When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors absolutely gutted me. I couldn’t breathe in so many parts of the book. I was holding my breath in sorrow, anger, outrage. With all this, you should know that I’m not a particularly emotional reader. I cry while reading maybe once a year. And this book was a punch in the gut and a wake up call. It did the opposite of making me cry—it made me angry.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors tells her deeply personal story with such eloquence. Her writing is direct and forthright, as I imagine she must be. But in her straightforward way, the love she feels for her family, friends, community, and the world is utterly palpable. But this book, and this movement, isn’t about just love. It’s about the anguish of loss. In Patrisse’s experience, there is loss of beloveds to drugs, prison, mental illness, and death come too soon. In some cases she has lost the beloved person to all four things.
Khan-Cullors tells about her family life, with two brothers, a sister, and a mother working two or three jobs. She talks about the men in her mother’s life, including her own father. And as she develops connection with her father and his family, she learns about a world outside her Los Angeles hometown.
Our school experiences also forge our identity. Khan-Cullors begins the journey that brings her into adulthood in a truly unique high school. The students study history and culture as it applies to them—with emphasis on challenging classism, racism, sexism, and heteronormative thinking. They read authors like James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela, bell hooks, and Emma Goldman. It shapes Khan-Cullors and gives her the connections that begin her journey to Black Lives Matter.
Throughout all that she’s learning, Patrisse still lives with suffocating emotional pain. At least, I think I would suffocate. But she does not, because ultimately this is the only world she knows. There have always been problems, often without solutions. Her gentle brother descends deeper into mental illness. The world around her becomes harder, with the advent of the prison industrial complex fed by racist policing policies. As Khan-Cullors shares her story, I imagine a young woman wise beyond her years. Not because she wanted to be, but because she had no choice. The world forced this on her. Racism and classism forced this on her. I mourn for her lost childhood.
A review of this book wouldn’t be complete without some discussion of Khan-Cullors’ writing on sexuality. As a teen attending a school that encouraged students to challenge heteronormative thinking, she also had a cousin who was an out gay teen. She tells what it was like to find her sexual identity, while also managing all the crises in her life. She is raw and vulnerable about the relationships she’s had along the way, including her current one. This experience also shaped the principles of Black Lives Matter, because LGBTQIA+ people of color are often subjected to tremendous brutality.
As I began this book, I thought I had a fair understanding of the underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, this book taught me just how limited my knowledge really was. Khan-Cullors improved my understanding with stories, history, herstory, and activism. She and her fellow founders are women pushing for change, in whatever way they can. Black Lives Matter has thrived under their guidance and passionate leadership. They have grown to include chapters in the U.S. and other countries. The work they do is needed more than ever.
Perhaps Black Lives Matter has thrived because the pain is still a daily reminder for each activist. Khan-Cullors makes it clear that no one in the movement is likely to be untouched by pain. I would encourage everyone to make the time for this book. Not only is it an important record of the fight for social justice, it’s an amazing AF memoir.
Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and especially Patrisse Khan-Cullors for opening her heart and soul to the world in this book. I appreciate the opportunity to read and review the digital advance copy. I also listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and would recommend it as well. As always, my opinions are my own.