Patrisse Khan-Cullors & asha bandele on When They Call You A Terrorist

Three women came together to form an active response to systemic racism – the Black Lives Matter movement. We talk to co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors and journalist asha bandele as new book When They Call You A Terrorist hits shelves

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 25 Jan 2018

When they call you a terrorist, you tell them the truth. – asha bandele

It strikes me that to be labelled a terrorist by the US Government – along with the likes of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, the entire Black Panther Party and countless other black rights activists – is nothing short of an honour. They called Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist too, but the white American cultural memory is short.

In 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, three women – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors – came together to form an active response to the systemic, violent racism enacted on black people in the USA, and globally: the Black Lives Matter movement. When They Call You A Terrorist follows the life of Patrisse, the prominent African American activist, written together with the award-winning author and journalist asha bandele.

Her memoir shows us that first and foremost black women are shaking up the world, but they’ve been kind enough to keep us in the loop. This is a narrative of knee-buckling adversity, but also, triumphantly, so much tenderness and love.   

"Black people have always been a threat to white supremacy"

asha talks of the book’s title and the trope of the ‘black terrorist’ in the United States. She tells me that the memoir was informed by her long friendship with Patrisse, and also a rage at the narrative set by the US Government and media, which has been consistently used throughout history in undermining black struggles for freedom and equal rights.

On the persistence of the ‘black terrorist’ trope, Patrisse explains: "Black people have always been a threat to white supremacy, which seeks to undermine our fight for freedom and dignity. ‘Terrorist’ has simply replaced ‘communist’ in the American lexicon – a term that is salacious, causes public fear, and is a distraction to what’s really happening: black people putting their lives on the line, challenging white governments about our extra judicial murder."

asha continues, touching on on the origins of rebellious blackness: “Drapetomania was a psychological condition ascribed to black slaves who wanted freedom. Our resistance to white supremacy has always been branded subversive.” With this memoir, Patrisse and asha set the record straight, redefining what it means to be a ‘terrorist’ through recollection of a life under the terrorism of the US government.

The memoir is threaded with excerpts from reports, legislative documents and news clippings – much like Reni-Eddo Lodge’s 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, this deals in history and statistics. More so, they are woven into real life, humanising the people government action affects, and reminding us how black life is often the first to suffer. Patrisse explains that by providing historical context alongside personal experience, she shows that black life isn’t experienced in a vacuum, and how black experiences are impacted by government, policies, and the culture of white supremacy.

“Patrisse is talking about what it looks like to live in a world intentionally disrupted by policies created and driven by the American drug war, war on gangs, mass incarceration,” elaborates asha, on why this is a crucial part of the book’s narrative arc. “When we see militarised police in communities, you can’t act as though these things happen without a group of humans making a decision about how some other people were going to live their lives.” It acts as a crucial reminder that the harm done to black people in the United States is enacted by real people, from the comforting distance of government buildings.

This constant grounding in time and place, with deferential nods to preceding movements, lets us know these issues aren’t new. The book brackets the traumas of Patrisse and those around her with reminders not only of how accountability can lie with institutions, but also of how these issues demanded response before the movements we are familiar with today:

“Michelle Alexander has not yet written The New Jim Crow. Barack Obama has not yet been elected and has not left office with the largest reduction in federal prisoners in history. The racially discriminatory sentencing imbalance between crack and powder cocaine has not yet been addressed.”

On creating radical black institutions, and fighting structural colonialism

By contextualising issues alongside the real-time response to injustice and, importantly, their structural causes, Patrisse and asha show us how as a community black people are taught to hold ourselves accountable for our subjugation, without having meaningful conversations about holding the state to account for its lack of support. This narrative feels familiar to how we talk about blackness in the UK; our similar ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude, alongside the unwillingness to talk about the pervasive structural effects of British colonialism, slavery, and prejudice. I question how we could address the wilful distancing of institutions from their impacts, in both the UK and the USA.

“The challenge around anti-black racism is that we’ve been taught that our poverty is our fault,” notes Patrisse, “and nothing that the state did was their fault. That is alongside the idea that if we just work harder and stay out of trouble, we can succeed. The solution in my mind is less about rallying institutions, and more about building on-the-ground political power that allows us to reinvest and create radical black institutions.”

“Structures aren’t set up to take care of us in the same way that they are for white people,” continues asha, “but there’s little currency in telling white people that they are wrong about things both we and they know they’re wrong about. Our work is to not talk about that with white people, but to demonstrate it to our people so that we can speak for ourselves and demand what we need to live full and quality lives. My engagement is with our people so that we can see that choices were made by institutions.”

As with life, many important people satellite Patrisse: it can at times be difficult to keep track of how they fade in and out of her story. Recognising that this is real life rather than a novel, in which tragedy often does overlap, I ask how Patrisse and asha manage to stay whole and healthy amidst misery – a question about declining mental health that is all too relevant to black people.

Patrisse insists that “every black person globally deserves a therapist as part of the reparations package” and recommends that activists make space for “what makes you joyful and restored, as opposed to just able to cope.” asha offers a reminder of how life can be, particularly for black women: “We don’t have the proper structures within societies and organisations to care for ourselves due to a capitalist model that requires a constant output, particularly from black women who are constantly having to prove ourselves.

"We can’t rest on our laurels like white men! I know what to do – how to eat, how much to exercise, all the tricks –  but I am never actually allowed the space to give myself to myself before I give myself to the world.” Still, asha says that she feels her best in the mornings when she writes in her journal all the things she is grateful for, including her daughter. She has a space to be still and quiet, and has worked to create a home grounded in peace and love.

"BLM allows black people globally to speak for themselves and demand respect”

The answers they give, which value tenderness and joy as restorative, is reflected throughout the book. Patrisse speaks fondly of everyone in her life, and is often at pains to remind us of the humanity of black people. After traumatic confrontations with police, we are reminded of how young and helpless a twelve year old is, as if to counteract the premature aging black children experience at the hands of society. There are constant mentions of the physical size and muscularity of the black men in her life, juxtaposed with their gentleness – an underlining that the two are not mutually exclusive. I ask both authors who these reminders of black gentleness were for, and also to whom the mantra ‘Black Lives Matter’ is addressed.

"I’m talking to everyone,” answers Patrisse. “Black people often don’t give ourselves room to be tender, and this is specifically written to allow black people to feel feelings, be vulnerable, to share honestly in a way that is uncommon for us. Black Lives Matter as a movement is a reminder for us first, and then a reminder to like-minded people to join to the state of action and emergency.”

”Patrisse is blessed by men in her family who love her deeply and treated her well,” continues asha. “This was profoundly moving to me, and we didn’t imagine a specific audience: it’s just truth-telling as she saw it and knew it, a complete, honest narrative rather than a caricature. We’re putting that truth out for the entire world. As a movement that’s what Black Lives Matter does: it allows black people globally to speak for themselves and demand dignity and respect.”

On the subject of telling, of making visible a lifetime impacted by oppression, I ask about the hypervisibility of black trauma on a global scale. While When They Call You A Terrorist makes clear that the impacts of institutionalised racism are not new, the very nature of the book in addition to the impact of the digital age means that these stories have a new reach. This is a double-edged sword, allowing for public awareness and therefore action against the oppression we face, but also the normalisation of our visible pain.

Patrisse captures this tension: “Black people are able to share our most intimate and vulnerable moments, to grieve and to connect to each other, but also this gives white people an insight into our pain which can be traumatic – opening the space to let them see can feel cheap. We need to challenge the need for white proof of our trauma.” asha also shares how this visibility may have activated a generation, but allows white people to make entertainment out of our torture. She concludes that it is “important to acknowledge a life harmed or taken, but in telling the whole story we also need to see images and stories of black joy, black beauty, black love.”

That’s what this memoir does, in a nutshell. Patrisse and asha tell a fuller story, not just of pain but also joy and intimacy, disrupting the single narrative of black people as one-dimensional or less than fully-human. A reminder that every part of our lives matter. 

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is out now in hardback via Canongate.