Upon the Release of Her New Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors Reflects on the Power of Storytelling

By Sameer Rao Jan 16, 2018

Despite co-creating Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi and founding the Los Angeles police accountability group Dignity and Power NowPatrisse Khan-Cullors says she has struggled to embrace the political value of her personal story.

“When you grow up poor and Black, you’re pretty much told that your story’s not worth being listened to,” she says a few days before the January 14 release of “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir." "I know my story’s important, but there’s a bit of imposters’ syndrome and survivors’ guilt that comes with being put in the spotlight. I do think that’s an interesting conversation to have if we’re talking about the leadership development of people who are poor and Black in this country. [But] there’s this other component of being OK with you being the one to tell your story.”

The memoir, which Khan-Cullors co-wrote with journalist, author and activist asha bandele, chronicles the L.A. native’s formative experiences with poverty, police violence, incarceration, queer identity and community organizing. It also charts the development of the Black Lives Matter Global Network in the face of hostile law enforcement, a fickle media and men who take credit for the work. 

We spoke to Cullors about her book’s origins, the value of frankness and what history can teach us about what to do now. 

Why did you choose to write a memoir at this point in your life?

Part of the work of an organizer is to be a storyteller, and to give voice to the impact that White supremacy and nationalism has on poor Black and Brown people. This book takes stock of the last 30 years of this country, specifically with the rise of the War on Drugs and War on Gangs. It also provides an opportunity for those of us organizing as a part of Black Lives Matter to tell our story. Many of us grew up in urban and rural areas that are riddled with neglect by a government that claims “liberty for all.” Given that we live in an administration that calls itself a “law and order” administration that echoes the Reagan era in which I grew up, this book provides some conversation about how we tackle a government like ours in this current climate.

Much of the book details the trauma that structural racism has inflicted on your family. Did writing this book allow you some space to heal?

It was cathartic, and also really painful to relive just how neglectful and abusive this government has been to my family and community. But it also clarified that wherever there is abuse happening, there are people fighting. Whether or not we win, the fight is always there. That was a through line in my book, and hopefully readers finish it and see that these moments in my and my family’s life always involve a challenge. It’s a foundation for how I’ve built my organizing.

The passages about how law enforcement criminalized your brother Monte, who lives with a mental illness, and your father, who battled drug addiction, are particularly raw. Did your family have any reactions to those disclosures?

I’ve been sharing stuff about my family for years. Part of it is because I’ve been organizing since I was 16, and I believe that those who are most impacted are the ones whose leadership we should develop the most, so that they can take down the system that has contributed to their suffering.

But I will say that this is the most detail that I’ve ever given. Arguably, hundreds of thousands of people will read this book. My mother read it, and it was not easy for her. But the other part we have to remember about poor Black families is that our mothers, in particular, are often told that they’re not doing a good job of parenting us. So she read the book and had a hard time at first believing that people wouldn’t think she was a bad parent. It was so heartbreaking to hear that, because it means that she still believes that our poverty was her fault. And it shows that the product of racial capitalism has succeeded in brainwashing our communities to believe that poverty is our fault. Once she was done, though, she did follow up to say, “Thank you for saying these nice things about me in the book.” Which weren’t nice things, they were just true—my mom is a survivor, she raised four children on her fucking own. She’s literally my biggest hero.

Given the candor you use throughout “When They Call You a Terrorist,” did you choose to leave anything out?

Definitely. Every memoir is curated, and I obviously share a lot about myself— that’s how I relate to the world. I share because I think it’s important and invaluable to our folks to be able to name the shit that we’ve been through. But, some details are for another book. I purposefully didn’t put some stuff in there because I want people to focus on the major themes, which include the aforementioned wars and Black women’s leadership in our movement.

I purposefully didn’t include the internal issues within our movement. That could be a whole book, but I really wanted to focus the ways in which our movement is building our resilience. I’m also not interested in writing something that gives more fodder. It’s easy to focus on what we perceive as drama, and I made a decision not to do that.

With President Donald Trump’s administration breathing new life into the drug war and the FBI labeling people as “[B]lack identity extremists,” are you concerned about the future of the movement?

Of course, but [having] the historical record of COINTELPRO really helps us in this moment. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Ca.) has been at the forefront of pushing to dissolve this label because it doesn’t actually exist. It’s really telling that in this current era, with someone like Jeff Sessions as our attorney general, that this kind of identity would be recreated and that we’d be seeing a resurgence of repression against Black activism. We have history to let us know how this goes. I don’t think that we’ll see the kinds of emboldened assassinations that we saw 30 years ago, but I do think infiltration and serious surveillance is taking place. But we also have a movement that’s much more savvy about the these things and the negative response from law enforcement than in the past.

Black Lives Matter is not only frequently demonized but distorted. Media outlets frequently identify men who aren’t even in the organization as its leaders. Is that part of why you wrote the book?

Yes, it was a way of setting the record from my perspective. I was there when Black Lives Matter was created. We talk a lot about being leader-full in this movement, and sometimes that has meant that we shy away from being figuring out who is one of the leaders to speak out on something. That was one of my biggest qualms in writing the book—Why me? Is this appropriate?

But I was trained to [ask] how the story will be told 100 years from now and how I have contributed to the written history of fighting against White supremacy. That was what I was most interested in doing. The reality is that Black folks come from an oral culture, and we know that oral cultures can get lost. It’s more likely that a book will withstand, and I think that’s powerful

“When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” is available now (with a foreword by Angela Davis) through St. Martin’s Press.