By Tommy Airey
In our hyper-connected world, a buffet of spiritual practices abound. One immediately thinks of meditation, contemplative ecology, yoga, fasting, sabbath, jubilee, self-reflective bible study, liturgical direct action, poetry, therapy, 12-step recovery, mutual edification and confession. Now is a better time than ever for the somewhat privileged people of faith and conscience among us to fast-pass the practice of attentive listening to the front of the line. After all, Spirit moves when the marginalized and muted are given voice—those who are Women, who are Black and Brown, who are Queer, who hail from Somewhere Else.
Listening to the Other heightens humility and empathy. It also clarifies just how corrosive the colonial script can be. Racism, militarism and extreme poverty are so familiar that they can easily hide in plain sight—especially in spaces on the Left that can tend towards self-congratulation— around the dinner table, in church, at the organizing meeting, on social media.
In this vein, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors (with ashe bandele) is a spiritual gift to the white majority broad-based, loosely-connected radical discipleship coalition of Plowshares activists, Catholic Workers, Carnivalistas, Watershed Disciples and all those full-court pressing our denominations and traditions to the fringes. Khan-Cullors, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, writes with conviction, passion and vulnerability. She connects the dots and tells the truth. Then she colors it in with compelling verve.
Khan-Cullors grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. She commuted to a mostly white middle school in shimmering Sherman Oaks. In one episode, she recounts having dinner at her friends house. White folks. Everyone is seated at the table and the father is asking how everyone’s day is. This never happens at her Section 8 approved apartment. Her mother wakes before dawn to work two to three jobs. She arrives back home after bedtime. Survival. As it turns out, this friendly white father is Patrisse’s mother’s slum lord. The stability of one family perpetuated by the mere survival of another. The American way.
Khan-Cullors gets personal, detailing relationships with her mother, her father, her brothers, her lovers and her tight-knit cadre of friends from high school and community organizing circles. She hits her stride with courageously transparent reflections on romance and love and marriage and sexuality and gender. Her network forms a beloved community of fictive kinship, protecting her from the homophobia and racism of society and the emotional hurricane at home. Her family system is not so much dysfunctional, as it is destabilized by the predatory cabal of policies and prosecutors blitzkrieging Black families.
For me, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018) functions as the final installation of a trilogy on “the problem of the color line” for the 21st century, joining Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness (2010) and Kelly Brown-Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015). For those of us intersecting the seminary, the sanctuary and the streets, these three voices—Black and female from three different generations—pack punches and shift paradigms. All three contain a rare blend of intellectual substance, clear articulation and heartfelt passion that beckons the reader to throw in.
The baby boomer Brown-Douglas provides the theological grounding. The gen-xer Alexander fills out the social analysis. The millennial Khan-Cullors (b.1984) closes strong with the raw vulnerability of lived reality. When They Call You A Terrorist, in fact, is a timely contribution for all of us older than forty. She animates a perspective and style representative of twenty-and-thirty-somethings who grew up with far more technology and far less opportunity. More network than hub. More here-I-am than get-in-line. More spontaneity than calculation.
Even more, Khan-Cullors unveils a terror-filled world of public schools, police and prisons that does not protect and serve Black people. Her most profound paragraphs are about her brother, Monte. Case in point:
He and his friends—really all of us—were out there trying to stay safe against the onslaught of adults who, Vietnam-like, saw the enemy as anyone Black or Brown who moved. He and his friends were not only busted but sent away for:
2. Underage drinking
3. Carrying two-inch pocket knives
4. Cutting class
5. Being kids
6. Talking shit
7. Talking back
8. Wearing the same t-shirts. Literally.
In the second half of When They Call You A Terrorist, Khan-Cullors focuses on three national events: (1) the assassination of unarmed Trayvon Martin, (2) the execution of unarmed Michael Brown and (3) the election of fully armed Donald Trump. However, this trifecta of crucifixions has sparked resurrections in the form of organized, strategic, robust responses from people of faith and conscience. From people like Patrisse Khan-Cullors.
And this is why this book is so important. It is a story about Black life in America. But it is also an account of the miraculous. Black women, fueled by boldness and brilliance, have not only survived the shit storm, but continue to resist and rise above it en masse. In the home. On the job(s). On the street. In the voting booth. They have held it down while Black men have been locked up by a trumped up War on Drugs. They are the unsung leaders of social movement. 96% voted against Trump.
When They Call You A Terrorist is a beacon call to listen and follow and fill in the awkward silence with speech both confessional and prophetic—around the dinner table, in church, at the organizing meeting, on Facebook. A narrative as bold as this explains why we still have a fighting chance to fulfill the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: to make America what it ought to be.