Black Lives Matter's Patrisse Khan-Cullors on Her New Book and the Power of Self-Care

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February 22, 2018
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Patrisse Khan-Cullors

The queer cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement has a new book out, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

In our Winter 2018 issue of Lambda Legal's Impact magazine, we talked to her about her work, her family, and fighting for justice in the Trump era. Become a Lambda Legal member to subscribe!

You write so powerfully in the book about your father, Gabriel, who spent years in and out of prison related to addiction, and your brother, Monte, who has mental illness, and how they were both mistreated at the hands of the criminal justice and healthcare systems. When did you connect your family struggles to the broader struggle of black Americans?

I think as a teenager, when I trained as a union leader, it became really clear to me that the system we lived under purposefully harmed my family. But that‘s also when I learned that I can fight this and change the course of history. That‘s where the power of organizing and activism come in.

Black Lives Matter now has 40 chapters in the U.S., Canada and the UK. A lot of the chapters are working on electoral politics and holding elected officials accountable for the killings of black people. We‘re also challenging the FBI report that leaked last fall about socalled “Black Identity Extremists.” We‘re working to document different situations in which Black Lives Matter has been targeted by either the FBI or local law enforcement agencies.

In the book, you critique Obama for, as you put it, preaching a commitment to personal responsibility over collective responsibility. How do you feel about the intense nostalgia for Obama that many Americans feel right now?

I get it. This is a bleak moment. I was trying to remind people that this is a long-haul fight. It would be easier if Hillary Clinton were president, but we‘d still be facing challenges. Realignments of power take decades—sometimes centuries.

And representation doesn‘t always mean that power is shifting. The NFL has a significant amount of black leadership, but that didn‘t manage to get Colin Kaepernick onto a new team.

"Realignments of power take decades—sometimes centuries. And representation doesn‘t always mean that power is shifting."

You talk a lot in the book about the need for joy and self-care in this bleak era. How do you achieve that with your own transgender husband, Future, and your child, Shine, whom you talk about a lot in the book?

I take myself off the Internet and do simple things with them like going out to eat, going into nature, making a routine for self-care. I go to therapy regularly and spend a lot of time laughing with friends. We like to go to Blue Ribbon Sushi at the Grove, the open-air mall in Los Angeles where we live.

And you‘re a performance artist, in the process of getting your MFA at the University of Southern California. What art or entertainment do you love?

love the TV show Queen Sugar. I love the depth of the characters and that it‘s set in Louisiana, where my family is from. I love their conversations about gender, colorism, infidelity, blackness, and how they have an organizer activist character. Also I love everything that [Scandal creator] Shonda Rhimes does. They had a whole episode of Scandal about Black Lives Matter.

You finished your book at the top of 2017, just as we entered the Trump era. What has this period been like for you?

Challenging—as it‘s been for many of us. But this is an important moment because we know exactly all of America‘s ugliness—it‘s on full blast. That gives us an opportunity as a community across gender, race, and class to join together.

Every time I look on my social media feed, some group of people is fighting this administration on something. I‘m proud of this moment.