When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir written by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and co-written by Asha Bandele explores Patrisse’s journey growing up poor in Van Nuys area of Los Angeles and how that led to co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement. I read the book for research on the 1992 LA uprising, which is mentioned once in passing, but the book is very relevant in light of the protests across the U.S. over the death of George Floyd.
The memoir starts with a quote from Assata Shakur and a foreword by Angela Davis, emphasizing the civil rights activism message. Patrisse is raised by a single mother in Van Nuys in an impoverished barrio, a mere mile away from the wealthy neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, now known in the black community as where the fictional Black-ish family lives. She has two brothers and a sister, but she watches her brothers get stopped by the police often as teens, and one of her brothers, who’s later diagnosed with schizophrenia, eventually lives a life in and out of prison. She’s loved by her father but learns he is not her biological father, so she develops a relationship with her biological father, who also is in and out of prison. She describes both those relationships with love to focus on the importance of fathers in a black girl’s life. By the time she’s in her teens, she senses she belongs to the LGBTQ community and makes lifelong friends. She’s on the road to becoming an activist for people like her, but the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 leads her and fellow activists to form Black Lives Matter to raise their voices for black people killed at the hands of police and racists.
Her story is beautifully written in a poetic prose that remains in present tense throughout, which is rare for a memoir where the past is in past tense. The attention to which details to share is extraordinary as well. She points out the autobiographical details that informed her activist path such as walking down the street as a kid with her mentally ill brother and watching the police frisk him over nothing. It was difficult to put down the book with the flow of the words and the story.