Categories: Book Review

BookwormSez: ‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’

“When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with a foreword by Angela Davis
c. 2017, St. Martin’s Press
$24.99
257 pages

You can’t look any longer.

Whatever it is, it’s just too painful, too scary, so you hide your eyes and pretend that nothing’s happening. You can’t look any longer, so you don’t, but after awhile, you notice it again. That’s when you realize you saw all along. That’s when, as in the new book When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, you know that you never really could look away.

Growing up as the third child in a family of four, Patrisse Khan-Cullors lived with her mother and siblings in a “multiracial” neighborhood near Sherman Oaks, Calif. The two places were “less than a mile” apart but, due to social, financial, and racial divides, they were separated by oceans, in Khan-Cullors’ mind.

Despite her mother worked all day, and into the night, Khan-Cullors was reared in a loving atmosphere. The man who raised her wasn’t always around, but she adored him; after she learned, at age 12, that he wasn’t her biological father, her birth-father and his family became present on a regular basis. Absent an adult, Khan-Cullors’ eldest brother acted as “man” of the house. It all complicated her young life, but she enjoyed the expanded, supportive family.

Khan-Cullors says that she was 12 years old the first time she was arrested. By then, she’d witnessed her brothers being questioned by police for just hanging out with friends. She started genuinely noticing her surroundings.

Not long afterward, her father was imprisoned on drug charges, and she lost touch with much of his family. Then her older brother was jailed for attempted burglary and was diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and Khan-Cullors came to understand that she was queer. She began to question things in her life earnestly.

At 16, she became an “organizer” and an activist. She doubled down on it after her brother was arrested and called a “terrorist” for yelling at a woman. She was driven to act when, following the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, she sent out a message to her friends.

#BlackLivesMatter.

“I write,” she says, “I hope it impacts more than we can ever imagine.”

And, of course, it did, and it will. Once you’re finished with When They Call You a Terrorist, you’ll want to stand up, too.

You’ll want to stand, even though Khan-Cullors (with asha bandele) doesn’t tell stories here that haven’t already been told before. Indeed, many authors have shared similar tales of poverty, affluent white friends, outrage, prison, and sadness. The shelves are full of such books — but this one is different because Khan-Cullors gives her story an urgent hear-me-now outrage. That “done playing” feeling is what readers may come away with — a feeling that underscores Khan-Cullors’ activism.

And that’s what this book is about: it’s a rallying cry, wrapped in a memoir, tied in a call to legal action of whatever sort. And so, if you’re ready, When They Call You a Terrorist is worth a longer look.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terri Schlichenmeyer, Book Review Columnist, has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She has worked with more than 200 newspapers and nearly 50 magazines scattered in 46 states, the Virgin Islands and six provinces of Canada. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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