Skin Deep meets Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Illustration: Sylvia Hong
In the context of renewed outcry against the continuing violence of the state against Black people, we turned back to Kareli Lizárraga’s interview with Patrisse Khan Cullors.

In this interview, originally published in 2018 in our 8th print edition Movements, Khan-Cullors reflects on sowing seeds of resilience and the transformational nature of a collective movement that is rooted in deep rage – but also in deep love – for black communities. We revisit this conversation knowing how much the movement has grown and evolved since the words “Black Lives Matter” first filled the streets in the US. We look with pride and excitement to this new global wave of activism deploying new methods and new language to push the movement to new heights.

You can buy a copy of Movements here. This issue was commissioned by the Stuart Hall Foundation as part of the Black Cultural Activism Mapping Project, exploring the lesser-known histories of black and brown activism.

The morning following the Presidential Election of 2016, I did not want to get up. My eyes were swollen from crying and my stomach was in knots thinking about how my already challenging experience as an undocumented immigrant in the United States was about to become even more complicated. I woke up to many people posting on social media about resilience, and fighting — as if I had not already done that. All I wanted to do was give in to the pain I was feeling, and give up.

After 23 years living here, I am acquainted with the feeling of deep disappointment because my country refuses to see me and love me. With every accomplishment, there is always a small voice inside my head that asks, “will this be the moment that I am seen as enough?” In the days following the election, I realized that it was likely that the answer would be no. At best, my acceptance would be conditional on me giving up even more pieces of myself.

I turned to other women of colour to find solace and guidance, and kept stumbling upon Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ tweets and interviews. She was honest about the anger she felt at this monumental setback and, yet, she continued to write about the love she had for her community. More than anything, her belief that Black people could and would win filled me with resolve and possibility.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ strength and resilience have guaranteed her survival, and that of her community. Growing up in a low-income community in the San Fernando Valley, brutal run-ins with the police were common while a lack of security was abundant. She emphasizes that the moment we are living in is a particularly challenging one for her and the Black community. She admits that she is scared, and that if we were boxing champions, this is the point at which we are being severely beaten. The punches have been particularly painful and unforgiving, especially if we consider the hundreds of deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of the police, deportations and the loss of protections for Black immigrant communities, as well as Black Lives Matter (BLM) being named a terrorist organization — all incidents that occurred within the last year alone.

The image of a battered boxer resonates with me. In the weeks and months following the election, when many of my most feared anxieties became a reality, I often found myself turning to boxing movies for some hope. Creed has become a favourite of mine. Donnie, played by Michael B. Jordan, is pummelled by the significantly taller Conlan in a career-defining match. Yet even when all seems hopeless, and he is brought to his knees, Donnie continues to fight and move throughout the ring. With each measured punch and blow he inflicts on Conlan, he proves that he is a relentless adversary.

In our conversation over the phone, Patrisse reminds me of Donnie, in that she is a skilful fighter. As the co-founder of BLM, she has taken many blows in the struggle for Black liberation, but masterfully guarded her strength and her joys. As we discuss the BLM Movement, her memoir When They Call You A Terrorist, and a future where Black people are free, Patrisse reminds me that the fight ahead is one that will be painful and difficult, but that no matter what, we have to keep on moving towards victory.


Kareli Lizárraga: Our current issue is titled Movements, and one of the things that we wanted activists, writers and artists to think through, is: what is a vital movement to you?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: A vital movement is a movement that is able to capture the imagination of the public. I think a vital movement is something that can help people see, and expose, the social ills of a society and gives people the tools to challenge those ills. And, it is a movement where people respect each other and hold each other in dignity, so that they are able to sit in rooms and debate what we want for our future.

KL: I’ve been thinking a lot about James Baldwin, and how he had famously had “enough” of the oppressive and state-sanctioned violence that he and others had to live through in the US, and decided to move elsewhere in search of freedom. What do you make of the decisions of writers and activists who were disappointed with the state’s inability to respond to the concerns of social movements and decided to move elsewhere whilst remaining committed to the cause?

