IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'When they call you a terrorist': Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors talks memoir

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors tells why her memoir "When They Call You A Terrorist" is necessary in the current political climate.
Image: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Courtesy Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Some people march with signs held high in the air. Others protest with sit-ins and shutdowns. Since 2014, many across the country have chanted “Black Lives Matter” during moments of injustice in the black community. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter group, said although she and the groups supporters are viewed as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, they are also viewed as “terrorists” in the eyes of others.

In her new book, “When They Call You a Terrorist - A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” co-written with asha bandele, Khan-Cullors challenges the terrorist label while providing a backstory to the group's cause. It chronicles her life growing up in Van Nuys, California and eye-opening experiences that drew her into black activism that “young poor black girls who are queer rarely get to be at the center of the American conversation.”

Khan-Cullors co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2014 with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. Today it is has over 40 chapters across the U.S. and affiliations around the world, with a mission to “build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

Khan-Cullors spoke with NBCBLK on why her memoir is necessary in the current political climate, being called a terrorist and shares thoughts on the increasing rate of maternal mortality in black women.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Image: Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors new book "When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir"
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors new book "When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir"St. Martin's Press

NBCBLK: Why do you want to share your story?

Khan-Cullors: I think for me growing up in a community where I saw very little representation of my own story whether it be in the media or even just in the world. I think it’s an important moment given the current administration that we're living under that has called for a law and order country to prioritize the voices that have been most criminalized in the last few decades.

How does your family background and structure play a role in the book?

What I was trying to do and trying to communicate in this book is really how do I describe my mother, my brother, my father, my other siblings in a way that they become universal characters. My mother, who was a single mother, who raised her four children on very little, she struggled incredibly. Her sacrifice is why I’m here today. I think that story is a necessary story.

When I talk about the community I lived in and what was killing young boys and their [outlook] of being stopped and frisked, on a weekly basis that becomes an important foundation for how I understand a larger system.

"It’s not that black women weren’t at leadership. It’s that black women weren’t given leadership."

When did you know that advocating for injustice was your calling?

In high school when I was given books like “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria." I was given authors like bell kooks and Octavia Butler. Those first authors politicized me. They helped me identify everything I was feeling and going through as a child — that it wasn’t my family’s fault.

It was a system. There was a system in place. There was a setup. I’ve always been a reader and really obsessed with reading. I think reading about racism and the impacts that it had on me and my family and my community come to be the centerpiece for my own development.

How does your book aim to change the current culture that we’re in?

The book is part of a long legacy of books written by black people in this country in particular, trying to talk about the conditions that we experience. It gives people a heart center around why it’s so important to change those conditions. I think the book allows for a conversation around the evolution of Black Lives Matter and where we’re at and where we’re going.

Image: Patrisse Khan-Cullors speaks at an event.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors speaks at an event.Wendell Teodoro

How has Black Lives Matter become labeled as “terrorists?” Who is “they” your title refers to?

'They' is elected officials who called us a terrorist organization, a terrorist group. They is the people in American society that have decided that they are not fighting for black lives.

How do you feel about that?

I think the first time I heard that we were being called a terrorist organization — that the leaders of Black Lives Matters were terrorists, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t. I couldn’t believe that they were calling me and the people I love and the people in my community terrorists.

This book is exploring the idea that black people have been challenging violence in communities and at the state level, and that what we call for always is peace. We’ve called always for justice. What we’ve called for always is dignity.

Is Black Lives Matter the same as the Civil Rights Movement?

I do think we’re in the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. How can we not be? But we are different because it’s a different time, a different generation. We have different technology. What is true about this generation is that we have social media as a tool to massify our movement.

What’s also true is that we really and truly have seen a leadership of black women which is very different from the Civil Rights movement. It’s not that black women weren’t at the leadership; it's that black women weren’t given leadership. This movement challenges that we need a charismatic leader.

"It’s not that black women’s bodies are failing, it’s that the healthcare system is failing us."

Serena Williams recently shared with Vogue that she had to advocate for herself and her body to receive specialized care immediately after giving birth to her daughter. Share your thoughts on why maternal mortality rates in black women are increasing in this country.

I started being interested in this issue with my own pregnancy. I had no idea that there was such an issue with black women and dying. When the nurse came in and asked me if the doctors had told me if I knew what was going to happen in the C-section, I said no. No one informed me of the procedure. That is an example of black women being neglected at hospitals and not being taken seriously.

We’re seeing this time and time again. It’s not that black women’s bodies are failing, it’s that the healthcare system is failing us. It’s really important that we sort of tackle maternal mortality rates and help those who are most vulnerable, which are black women.

How can readers be a part of your vision for your book?

People should join an organization. Now is not the time to try to do some of the hardest work of changing systems on your own. It’s not possible. What is possible is joining together and being organized. It might be a formal organization that your join or it might be something small or might start something on your own. Be in community. We really need each other right now.

"When They Call You a Terrorist" is available Jan. 16.

Follow NBCBLK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram