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They call Beyoncé “queen,” Michelle Obama “mom” and Oprah Winfrey “my president.” For socially conscious progressives in the age of Trump, black women are the answer to both racism and sexism, two societal ills dominating today’s identity politics.
But turning to black celebrities in the midst of a maelstrom can place undue pressure on these individuals to cleanly uproot centuries-old problems on their own.
None of this is lost on activist Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who co-founded Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
“It takes centuries to counter a culture,” said Khan-Cullors in an interview with The Washington Post. “We should be critical about our desire to look at the most visible person to save the world.”
Ever since she became the first person to place a hashtag in front of “Black Lives Matter,” Khan-Cullors has been asked to speak for black people in a way she couldn’t anticipate. Not only is she expected to advocate the civil rights of black people who feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement, but she is also often asked to comment when other Black Lives Matter activists make controversial statements about law enforcement or white people.
While she couldn’t foresee the platform she has now, Khan-Cullors explains in her new memoir, “When They Call You A Terrorist,” how her life experiences prepared her for a career of advocacy.
Khan-Cullors grew up explaining her brother Monte Cullors’s mental illness to Los Angeles police who beat and arrested him for activity triggered by his schizophrenia. She eulogized her father, Gabriel Brignac, who died suddenly in a homeless shelter after years cycling in and out of jail on drug convictions. And as she developed a life of her own, Khan-Cullors guided black youth who, like her, shifted homes and relied on friends when family relations were strained.
The responsibilities Khan-Cullors absorbed as a sister, daughter and mentor are part of her role as a black woman, she writes. The burden was often heavier as a queer black woman in a Jehovah’s Witness household, but she carries it now on behalf of Monte, Gabriel and those whose names are now memorialized in hashtags.
“It is women who are out there, often with their children, calling for an end to police violence, saying, ‘We have a right to raise our children without fear,’ ” writes Khan-Cullors.
While celebrities are praised for imbuing pop culture with social messages — be it Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” or Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech — the work of activists themselves can often be overlooked.
When Black Lives Matter began gaining traction in 2014, celebrities such as actor Jesse Williams and National Basketball Association forward LeBron James were given a spotlight for speaking on behalf of the movement, while the work of Khan-Cullors and her co-founders often went uncredited.
And four years later, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, celebrities and activists were joined under the banner of the Time’s Up initiative at the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony. But to many, the work of activists such as Tarana Burke and Ai-Jen Poo was ultimately the sideshow to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
Now, although Black Lives Matter and her role in the movement have risen in profile, Khan-Cullors has noticed stories of police encounters with black Americans have largely centered on men.
“We don’t talk about what experience criminalization has on our bodies,” says Khan-Cullors, who in her memoir referenced Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and other black women who died after violent police encounters.“We just become the vehicle to tell black men’s stories.”
Her concern echoes other black female writers such as Brit Bennett and Shani O. Hilton, who have critiqued narratives like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World And Me” for their reluctance to highlight how black women are also vulnerable to sexual and physical violence.
When given a chance to present her story, Khan-Cullors marries memoir with manifesto. What happened to her personally has allowed her to grow politically — often in contradictory ways.
In “When They Call You A Terrorist,” she writes that even when her enslaved ancestors weren’t given resources to build their own futures, they “imagined her out of whole cloth.” Their dreams, she writes, are “the only way I am here today.” But even with her ancestors’ hopes, she states that being born in poverty meant she wasn’t expected to actually survive. She writes that black leaders — everyone from pastors to President Barack Obama — further exacerbated her family’s situation by emphasizing personal responsibility as the best solution to overcome hardship.
Today, as a college-educated author, Khan-Cullors celebrates the ways she’s overcome poverty and over-policing. But her successes are quickly followed by “survivor’s guilt” for being able to support her wife, Janaya “Future” Khan, and young son, Shine, while her mother and siblings struggle to access health care and juggle jobs.
While she is now recognized as a co-founder of a global movement, Khan-Cullors maintains that she does not want to control it, opting instead for a decentralized approach that spreads “like wildfire.”
Though the public is hungry for a singular answer to racism and sexism, Khan-Cullors seems to be at ease sharing all the reasons she can’t offer simple solutions. She is not America’s queen, mom or president.
“[Women] are forced to be super-caretakers; we are forced to be hypervigilant about our loved ones,” Khan-Cullors says. “[But] we have to be cared for, too. And part of caring is listening to our stories.”
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