Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

Post Author: Shannon Sullivan

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when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace.

For Khan-Cullors and bandele, the fruits of this kin-dom are evident: in stories of community organizing to prevent the construction of a new prison in Los Angeles County, in building a beautiful home to provide shelter and space for art, in the birth of her child, in inviting people brunching in Beverly Hills to take a moment of silence honoring Trayvon Martin and the grief of his parents, in the gentle tenderness of a family caring for her very sick brother. All of these threads of hope weave together the tapestry of the kin-dom. While the violence of the text – most acutely felt by Black, Queer, and Trans* people – cannot and should not be silenced (just as in scripture itself), there is persistent love wrought through struggle, and resurrection hope wrought through death.

What if our churches insisted on such persistent love? What would it look like for us as pastors to organize our communities in this love, not expressed in prayers and meals of comfort, but also in holding our local police departments accountable to care equally for all? What would it look like for clergy to teach Jesus’ greatest commandment, in the midst of systems that deny love and neighborliness to so many? Khan-Cullors describes the military presence in Ferguson, writing of “all the money put in to suppress a community. We’d need far less to ensure it thrived” (213). How many of our churches play our role in ensuring our communities thrive?

In reading Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ memoir, I thought of my own life, so different from hers because of my social location as a white, middle class woman. But I also thought of all that gives us a shared humanity: our desires for love, medical care, safety, and survival. I feel her words will linger with me for some time, as they should. They will continue to disquiet my own complicity in racial terrorism, and the silence of so many white communities in the face of such destruction. And they will continue to shake me as a church leader, as I struggle to play my part in bringing the kin-dom of God, where children know acceptance and not handcuffs, wholeness and not prejudice, love and not terror.

Rev. Shannon Sullivan is a pastor currently serving in Frederick, Maryland, as the associate of Calvary United Methodist Church. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School. Her passions include mission work, multi-sensory worship, and helping the church get out of the building and into the community in new ways. She is married to Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who loves all things related to aviation. They have no living children, but they do have cats, a boxer puppy, and chickens.

Image by: St. Martin’s Press
Used with permission
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