In honor of Women's History Month, MadameNoire is interviewing women who've made significant contributions to our society and our culture. Up first is Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter.
What inspired your interest in activism? A lot of people might think that you created a hashtag and that was your first foray into activism. But how did it really start?
I’ve been doing activism work since I was about 16-years-old and I’m 34 now. I’ve been pretty hardcore. So it’s not like lightweight activism work. I think, in a lot of ways, people see themselves as activists but I actually see myself as an organizer when I was 18. I differentiate between activist and organizer. I joined a civil rights organization when I was 18-years-old because I wanted to be a part of a team that was trying to challenge systems and change the course of history, here in Los Angeles.
I joined the Bus Riders Union, which is still around, and that would be the first place where I really got the framework of how to organize as a science. And it’s a part of a long legacy of folks trying to fight for American Democracy.
I read recently that you were arrested at school, at the age of twelve. Could you tell me a little about that story and how it changed, maybe, how you viewed the world at that age?
Yeah. I was twelve the first time I was detained in my middle school. I was going to summer school. I had been smoking weed in the bathroom and I think a couple of days later, an officer came into the classroom and whispered in the teacher’s ear. I was brought up to the front of the class and handcuffed.
I don’t know if it changed my outlook. I’d already had bad experiences with law enforcement by the time I was twelve. I think what it did was solidify that law enforcement was not going to be friendly to poor and Black communities. Actually, more importantly, it solidified the very difference in education that Black and Brown and poor people get in this country, public education in more marginalized communities. And I think that was the thing that made me so frightened and scared. We were being trained in a pre-prison environment. And there was very little discourse around my health and healing. So I just think this is super important and I think we should be having this conversation about the school to prison pipeline.
That experience shaped how I would understand public education inside of poor communities, Black communities in particular. There was a push toward criminalizing us from jump. What would have been interesting is if they brought a counselor in the classroom. Why was I smoking weed in the first place? What was happening? What did I need? I was twelve years old for goodness sake. God forbid a Black child need emotional support. What I was experiencing really was a neglect of Black communities.
You mentioned beforehand that you had already had bad experiences with law enforcement, what was it that you had experienced already?
It was my family, it was my brother, it was my siblings. It was also being in a community that was over-policed, heavily policed and witnessing the very violent interactions law enforcement had with my family and in the community.
There are a lot of people who take issue with the name “Black Lives Matter.” They feel like it doesn’t speak to the issues that we’re fighting for, they can’t understand it. They feel like it’s not clear if you’re coming to the movement as an outsider. What would you say to the people who have questions or don’t understand the name Black Lives Matter?
Umm hmm. It’s a good question. Why use the term Black Lives Matter? And I think we should start there, why isn’t it African American Lives Matter? What we’re speaking to is a tradition of Black Resistance that has happened in this country from the very moment we were brought here. Black folks in the diaspora have been fighting White Nationalism, White Supremacy for a very long time. And our work to center Black people in that fight is critical, given that we built this country and given that this country has usurped Black work, Black labor, whether that’s physical or emotional labor. Black women raising White children. There’s a deep history here around how the racial caste system was created and the foundation of it was off of Blackness. I think that that’s the work of us to reckon with that reality, to reckon with what has happened to Black people. And in fact, how what has happened to Black people has been a direct result of how White wealth was able to accrue. Black Lives Matter becomes this term that is about cutting straight to the core at how this country has, for so long, neglected, abused Black people and ignored us.
Black Lives Matter puts us front and center. And it’s not an exclusionary term. It’s a term of focus.
A lot of times when it comes to the history of movements, we have to learn about the women or the LGBT community later. And it’s kind of like a side story, like ‘Oh, did you know women were involved?’
Even now, I’ve seen a lot of people taking offense to the fact that DeRay Mckesson is gay. So, do you think that people really recognize that the founders of Black Lives Matter are women and of the LGBT community? And why do you think as a community we’re still having those problems embracing the full spectrum of Black Lives?
Because every marginalized community has its own history of internal issues. Because patriarchy and homophobia permeate all of society and impact all of us. And because frankly, we have a vision, we have a fantasy of what a movement leader looks like. And that movement leader looks like someone who is a male, who is cisgender, who is Christian, who is sitting at a pulpit and telling us he’s going to take us to the mountaintop. It’s literally this idea that we have to manifest the MLK in every generation.
And I think we have to challenge the idea of who MLK was. He was powerful. He was amazing and there were powerful and amazing women that were there, on the ground, who were also the architects and strategists of the Civil Rights Movement, just like we are today. I think what’s different now though is that this current movement decided that Black women were going to be at the forefront, that we were going to say who we are, that we weren’t going to allow them to shut us out of history books or shut us out of this current moment either.
How do you feel about the way Black men have participated in the movement? Do you feel like it’s enough when it comes to Black women specifically?
Definitely not. I don’t think Black men have seen it as necessity to fight on behalf of Black women. That’s a deep cultural shift that needs to happen. I think we need to have a holistic view of how we fight for Black people and what happens to Black people of all genders. I think that’s really important.
This really is a movement of the people. The three of you (Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi) are obviously the leaders but I feel like everyone feels like they can stake some claim in it. So beyond using the hashtag, beyond social media, even though that is important, what would you advise people to do to really get involved with the work?
I think everybody should start with joining something. And as you join, don’t join because you’re going to be a forward facing leader. Join with humility. Show up to events. Read books. There are a lot of amazing books out there. If you can get to them, read them. The library has a lot of amazing books, educate yourself. Participate in things that aren’t just online if you’re able to. If you can get to a meeting, if you can go door knocking, if you can spend your time doing some organizing, I think that becomes really important in how we hold up our community.
Having these conversations and doing the work that you do, I imagine, can be very taxing. And we just saw what happened with Erica Garner, so how do you decompress or de-stress? What are the things you do to take care of yourself in the midst of all this important work that you’re doing?
I go to talk therapy. I practice something called generative somatics and I spend as much time as I can with friends and family, loving and laughing and really spending time in the joy.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ “When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” was recently released and became a New York Times bestseller. She also appeared on behind Common and Andra Day during their performance at the Academy Awards. Look out for her around the 1:50 mark in the video below.