PKC: I think it’s an important question for Black Americans in particular. Where do we go? Our displacement happened hundreds of years ago. And while we built this country, it has never been ours — there’s this perpetual feeling of limbo. Even when we have acquired land, during the Reconstruction Period, for example, we’ve also lost it. We’ve lost it by force, and by trauma. We’ve lost it by White racism, and White supremacy. There’s a conflict that many of us have about what it means to stay here. This is an age-old conflict; Marcus Garvey was having this conversation about going back to Africa. It wasn’t just about leaving this country but about going back to somewhere where we once existed and where our ancestors lived. So what does it mean to have been displaced for so many years, from a land, from a language, from a culture and feeling it inside your body but not knowing it? I’ve been back to West Africa. I visited Nigeria as a Fulbright scholar, and while it felt very familiar, it almost felt like I was meeting my biological parents after being adopted. ‘Oh! We look the same, we have similar mannerisms. Oh I see where that came from!’ But I wasn’t of that place. I was deeply American and that was shocking. That was a shocking reality, and I know that Baldwin talks a lot about that: you go somewhere, but you’re not of that place.

KL: What perspectives, if at all, do you see art — more specifically, science-fiction and Afrofuturism — providing in the reimagining of the struggle for Black liberation?

PKC: Afrofuturism comes in a moment when it is so deeply needed. It is not just about a sci-fi world where Black people exist, but it is about believing that Black people will be here in the future. We are so obsessed with Black death in this culture that we have a hard time imagining Black lives. What does it mean to imagine Black people hundreds of thousands of years from now?  That in and of itself is Afrofuturism — the ability to imagine Black folks creating and developing a new place for us.

KL: The BLM movement has had a multi-pronged approach in its activism and advocacy, much like the Civil Rights Movement. Could you speak a little bit about both the short-term and long-term goals that you have been working towards, and how they have changed in the last 6 years?

PKC: I think in the first year, we were really trying to develop a Black identity that could hold up and be seen across the world. We were very clear that this movement wasn’t just about Black America but about a global Black identity. In that sense, we were really dedicated to building that cultural identity along with the cultural movement. With that came exposing some of the most harmful forms of violence against Black people by the state and by vigilantes, and making that, unfortunately, a normal thing for America to see. That way they could see how terrible it is; they could see the devastation.

In the last 2 years, we have been thinking about the political direction of our organization. Where do we take our movements? How do we hold law enforcement accountable? How do we hold our counties, our states and our local governments accountable so that we get the things that we need? We are in this very important moment right now where we get to reflect on the last 5 years and we get to move in a different direction. We’re finding that new identity right now.

KL: And 15 to 20 years from now, where do you see BLM going?

PKC: One of the key things for us is building new Black leadership, so that we can be the next elected officials. I really see this next phase as building Black political power. In that, we want to be able to hold those elected officials accountable. We can’t have elected officials without a strong movement. People think that the solution is just getting us in office but that’s not the solution, because we can easily succumb to the whims of neoliberalism once we get into office. Our governments are historically progressive, but we are bringing in a new progressive identity and we are also leading the people on the ground to hold us to that identity and to those policies.

I think the other piece is to continue supporting the families most directly impacted by state violence. These families for so many years were not seen, not taken care of, and BLM has given them an identity to stand up and to feel a sense of pride in who they are. They are utilizing what has happened to them to change policies and to change our culture.

The last thing is that I want to see BLM be a strong institution in the next 20 to 30 years. I want us to exist. I want us to continue to be an organization that can be present and available to Black people.

KL: Since its inception, the BLM movement has been widely criticised, and, as of late, has even been labelled a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, March for Our Lives, the movement started by the survivors of the Parkland shooting, has used many of the same tactics as BLM and yet has been much better received by the wider public. What would you say to young Black activists that are seeing these discrepancies in public support?

PKC: I would say: don’t give up. We need you. I was once a 15 year-old activist, and I didn’t have a huge movement backing me, but I believed in what I was doing, and I believed in how I was doing it. You never know what’s going to happen, and you never know how your work is going to influence the world. When I first started doing this work it wasn’t cool to be an activist. In fact, my friends were like, “why are you so weird?” But I believed in it. I was passionate about it. I believed in being able to change my local politics. Young people need to know to not give up, to be in this fight. To get the nourishment that they need and to take care of themselves during this fight. It’s a long road, and these issues are not going to stop any time soon.

KL: This brings me to my next question. What does a future in which Black people can live radically free look like, and how far away do you think we are from that, especially at a time when many people feel that after a year of Trump in office that reality seems even further away than it was a year ago?

