Patrisse Khan-Cullors and liquid modernity

Patrisse Khan-Cullors

When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is an eloquent and just outcry against injustice.  It also reflects a world and a way of thinking that I’m not comfortable with.

A few months ago I learned a new phrase—”liquid modernity.”  The idea is that we no longer live in a world of fixed structures—political, economic, social and moral—that we can either cling to or fight against.  Everything is fluid and ever-changing, and individuals have to continually reinvent themselves and start anew.

I can best explain what I mean by comparing and contrasting Patrisse Cullors today and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.

I make the comparison not to rank them or nor to denigrate Cullors.  She has overcome difficulties I can barely imagine and accomplished orders of magnitude more in 30-some years I have in 80-some.  The comparison is to show how thinking about justice and society has changed in 50 years.

Black Lives Matter and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are not opposites.  They both engaged in non-violent protest in order to bring about social justice.  Although most Americans now venerate Dr. King, it is through a golden haze of amnesia that makes us forget he and his movement were as controversial and as hated in their day as Black Lives Matter is today.

The SCLC was tightly organized and highly disciplined.  Dr. King was highly protective of its image.  People who wanted to participate in SCLC protests had to submit to training in the discipline of non-violence and provide assurance that they would not do anything to harm the cause.

Although Dr. King had a low opinion of the average white American’s sense of justice, he was concerned about white public opinion and sought out white allies, including journalists, labor leaders and Christian and Jewish clergy.

Which is not to say he was subservient to white opinion.  His opposition to the Vietnam War, while justified in the light of history, cost him the support of President Johnson and many white allies.

Black Lives Matter is loosely organized.  In its early days, it consisted of people following a meme on Twitter and Facebook, and there was confusion as to who had a right to speak for Black Lives Matter and who didn’t.   It’s now a more formal organization with authorized chapters.  I’m not familiar with its inner structure, but my impression is that it still is not highly centralized.

This has advantages, of course.  Individuals and local chapters are able to act on their own initiative without getting permission from a central governing body.

Black Lives Matter does not rely on the mainstream press to get the word out.  Communication is by means of social media, which did not exist in Dr. King’s time.

Nor do Black Lives Matter leaders frame their statements or their actions with an eye to what white people think of them.   Its emphasis is on solidarity among black people, whether male or female, native-born or immigrant, straight or LGBTQ, and unity in pressing their case.


Dr. King appealed to the core values of Western civilization, in particular the values of Christianity and the ideals of American freedom and democracy.

A Baptist minister, and the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, he was deeply rooted in the African-American church tradition and also was well-grounded in 20th century Protestant theology.  He did struggle with doubts as a young man, as many do.

He appealed to white Americans to live up to the founding ideals of the United States.  Like Frederick Douglass, he indicted white Americans for failing to live up to those ideals while clinging to the hope that these ideals could become reality.

Patrisse Cullors does not believe in Christianity.  She rejected the Jehovah’s Witness faith in which she was raised, and has adopted an earth-centered African religious practice called Ifa.

She wrote in her book that followers of Ifa believe in a supreme being called Olodumare, who is benevolent and without gender; Orisha, who is the personification of the soul within nature and all living beings; and the ancestors, who are always with their descendants and guide them.   Wisdom is found through a ritual of divination to understand the purposes of Orisha and the ancestors.

The question I would have for Patrisse Cullors, and also for white friends who call themselves pagans, is to what degree they regard their objects of worship as objectively real (that is, that they exist independently of human belief) or as a personal way of interpreting the world that gives them meaning.

Cullors’ primary sense of identity, she wrote, is with the Global Black community, which means she does not identify with the USA in particular.  I have long been skeptical of what’s called identity politics, because I think it is often used as a means to divide and rule, by pitting whites against blacks, Anglos against Hispanics, native-born against immigrants and so on, while ignoring vital questions such as war and peace that affect nearly everyone.

But nearly everyone identifies with something larger than themselves and their families, yet smaller than the human race as a whole.

My primary identity is American.   Although I am a universalist, who believes that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth, regardless of race, creed or nationality, I feel a part of only one nation, the USA.  I would find it very hard to change that feeling, even assuming that I ever might want to.

That doesn’t mean that I wish harm to people of other nations or excuse crimes committed in the name of my own nation.  I assume Patrisse Cullors feels the same way about her own identity and loyalty.  I have no reason to think she wishes harm to me just because I am a straight white male.  All this is a complicated way of saying that I don’t have a problem because Patrisse Cullers or anybody else has a different group loyalty than mine.


Dr. King and the other SCLC leaders were patriarchs.  They were patriarchs in the good sense, because they lived up to the ideal of strong and wise leader, but there was little or no place for women in the top ranks of the movement.

Although he sometimes personally fell into temptation, Dr. King upheld traditional family values and shunned anything that would hurt the SCLC’s image of respectability.

Rosa Parks, for example, was selected over others to be the test person in the Montgomery bus boycott because there was nothing in her personal life for which she could be criticized.  The black pacifist Bayard Rustin, who was gay, was allowed to help organize the March on Washington, but he was kept in the background.

Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, rejected patriarchy.  They intentionally put women and LGBTQ people at the center of their movement.  Cullors and Garza are gay; Tometi is the daughter of unauthorized immigrants from Nigeria.

A great deal of When They Call You a Terrorist is devoted to Cullors’ sexual identity and her search for love.   As of the writing of the book, she was in a relationship with a person named Future, aka Janaya Khan, who is not the biological father of her child, Shine, and who uses the pronoun “they” to avoid being called “he” or “she.”

