Understanding and accepting love, as well as opening myself up to the fact that people do care about me has been an emotional, and at times unhealthy battle for me.
My immediate family, whom I love dearly, wasn’t capable of sprinkling me with healthy emotional, spiritual and mental support. Our home was very quiet. Unless my family members were fussing at me, we never spoke. Basically, I was punished and emotionally abused because my family wasn’t capable of loving me.
I was sent to group homes. Kicked out of the house. One night, all of a sudden, I was dropped off at a Greyhound station, given a bus ticket, and told to go live with my aunt in Houston, Texas. I was 13 years old. My aunt, who had no idea that I was traveling from Columbus, Ohio to Houston to live with her, was appalled that my family never called to see if their 13-year-old son made it to Houston. My immature mind didn’t understand why Aunt Sylvia was bothered. This type of stuff was normal.
I was physically abused. I was called a “stupid n***a.” When a close family member found out that I had a 4.0 GPA, she said she didn’t know that I had it in me. All of these experiences are connected to my affinity for activism and children who come from dysfunctional homes.
Reading Patrisse Khan-Cullers potent (and at times very troubling) book, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written by Asha Bandele—which connects her childhood experiences to her activism—it not only gave color to my childhood experiences, but it uncovers a deeper meaning to Black Lives Matter, thanks to Cullors unveiling her traumatic experiences. Over 253 pages, Cullers, who was raised in Van Nuys, Calif., details her traumatic battles with poverty, police brutality, incarceration, her brother’s mental illness and her father’s drug addiction.
Using concise prose combined with loads of love and bouts of pain, Cullors writes of her father’s fights, relapses and their conversations about “black people’s relationships, relationships formed by absence, and what’s said, and what’s left unsaid in relationships, and how he’s spent more time in prison and away from her than he was with her.”
Despite her dad—whom she met for the first time when she was a teenager— trying to manage pain, trauma, addiction, recidivism, Cullers never failed with showing compassion towards her dad’s battles. The compassion Cullors exercised was a result of understanding the outside forces that contributed to her dad’s misfortunes.
After Cullors’ dad died of a heart attack while living in a shelter, she remained steadfast in her recollection of her dad’s resilience.
“And he kept trying. My father kept f**king trying. This man,” Cullers wrote. “My father, Gabriel Briganac, who loved me deeply and fiercely. Who spent every moment with me telling me how black life mattered…this man died of a broken heart in this nation of broken promises, and I think that if my father could not be in this broken America, then what is this America for.”
Cullors, along with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, created Black Lives Matter in 2013 in the wake of a string of police killings of unarmed black citizens. Today, Black Lives Matter has over 40 organizations across the U.S. and affiliations around the world. Black Lives Matter also received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s leading award for global peacemakers. In high school, Cullors was introduced to books like Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, and literature by bell hooks and Octavia Butler opened her mind to political matters.
Not to underscore Cullors’ trying experiences with her father, but quite gripping is the narrative of her Monte, Cullors brother, bouts with mental illness and stints in prison. Throughout her brother’s trials, Cullors never failed to show him an admirably zealous type of humanity and love.
Cullors writes that her childhood was filled with memories of her sibling and his friends getting arrested for basically being poor minorities. For talking too loud. For cussing. Wearing the same clothes. Talking back and cutting class.
“It’s from behind the gate that I watch the police roll up on my brothers and their friends, none of whom are over the age of 14, and all who are doing nothing at all but talking,” she wrote. “They throw them up on the wall. They make them pull their shirts up. They make them turn out their pockets. They roughly touch my brothers’ bodies, even their private parts, while behind the gate, I watch, frozen. I cannot cry or scream. I cannot scream or hear anything. Not the siren that would be accompanying the swirl of red lights, not the screeching at the boys: ‘Get on the f**king wall.’ Later I would be angry with myself. Why didn’t I help them?”
Cullors mentions early symptoms of Monte’s mental illness where she describes her brother spending long hours locked inside his room, not sleeping and “chattering incessantly.” After being arrested for attempted robbery at 19 years old, Monte was sent to prison where he was physically abused, and left badly bruised, lost massive weight and started hearing voices. Later the family learned that Monte had schizoaffective, a mental disorder similar to schizophrenia that causes hallucinations, delusions, mania and depression.
Cullors never wavered in supporting her brother during his incarceration as well as with his transition back into the free world as he adjusted to a life with mental illness as an unimpeded man.
Not long after Monte’s 2011 release from Corcoran State Prison—for attempted robbery—Cullors read a report done by ACLU about the L.A. County Jail and its abuses against its prisoners. In this report, 70 of this 86-paged document were testimonies of survivors of torture and witnesses. Men were kicked in the testicles and she read of wheelchair-bound men who were beat by prison guards. Reading this ACLU report, Cullors admits that she begins to hyperventilate and remembers her brother in the bathroom on his knees drinking from the toilet.
When They Call You A Terrorist is important because it draws a direct line from Cullors’ life experiences to the creation of Black Lives Matter. This book also shows the power that poor people have at fighting systemic abuse when disadvantaged people of color show camaraderie. Cullors and her friends put together a re-entry plan and strong support system for Monte when he was released from prison.
Monte was blessed to have a sister like Cullors. Many men and women are, and have been, in similar positions but due to lack of resources and proper planning, they become desensitized to mental illness and police brutality. And for those who struggle with accepting love—like myself—or understanding what love looks and feels like, When They Call You A Terrorist offers exemplary models of love, in all of its uncomfortableness.