PKC: It’s hard. In some ways, I’m scared. This is not a moment where we are winning. If this was a boxing gym, we’d have suffered a significant number of blows, and in that sense I am really scared for our future. But I am also deeply impressed and empowered by our ability as a country and as a people to stand up to what is happening right now with this administration. With every opportunity we have, we are fighting back. I think that there is something in there and I want to honour and support that. I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale, which is probably not the best show for me to be watching right now. But even in their utter despair, they are still committed to fight back. It reminds me of the times in history where we saw the worst. Not too long ago, there were literally Black people in chains, doing free labour for this government and the world. Japanese people were held in internment camps, but they fought back and won. Today, we are seeing children in cages, and people are fighting back — and I think we will win.

KL: One of the things that the BLM movement has emphasized is the equality and worth of all Black bodies, moving beyond the traditionally patriarchal, cis-gendered leadership seen in the Civil Rights movement. Do you think Black liberation movements can continue to be more inclusive of those that are most marginalized, such as trans folks and the disabled?

PKC: I don’t know if it’s about being inclusive. I think that’s the wrong way to be thinking about it, because if we are including people then that means that they can also be excluded. BLM is shaped the way it is shaped is because Black women created it. We said, “we’re tired of being told that we have to take a backseat in our own liberation”. In fact, we are in the frontlines of our liberation. We believe that it’s our own lives that actually matter.

Part of the work is having a political framework that is clear about the importance of all Black people in the struggle. That is how we try to work with Black folks that are on the margins. How do we support them in this fight? Practicing our message is incredibly important, because if we are not practicing what we preach then how will we actually get to the place that we believe is freedom? It takes a rigour and practice that is hell-bent on showing up for all of our family and being there for them.

KL: You have talked about many of these issues in your recently published memoir, When They Call You A Terrorist. Who did you see as the target audience of the book, and what message were you hoping that its readers would walk away with?

PKC: My audience, first and foremost, was Black people. Young Black people and queer girls who have grown up in poverty and had to experience some of the most painful losses because of the state. I want them to feel honoured because I didn’t, as a young person, and I wanted them to feel like they had a voice.

When we talk about mass incarceration and when we talk about the War on Drugs, often the faces we see are of Black men. But the Black women that support these men never come up. Having those conversations was important to me, because I played such an integral role in protecting my family from the state; that story is often in the backdrop, but I wanted it to be the story that was front and centre. This was written for young Black queer girls, for sure.

KL: Continuing on that note, how has your identity as a queer woman of color shaped the way you lead this movement?

PKC: BLM would not exist the way it currently exists if it wasn’t for Black women and Black queer women. This wouldn’t be the movement that went global, it wouldn’t be the movement that has touched other movements. Folks talk about the Women’s March as being the first feminist movement of this generation, but I don’t agree with that. I think Black Lives Matter is the first feminist movement of this generation. We were talking about gender-based violence from the very beginning. #SayHerName comes out of this movement as a challenge — not just to the media, but to us. We need to say the names of the Black women who died at the hands of the state. We need to advocate for Black women, so that we do not erase Black women’s labour in life and in death.

BLM is a vibrant call to action, a steering light, and it’s an opportunity to have a fuller conversation around the fight for Black freedom.

KL: What particular black and brown activist movements or individual activists do you wish everyone was taught about in school? Who do you think should be better known to black and brown kids growing up today?

PKC: I wish I had learned about Ella Baker. I wish I had learned about Fannie Lou Hamer. I wish I had learned about the great West African warrior women who fought in civil wars. I wish I had a more historical education about Harriet Tubman that went beyond this mythical character. I wish I knew that Rosa Parks was a strategist and not just some old, frail, Black woman who decided one day, by happenstance, to sit down and not get up from her seat. And I wish that Black women were painted as brilliant heroes — because we are — instead of secondary characters in someone else’s story.

KL: And, finally, because I would love for us to end on a joyous note: when you think of your  time as an activist, what would you say is the soundtrack of your life?

PKC: It would probably be a mixtape, and it would have Kendrick Lamar’s We Gon’ Be Alright. It would have Solange’s Mad– we got a lot to be mad about. It would have Beyonce’s Sorry and “boy, bye!” for every male elected official that has been corrupt and terrible. It would have some necessary ballads! I’m not sure which one, but something that you can sing your heart out at the top of your lungs. Maybe one of Sia’s songs — Chandelier. And it would definitely have Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow. And, oh, we have to have a Rihanna song — and some Drake!You can order a copy of our 8th print edition, Movements, here. This issue was commissioned by the Stuart Hall Foundation as part of the Black Cultural Activism Mapping Project, exploring the lesser-known histories of black and brown activism.

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