Ever since she became the first person to place a hashtag in front of “Black Lives Matter,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors — who co-founded Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — has been asked to speak for black people in a way she couldn’t anticipate. Not only is she expected to advocate the civil rights of black people who feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement, but she is also often asked to comment when other Black Lives Matter activists make controversial statements about law enforcement or white people.
While she couldn’t foresee the platform she has now, Khan-Cullors explains in her new memoir, “When They Call You A Terrorist,” how her life experiences prepared her for a career of advocacy.
- She grew up explaining her brother Monte Cullors’s mental illness to Los Angeles police who beat and arrested him for activity triggered by his schizophrenia.
- She eulogized her father, Gabriel Brignac, who died suddenly in a homeless shelter after years cycling in and out of jail on drug convictions.
- And as she developed a life of her own, Khan-Cullors guided black youth who, like her, shifted homes and relied on friends when family relations were strained.
- The responsibilities Khan-Cullors absorbed as a sister, daughter and mentor are part of her role as a black woman, she writes. The burden was often heavier as a queer black woman in a Jehovah’s Witness household, but she carries it now on behalf of Monte, Gabriel and those whose names are now memorialized in hashtags.
Now, although Black Lives Matter and her role in the movement have risen in profile, Khan-Cullors has noticed stories of police encounters with black Americans have largely centered on men.
“We don’t talk about what experience criminalization has on our bodies,” says Khan-Cullors, who in her memoir references Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and other black women who died after violent police encounters. “We just become the vehicle to tell black men’s stories.”
When given a chance to present her story, Khan-Cullors marries memoir with manifesto. What happened to her personally has allowed her to grow politically — often in contradictory ways.
In “When They Call You A Terrorist,” she writes that even when her enslaved ancestors weren’t given resources to build their own futures, they “imagined her out of whole cloth.” Their dreams, she writes, are “the only way I am here today.” But even with her ancestors’ hopes, she states that being born in poverty meant she wasn’t expected to actually survive. She writes that black leaders — everyone from pastors to President Barack Obama — further exacerbated her family’s situation by emphasizing personal responsibility as the best solution to overcome hardship.
Today, as a college-educated author, Khan-Cullors celebrates the ways she’s overcome poverty and over-policing. But her successes are quickly followed by “survivor’s guilt” for being able to support her wife, Janaya “Future” Khan, and young son, Shine, while her mother and siblings struggle to access health care and juggle jobs.
While she is now recognized as a co-founder of a global movement, Khan-Cullors maintains that she does not want to control it, opting instead for a decentralized approach that spreads “like wildfire.”
Though the public is hungry for a singular answer to racism and sexism, Khan-Cullors seems to be at ease sharing all the reasons she can’t offer simple solutions.