Each chapter in Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ best-selling memoir When They Call You a Terrorist starts with a quote. There are words from Toni Morrison, poems by Audre Lorde, and writings from Octavia Butler. But when Khan-Cullors recently adapted the book for young adults, she added new elements. Throughout the pages, there are extra notes typed in a separate font that almost look like handwriting.
“This is f—ed up.”
“I don’t want to live by these isms…”
“Who am I?”
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World, co-written with asha bandele, was published in 2018 and details how Khan-Cullors became the artist and organizer we now know as the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this new version of the memoir, released on September 22, there are personal family photos and chapter-specific reader questions. And those small notes? Lines pulled directly from journals Khan-Cullors kept from ages 16 to 26.
“I wanted young people to understand that I was also a young activist,” she tells ELLE.com. In a year when teenagers have continued to lead the very movement she helped start, the book feels like a gift and a guidepost for generations to come.
Below, Khan-Cullors discusses what it would’ve meant to her to have this story growing up—and how she’s having the same conversations today that she had as a teen.
What was it like reading through your journals for this book?
Some stuff made me laugh. I’m looking at my journal entries as an adult and really loving on myself. I was a very intense kid, and I took anything social justice-related very seriously. There were things I wrote that I was like, Oh my god. I can’t believe this is what I was thinking as a young person. I was already talking about police brutality and reflecting on police terror and the impact it was having on my community. There’s literally a journal entry in the book that says, “Police don’t keep us safe,” and 20 years later I’m having the same conversation.
I loved that, with the journal entries, you can see how your voice changed over the years. It’s a message in itself: We’re always evolving. Was that something you realized as you were going through your writing?
Definitely. Once I started to be a community organizer, I realized that I was thinking differently, having different conversations. I was going back to all my experiences inside of the organization I was in as a young person, meeting people from across the country and the world and talking about the impact of climate change and the impacts of mass criminalization. All of that was really powerful.
Also, a lot of Alanis Morissette lyrics.
Yeah, I was obsessed with her.
While working on this, did you tap back into the things that gave you comfort when you were younger?
Yes. I was very moved by Ani DiFranco. I don’t think I put any of her lyrics [in the book], but I went back and started listening to her. I was like, oh yeah, of course I was writing the way I was writing. Because I’m listening to this raging feminist who is deeply anti-racist.
What would it have meant to you to have a book like this when you were growing up?
I would have loved this book as a young person. Honestly, I would have felt so seen. I would have felt so taken care of, and I would have been reminded that what I’d been going through as a young person isn’t my fault and there’s something you can do about it beyond just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. You can join organizations. You can get involved. You can be a volunteer. You can show up to transform the very conditions you’ve been living in.
In the dedication, it says: “For the movement that gives us hope.” What else is giving you hope right now?
Everything that’s not what’s happening at the U.S. government. The people give me hope. Watching there be so much activity around voting and the power of voting and the power of this election gives me hope. Every single person is talking about voting in a way I’ve never seen, in a way I’ve never experienced. That gives me hope.
You also write about how joy is so essential to your activism. How are you finding joy these days?
My friends and my family and my child. I do a lot of laughing with them. I was just asking my good friend to send over romance novels she’s reading right now so I can cope with the madness that’s happening. My community is so important to me, and they really keep me grounded and laughing and joyful.
In the book, you talk about feeling helpless after Donald Trump won in 2016. How are you feeling now, weeks out from our next presidential election?
I’m nervous. In 2016, I didn’t believe he was going to become the president. I was concerned and mostly annoyed, like, why do we have to deal with this man? But I wasn’t scared because I didn’t believe it would be true. Now I know what’s at stake. We’ve had him for four years, and I’m doing everything in my power to make sure we get him out of office.
In my personal capacity, I have the Daily Digest that I post on Instagram a couple of times a week, which goes over news, an artist update, a call to action, and reminding people what they can do to change and transform their system. I’m telling my followers: “Let’s get him out. This is what it means to try to get him out. This is how you can register to vote.” On the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation side, we’re doing a robust multi-million dollar campaign to get people out to vote and educate voters across the country and really prioritizing Black voters.
What’s your advice for young people who read this and want to know what they can do next?
Join something. Join an organization. Be a part of something. Volunteer for something. Social media is amazing, and you should use your voice on social media, but it’s not the only place where you can make change. So please, please, please join an organization.
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You were recently on the cover of Time as one of the year’s 100 most influential people. What does it mean to you to see how Black Lives Matter has evolved?
It’s powerful. It makes me realize even more how necessary our organization and our movement is. It makes me excited. This is exactly what we should be doing. Black women and Black leaders should be getting the cover of Time. We’re changing the world. We’re creating a new world.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
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