrorist marks a fascinating, if at times challenging, entry point into a complicated subject that will hopefully inspire its readers to continue the fight against injustice and inequality.
When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele.
(Published by Canongate)