Y’all! I know it’s been much longer than we anticipated, but Autostraddle’s Book Club is back to talk about what is still my favorite book this year, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. Cowriters Patrisse Khan-Cullors and aisha bandele personally look at the ways that racism and police violence are always linked. They hook the reader immediately, and narratively offer up volumes of dense critical race theory but makes it so accessible. bell hooks once wrote that theory is meaningless if everyday people feel it is inaccessible, and via engaging style and personal stories, Cullors and bandele not only contribute to black studies, queer studies, and surveillance studies — they also contribute to black queer lives, or at least to my black queer life.
In a recent talk, author Katherine McKittrick discussed the fact that many of our most famous academics are able to get tenure and acclaim just for describing black oppression, but that our task must go deeper: we must be able to imagine black life and seek out liberation. When They Call You a Terrorist centers black life and choked me up with its depiction of the ways that family, both given and chosen, can be sources of support. I felt challenged but encouraged by Cullors’ relationship with her fathers and how she loved them, understanding that a lot of the ways they failed her were due to systems that were made so that black men would fail. I loved reading about the way community could be a verb: people showing up for Patrisse as she showed up for her brother when he was assaulted by the police, restorative justice between Cullors and an ex-partner instead of abandoning him.
The book emphasized that the work of community building is messy and hard, but that at its center is life. When we live alone, we can’t survive. We have to watch out for one another, care for one another, hold each other accountable, cry, sing, dance, and make art with one another to survive. The work of community reminds us that we don’t have to affirm our dignity and worth alone; that there are others who want to do that work with us.
The book has been getting great traction also, which makes me so happy. Cullors went on a book tour in January, enabling folks around America to engage with her work face-to-face. Cullors and NPR’s Michel Martin spoke together at the beginning of the year:
Why Black Lives Matter evokes a visceral response in some
The psychosis of whiteness is that it centers itself always. And when it is de-centered, when a group of people — but specifically black people, I think there’s something about black people being visible or black people getting some threat of power that shakes up white people and their whiteness, that shakes up their experience of what should be true. I think there is a deep desire from even well-meaning white people to believe that they’re not racist. But the reality is if you live in this country, if you’re born and raised as a white person, then you most definitely are racist, and you have to contend with that. And I think Black Lives Matter puts it in peoples’ face to deal with not only the ways in which they benefit from whiteness and white supremacy, but deal with the ways in which black people actually must be free. And I think that’s actually hard to contend with.
Q: “When They Call You a Terrorist” is the title of your book. How did it come about?
A: We are actually trying to interrogate who is causing terror against who. As we describe in the book, (through) the experiences of so many black people and my experience, we realized that what we’re trying to do is survive. Law enforcement is making that more and more difficult and often terrorizing our communities, so I think we have to be vigilant about what we allow them to call us.
Jenny Ferguson at the Washington Independent Review of Books wrestled with Kullors’ question, “What is the impact of not being valued?” in an overwhelmingly favorable review. At the New York Times, Lovia Gyarke writes that the book “abandons… abstractions for details — at times one wishes there were even more — to help readers understand what it means to be a black woman in the United States today.” And at the Washington Post, Ruth Tam writes that Cullors and bandele marry “manifesto and memoir,” and praises the way Cullors weaves her personal and political growth.
People love this book, friends! I did, and I hope you did too. But even if you struggled with it, I want to hear all about it! I really want to know whatever thoughts you had about the book; if you need some inspiration, here are a few discussion questions to help you out.
- What was your favorite chapter? Why?
- Can you even pick a favorite quote? What is it and why do you love it?
- What did you learn? What surprised you the most to learn?
- What made you uncomfortable to read?
- What made you feel like liberation was close and attainable and maybe even something real?
I can’t wait to hear from you!!