As an activist and a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors spends a good amount of time talking to others, not infrequently with a bullhorn in her hand. Her childhood, however, was suffused with silence.
In “When They Call You a Terrorist,” written with the journalist Asha Bandele, she remembers peering from behind a fence when her older brothers, then 11 and 13, were playing with their friends outside and a police car rolled up. The officers “throw them up on the wall. They make them pull their shirts up. They make them turn out their pockets. They roughly touch my brothers’ bodies.” Afterward her brothers tell no one. “They will be silent in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims. They will be worried, maybe, that no one will believe them.”
The book is subtitled “A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” but only the last quarter is devoted to the genesis of the movement in 2013 — when Khan-Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, landed on the phrase after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Most of this ruminative volume is instead about Khan-Cullors’s life as a child and a teenager, when the heavy pull of shame and sadness kept her tethered to a more private world of confusion and pain.
Along with another new book, Jeanne Theoharis’s “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,” Khan-Cullors’s memoir provides another context for understanding Black Lives Matter. Theoharis gives us the historical background, located in the civil rights movement; Khan-Cullors gives us the personal background, located in her life.
“Ours is a neighborhood designed to be transient, not a place where roots are meant to take hold,” Khan-Cullors writes. She grew up in Section 8 housing in Los Angeles, pouring water on her Honey Nut Cheerios instead of milk, which her family couldn’t afford. Less than a mile away was affluent Sherman Oaks, with its stately homes and two-car garages, where Khan-Cullors attended a gifted program in middle school.
There’s a persistent longing that threads through this book — not so much for the consumerist dream represented by Sherman Oaks, but for the secure relationships she saw her wealthy, white classmates taking for granted. Their parents had the time to drive them to school and the easy optimism to ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up. She is confounded when her classmate’s father asks the same question of her.
“It is incredible,” she writes, accessing her startled middle-school self. “Who asks children such things and over a well-set table where all the family has gathered to eat, converse?” Her own mother would leave home by 6 a.m. to work her three jobs and return after 10 at night. “All my life, as a witness to my mother’s life, I’d known love to be expressed as labor.”
As a black, queer woman, Khan-Cullors is the kind of activist conservative politicians get panicky about, though they ostensibly share with her an overlapping area of concern. While they extol the importance of family and community (in word if not always in policy), Khan-Cullors sees the cultivation of family and community as central to what she does, too.
She has publicly blasted Democrats for having “milked the black vote while creating policies that completely decimate black communities,” referring to the crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law. Her father, whom she describes as a gentle man struggling with addiction, was in and out of prison on drug charges until he died of a heart attack in a homeless shelter. Her brother Monte, who has schizoaffective disorder, went to prison for yelling at a woman after a fender bender. For Khan-Cullors and her neighbors, “the mass incarceration of first our fathers and later our mothers made our lives entirely unsafe,” she writes. “There were almost no adults who were there, present to love and nurture and defend and protect us.”
A word that Khan-Cullors keeps repeating in her book is “love”: “I want a family, a core, a loving and stable center to return to, to awaken to.” When a petition was circulated in the summer of 2016 to declare Black Lives Matter a terrorist group, gaining enough signatures to reach the White House, she felt crushed. But then as Jeanne Theoharis shows in “A More Beautiful and Terrible History,” civil rights activists half a century ago faced a similarly hostile reception. The difference now is that the example of yesterday’s activists is used against Black Lives Matter today.
Even many of those “who claim sympathy with BLM’s purpose have used the civil rights movement to decry their tactics,” Theoharis writes in her elegant introduction, her rage kept at a controlled simmer. Theoharis, a historian and the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” is particularly attuned to how the legacies of Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. have been co-opted into a narrative of uplift, with civil rights history sanitized for public consumption.
At a time when conservative calls to stop “politicizing” Martin Luther King Day have become a yearly tradition, Theoharis’s book is a bracing corrective to a national mythology that renders figures like King “meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid and relentless.” As it happens, getting King’s birthday declared a national holiday was a 15-year ordeal. King was truly unpopular at the end of his life; a 1966 Gallup poll determined that only 33 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him. (The figure in 2011 was 94 percent.) King was surveilled by the F.B.I. and went to jail 30 times. Like many other civil rights activists, he was called a Communist — a label whose loose rhetorical function is echoed in the word “terrorist” today. He was also reviled for having the temerity to criticize the “white moderate” who “preferred order to justice.”
Each chapter of Theoharis’s book presents a historical narrative that is largely unknown outside scholarly books, or otherwise unsung. Several of them are pointed indictments of Northern self-congratulation. Theoharis delves into the stubborn persistence of segregated schools in New York City, as well as “the redneckification of racism,” wherein white liberals in the North could use naked displays of racism in the South as an excuse to let their own discriminatory systems off the hook. She shows how Southerners eventually learned to use the “veiled language” of Northerners to cloak deeply unequal policies in the seemingly neutral vocabulary of rights and individualism.
Theoharis takes her book’s title from James Baldwin, who described American history as “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” At bewildering moments like this one, it’s clarifying to read a history that shows us how little we remember, and how much more there is to understand.
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