“But there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved. We try to make a world and tell them they are important and tell ourselves we are too. But real life can be an insistent and merciless intruder.”
I’m going to try to hold my hyperboles in check here, but it shan’t be easy. “When They Call You a Terrorist” is, quite simply, essential reading.
I’ll start where one starts when encountering a physical book – its physicality itself. I try not to get hung up on covers if I can help it, although I absolutely judge books by them. Graphic design and cover art are a key component to grabbing a reader’s eye and peaking her interest. With this book, the care, the investment, and the telltale signs of faith and love deserve note. From the embossed dust cover to the full color endpapers emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” to the deckle edges to (most breath-takingly) the secret treasure inscribed on the hard front cover in gold lettering – “I am a survivor/ I am stardust” – visible only to those who explore beneath their book’s outer shell, this book is lovingly, deliberately, and respectfully crafted. It says with every fiber of its being, “I am worthy. I matter.”
The introduction reads like poetry.
“And I know when I hear Dr. deGrasse Tyson say this that he is telling the truth because I have seen it since I was a child, the magic, the stardust we are, in the lives of the people I come from.
I watched it in the labor of my mother, a Jehovah’s Witness and a woman who worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time, keeping other people’s children, working the reception desks at gyms, telemarketing, doing anything and everything for 16 hours a day the whole of my childhood in the Van Nuys barrio where we lived. My mother, cocoa brown and smooth, disowned by her family for the children she had as a very young and unmarried woman. My mother, never giving up despite never making a living wage.
I saw it in the thin, brown face of my father, a boy out of Cajun country, a wounded healer, whose addictions were borne of a world that did not love him and told him so not once but constantly. My father, who always came back, who never stopped trying to be a version of himself there were no mirrors for.
And I knew it because I am the thirteenth-generation progeny of a people who survived the chains, the whips, the months laying in their own shit and piss. The human beings legislated as not human beings who watched their names, their languages, their Goddesses and Gods, the arc of their dances and beats of their songs, the majesty of their dreams, their very families snatched up and stolen, disassembled and discarded, and despite this built language and honored God and created movement and upheld love. What could they be but stardust, these people who refused to die, who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter, that their children’s lives did not matter?”
Despite having two authors, “When They Call You a Terrorist” is written in the first person, as a memoir of Khan-Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. The story is undoubtedly Khan-Cullors’; the beauty of the writing, each carefully crafted turn of phrase, is harder to attribute. I will have to make myself okay with speaking about the writing with vague attributions, broad pronouns, or passive allusions to the work itself. With that said, she/they/it is perfectly rendered, a melodic balance of a story powerfully and needfully told.
Khan-Cullors’ biography is full of seminal events and pivotal characters which could certainly be used as excuses or plied as blame. The poverty, chaos, racism, addiction, mental illness Khan-Cullors witnessed could and have broken many. Khan-Cullors is a phoenix rising from these ashes, but hers is not an argument for exceptionalism. No, hers is a story that dares you to not to understand, to empathize, to see the systemic root of so much ill.
“And if ever someone calls my child a terrorist, if they call any of the children in my life terrorists, I will hold my child, any child, close to me and I will explain that terrorism is being stalked and surveilled simply because you are alive. And terrorism is being put in solitary confinement and starved and beaten. And terrorism is not being able to feed your children despite working three jobs. And terrorism is not having a decent school or a place to play. I will tell them that what freedom looks like, what democracy looks like, is the push for and realization of justice, dignity and peace.”
As a work of literature this book is heart-breaking and beautiful. As a work of cultural and political analysis, it is urgent, imperative, and impactful. I fully admit to being politically disposed and receptive to the book’s ideas prior to my reading of it, but I have to believe that those who don’t understand why Black Lives Matter could come away with changed hearts and minds having read this book. Just as I can’t truly fathom resisting this vital movement, nor can I imagine anyone’s eyes remaining unopen to the realities and insidious dangers of systemic racism which these women so emphatically and courageously share.
“We know that if we can get the nation to see, say and understand that Black Lives Matter then every life would stand a chance. Black people are the only humans in this nation ever legally designated, after all, as not human. Which is not to erase any group’s harm or ongoing pain, in particular the genocide carried out against First Nation peoples. But it is to say that there is something quite basic that has to be addressed in the culture, in the hearts and minds of people who have benefited from, and were raised up on, the notion that Black people are not fully human.”
A heartfelt thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing a complimentary copy of “when they call you a terrorist” work in exchange for a fair and honest review.