Her book helps me to understand where she’s coming from.  Neither her legal father nor her biological father were around long enough to perform the duties of a parent.  Things might have been different if they had lived under a less harsh and unforgiving economic system and criminal justice system, but that’s how things were.

Patrisse Cullors opposes what she calls “normativity.”  She rejects the notion that marriage, whether between a man and a women or otherwise, should have any more social or moral standing than any other relationship.  This is liquid modernity with a vengeance!

I find this all this hard to get my mind around because none of my friends and acquaintances, including my gay friends and my one (known) transgender friend, regard themselves as anything other than male or female.  I feel strange even writing this sentence.

The people I most respect are couples in their 70s or 80s who admit they’ve had troubles in their marriages, but stuck together through thick and thin, and have children and grandchildren who are responsible and flourishing adults.

My ideal is a society in which men and women who are faithfully married are “normative,” but are part of a social ecology that also has niches for bachelor uncles, maiden aunts, gay couples, single parents and even people like me, a childless divorced man who ruined his marriage through blind selfishness.

But the fact is that, today’s world, any child is fortunate who has brought up by two loving, responsible and committed adults, no matter what their sexual or other identity.  You can’t take it for granted that a child will not be at the mercy of abusive adults, or indifferent adults, or have no adults permanently in their lives at all.


I don’t claim to know what the future holds for Black Lives Matter.  I don’t claim to know how effective their model of social change will be, or how it may evolve.

If I had to say, my guess would that the best model is the Rev. William J. Barber’s Fusion Movement, which is based on Christian social teaching and is very much in the tradition of Dr. King.  It seems to more inclusive and have more staying power.

That’s not to say Black Lives Matter has necessarily outlived its usefulness.  Or that Black Lives Matter and Rev. Barber’s movement are rivals or opposed to each other.  There is room for diversity of methods.

I think that any social change movement, to be successful, needs two things.  One is a mass of people in the streets, demanding necessary change.  The other is strategists and negotiators, not necessarily in the streets, who draft legislative proposals, make political alliances and make the change real.

In other words, you need both a Frederick Douglass and an Abraham Lincoln, both a Martin Luther King Jr. and a Lyndon Johnson.   The great challenge for Black Lives Matter and others demanding social change is the White House is occupied neither by a Lincoln nor a Johnson, but by Donald Trump.


The Role of Spirit in the @BlackLivesMatter Movement: A Conversation With Activist and Artist Patrisse Cullors by Hebah D. Farraq for Religion Dispatches.

The Future of Black Life by Patrisse Cullors for L.A. Progressive.

Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors Speaks About Being a Black Gay Woman by Patrisse Cullors for Esquire.

Patrisse Cullors on ‘The Legacy of Queer Black Women’ This Pride Month by Allanna Viagianos for HuffPost.

What Happened to Black Lives Matter? by Darren Sands for BuzzFeed News.

The Rise and Decline of Black Lives Matter: a Toronto Case Study by James Di Fiore for Quillette.

A Year Inside the Black Lives Matter Movement by Touré for Rolling Stone.

Black Lives Matter Movement and Social Media, Five Years Later by Caroline Simon for USA Today.

By expanding scope, Black Lives Matter continuing work of civil rights movement by Rachel Hinton for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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4 Responses to “Patrisse Khan-Cullors and liquid modernity”

  1. Edward Says:

    BLM sounds closer to the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, or Garvey’s movement then King’s group. These groups were faced with government repression.

    There have been attempts in the U.S. to develop alternatives to marriage but they seem mostly forgotten. Lincoln’s assassin was part of such a group.


    • philebersole Says:

      If you can imagine the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam with lesbian feminist women in their leadership and engaging in nonviolent, unarmed protest, then, yes, they would resemble Black Lives Matter.


      • Edward Says:

        That’s true. But both groups had a message which was directed at the black community although that isn’t entirely true of BLM either. I don’t think the Black Panthers or the NOI had an explicitly violent agenda but there was a militarism about these movements. I think the Panthers started as a response to an incidence of police brutality, like BLM.


    • philebersole Says:

      Edward, you’re right that the black nationalism of the Black Lives Matter movement has more in common with the black nationalism of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement than it does with the universalist values of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

      I think it’s fruitful to compare and contrast these movements in the light of what I call liquid modernity.

      Malcolm X, in contrast to Louis Farrakhan, was drawn to contemporary mainstream Islam, which, like contemporary mainstream Christianity, is a universal religion that does not make distinctions based on race.

      Furthermore both Malcolm X and Dr. King, in the last year of their lives, were drawn to radical socialist ideology of a universalist kind. It is interesting to speculate how they might have converged if they had not been murdered.

      I don’t know much about the Garvey movement. The Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers were macho organizations that sought to counteract the perceived emasculation of black men by the economic system, the welfare system and the criminal justice system.

      I think the Black Lives Matter movement is, among other things, a backlash against this macho culture.

      The Black Panthers were strong advocates of the Second Amendment right of black people to engage in armed self-defense. Unfortunately, in practice, gun rights in America don’t really apply to black people.

      For black Americans, non-violence is not just a principle. It is a response to the fact that armed or violent protest can be suicidal, as it turned out to be with the Black Panthers.

      If you think about these movements in terms of liquid modernity, the Black Panthers were more like a brand than an organization. People calling themselves Black Panthers popped up in many places, like Black Lives Matter in the early days.

      Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam is rigid in organizational structure and in dogma—much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Patrice Cullors grew up among and very different from Black Lives Matter.

      The advantage of the Nation of Islam and, for that matter, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that it gives its members a stable plan for living in an ever-changing world. They don’t have to reinvent themselves each time they get up in the morning. They would be the backlash against lliquid modernity, or postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it.


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