some of the most powerful movements have been led by black women – patrisse khan-cullors
One of the three founding members of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, discusses how the movement began and where it needs to go next.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The New Fashion Rebels Issue, no. 352, Summer 2018.
Black Lives Matter is the most important political movement of the 21st century. A network fighting for racial equality and justice. But did you know it was started by three black women? This is the story of one of them, Patrisse Khan-Cullors.
Being labelled a terrorist was devastating. In the beginning it was confusing and concerning, but then I started to understand it. Some of our greatest freedom fighters were also called terrorists – Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela… It became clear that this is what the authorities do, they create these labels about who we are, and what our organisations are, to undermine us and discredit our work.
Historically, some of the most powerful movements have been led and facilitated by black women, we just don’t know anything about them. Either people stopped telling the story, the story was never told, or they were intentionally erased from the story. This is what we are trying to stop from happening. It takes a huge amount of work to fight against the patriarchy, but we will persist in telling the story of Black Lives Matter. Our story.
Black Lives Matter is a movement created by three black women: Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza and myself. However, those who get the most visibility within the movement tend to be black men. So, part of our work is to show up, let people know the story of Black Lives Matter and tell it time and time again.
In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Alicia wrote a long Facebook post in response, which included the phrase “black lives matter”, to which I replied #BlackLivesMatter. A few days later Opal showed up and then, bam! That was it. We said: “We aren’t going to let the media erase us or the voices of black women, queer and trans people. We aren’t going to allow the media to only have one idea about what a black activist looks like.”
I am often referred to as a social activist, but I prefer the term community organiser, bringing people together to create change. It was coming out as queer at the age of 15 that really introduced me to the idea of community. We were exploring our identities, trying to figure out who we were but throughout it all we were supporting each other and we were, proud of our queer identity. It was important to us that it wasn’t going to be repressed. Community is more than just a word, community is chosen family and blood family, a group of people who hold each other accountable and support each other.
“We aren’t going to let the media erase us or the voices of black women, queer and trans people. We aren’t going to allow the media to only have one idea about what a black activist looks like.”
For those who are seeking a community but don’t know where to start, it’s important that you are honest with who you are first. Never feel like you have to compromise yourself, your values or your beliefs in order to find community. Be generous but don’t compromise yourself; be conscious about how you’re building your community and who you are building it with. Rather than focusing on what you can get from one another, focus on building relationships that support one another.
As an activist it is vitally important that you practice self-care. I’ll say it time and time again, I believe that when black people finally get reparations, we should all get a therapist as part of the package. A competent therapist who knows black issues and can help support and guide us through our trauma. Along with therapy, healing and body work, it’s also just as important to remind myself to do the easy stuff, like drinking enough water and eating. During intense periods these small joys can easily become compromised, so I have to step in to ensure that they do not.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my journey is how to say no. I always used to be a ‘yes’ person, I was consistently saying yes to opportunities and events and leaving very little time for myself. I had to learn to say no and become strict. I’ve been to a conference where they said that we were going to be done in two hours, so I went to the moderator and I let them know that I will walk off the stage in two hours if we are not done. They thought I was joking but when it reached two hours and five minutes, I stood up and walked off the stage. My time is important. People think that black women have to do everything and we have to labour for everybody, which is not true. We can still have boundaries. We can be compassionate yet firm.
Love is central to my activism in so many ways. Love is a verb, love is a practice, love is ever-changing and ever-evolving. I love black people so much. I believe in us. I believe in our ability to be resilient, our ability to win. It takes a significant amount of love to show up not only for myself, but for all of us.
Love led me to combine my art with activism, and I created a performance piece called Stained in 2012, which was an intimate portrayal of state violence and gave a voice to torture survivors inside the LA County jail system, and their families. It was the first time that I took my own experience around trauma and brought it into an art forum, which then developed into becoming Dignity And Power Now, an idea that I started with a crew of my friends, which has now grown into a solid organisation. We have taken on the LA County Sheriff’s Department and won, and along the way we have created infrastructure around wellness and healing to support some of the most traumatised people in our communities.
"I love black people so much. I believe in us. I believe in our ability to be resilient, our ability to win. It takes a significant amount of love to show up not only for myself, but for all of us."
Being an activist – and creating your own organisation – is tough and it takes a kind of grit that not everybody has, but it’s important and necessary work. When building an organisation, be mindful of your own trauma and responses to trauma, be mindful of your needs and what is needed.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would tell her that it gets better, hold on, you’re going to be okay, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to have big emotions. I was very sensitive as a kid and my family were very annoyed with me most of the time, telling me I cried too much. However, I’d let my younger self know to keep feeling, because that’s going to be a gift that will serve you in the long run.
We need more of us building organisations. And it’s so important that black organisations and institutions support each other and show up for each other. Build the intention inside your organisation that this work is bigger than you. It’s not to say don’t take care of yourself, but remember that the work you are doing is impacting people around the world; this is for our children’s children.
This is a planetary fight, not just a fight in the UK or in the States. Make black folks and the struggle of black people the centre in your organisation, the criminalisation of black people happens as a whole but it’s important to remember that different genders are criminalised differently, and we should avoid focusing on just one gender, we should be focusing on all black lives.
The sooner we realise that when black people are free, we are all free, then we will be able to get somewhere that generates collective liberated change.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is out now.
Photography Ekua King