Black and queer biography: life as survival

She co-founded Black Lives Matter: Patrisse Khan-Cullors tells her personal backstory in her autobiography.

A Black Lives Matter activist at a demonstration in St. Louis Photo: reuters

The traditional family image has been an alien concept for Patrisse Khan-Cullors from a young age. She rarely gets to see her single mother because she has to work various jobs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to keep the broken refrigerator stocked. Khan-Cullors’ oldest brother runs the household. Father Alton rarely visits since he lost his job at General Motors and drifted into addiction.

Eventually, however, it turns out that her biological father is not him, but a man named Gabriel. Little Patrisse comes to know and love him and his warm extended Creole family. But he, too, struggles with addiction and poverty. When he is not in jail, he repeatedly begins a so-called 12-step program that is supposed to cure him by eliciting admissions of guilt. Early on, his daughter doubts the program, which holds him solely responsible for the mess he’s in. At 50, it will cost him his life.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, born in Los Angeles in 1984, is a queer black activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The movement against racial profiling and police violence formed in the summer of 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had shot unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin because he thought he was "suspicious." As numerous similar cases became public in the months that followed, Black Lives Matter morphed from a hashtag on social media to a wave of street protests in many U.S. cities.

War on Drugs

With the help of journalist Asha Bandele, Patrisse Khan-Cullors has now written a book about her life. Or rather, about her survival. And the idea that this is only possible with collective strategies. Step by step, an electoral family forms around Khan-Cullors, made up of activist friends who are there for her and for whom she is there whenever the state fails. And that seems to happen with alarming frequency in the poor, Mexican-influenced neighborhood of Van Nuys, where Khan-Cullors is growing up at the height of the war on drugs.

"When they call you a terrorist" is the original title of the book; for the German translation, the easier-to-place title "#BlackLivesMatter" was chosen. Possibly because in this country terrorism is associated more with Muslims than with the criminalization of blacks. Yet the founding of Black Lives Matter takes up barely a third at the end of the book, enthroned there like the tip of a mighty iceberg. In the foreground is Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ biography, which is supposed to provide a context for the movement’s commitment, as a narrative of an ideal-typical poor black family in the big city.

Step by step, a family of choice forms around Khan-Cullors, made up of activist friends who are there for her and for whom she is there whenever the state fails.

Much has been written about the momentous War on Drugs policy introduced by Richard Nixon and continued in earnest by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Coinciding with the economic crisis and a welfare reform that provided for drastic cutbacks, the drug policy led above all to the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos from problem districts. Sociologist Loic Wacquant, for example, speaks of a symbiosis between prison and ghetto that formed during this period. Both places took on the function of "warehouses" where "superfluous" unemployed people could be kept, controlled and defined.

Prison Fire Camp

Khan-Cullors exemplifies and enriches this narrative with myriad shocking details. For example, when her father faces seven years in prison for drug possession, he is able to minimize it to three years by reporting to the "Prison Fire Camp." Members of this camp are sent ahead of trained emergency personnel whenever a forest fire breaks out in California.

Her mentally ill brother Monte is facing life in prison because in a manic episode he starts yelling at random people. He is accused of terrorism. It later comes out that he is being held in the L.A. County Jail. not only put his life in danger with the wrong medication, but that guards systematically abused and tortured him, as they did countless other inmates, for over two decades, using methods later used on prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, "#BlackLivesMatter." Kiwi, Cologne 2018, 288 pages, 20 euros.

The Black Lives Matter movement is also confronted with accusations of terrorism. At the latest when during the mass protests in Ferguson (which follow the killing of the Black teenager Michael Brown) the instructions of the task forces are disregarded. Yes, from the very beginning Khan-Cullors has to defend the slogan "Black Lives Matter" even in her own environment. It is separatist, they say. Why not "All Lives Matter?" Khan-Cullors argues that this implies that all people are equally affected by racist violence and social injustice – which is wrong.

What is annoying in the German translation of this book, which is absolutely worth reading, is the incorrect choice of political terms – for example, People of Color are translated as "colored" people, although this word was never used as a self-designation and is simply a remnant from colonial times. In addition, the term "race" is used several times, which for historical reasons is rightly taboo in German and therefore cannot be considered a direct translation of "race". In English, the term has undergone a completely different change of meaning. A more language-sensitive proofreading would have done well here.