BLM Cofounder Patrisse Cullors: ‘How Do We Tell Our Survivor Stories?’

Patrisse Cullors is a Los Angeles-based artist and activist, perhaps best known for her work as cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement. But her work did not begin or end with that monumental movement. Cullors’ latest project is Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, a storytelling performance sharing the lives of black people struggling to survive an oppressive and abusive system. Cullors is bringing her show to Seattle this week, and we sat down to talk about her project and the importance of black storytelling.

Ijeoma Oluo: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the project you’re working on now?

Patrisse Cullors: I’m working on a project promoting and encouraging black storytelling. I developed this project while I was an Artist in Residence at Kalamazoo College. I was thinking about the impact that Mike Brown’s murder had on all of us, as black people in this country, and I remember thinking — you know, we don’t really talk about state violence and the criminalization we face as black people on an everyday basis. Often, what hits the media is our death, but what about all the black people who are living? How do we tell our survivor stories? So these are black people’s survivor stories of criminalization and state violence. I’ve done this in Kalamazoo, I’ve done it in my hometown of Los Angeles, and now I’m bringing it to Seattle.

Ijeoma: That’s wonderful. That hits on something that I’ve noticed too: In order for people to pay attention to the abuse of the state, you actually have to die from it. If it was just death — this is horrible to say — if it was just death it would be far less of a problem. But the small cuts of abuse and dehumanization . . .

Patrisse: Yes, thank you. This is very refreshing.

Ijeoma: What are you hearing from people after they get a chance to tell you their stories?

Patrisse: One, they didn’t realize how important it was. Two, they’ve lived with it so long, and it’s so normal to be abused and dehumanized, that they didn’t even think of it as an actual story to tell. And three, how fucking healing this is. These are not performers necessarily; these are regular black folks who I’ve asked to come and share stories. I’ve asked them to come and take up as much space as possible. We are not allowed to take up a lot of space; in fact, black people are asked to make themselves smaller — we’re asked to crunch ourselves up in little boxes. We’re asked to only speak when spoken to. And this is our time to take up as much space as possible, and declare that our black lives actually matter.

Ijeoma: Have you learned more about what brutality is from talking with people? What have you learned or seen that perhaps other people aren’t understanding in this conversation?

Patrisse: That there’s the subtle macroaggressions, that people live in fear. I don’t want to make us seem like these hopeless victims, but I want to talk about what I recognize as the sacrifices we make to live inside of an anti-black culture, and the impact it has on our psyche and our ability to see ourselves as human. It has a great impact. That brutality and abuse isn’t just in the form of being physically brutalized; it’s about being mentally and emotionally and spiritually brutalized as well.

Ijeoma: What are you hoping that the lasting impact of this project and these stories will be for people?

Patrisse: I hope it will continue to evolve the already amazing work that’s being done in Seattle by the black community. And that it will help uplift the conversations happening both locally and nationally.

Ijeoma: Why are personal stories important instead of just statistics or other data?

Patrisse: That’s a great question. The personal is so important because you cannot deny someone their story. You cannot take that away from them. It’s their truth, it’s their reality. Statistics are easy to remove ourselves from. A story, you are implicated in, and you have to choose what side you are going to be on.

Ijeoma: One thing I’ve tried to get people to do, is to agree that if you are going to step into these spaces and these conversations, that we’re going to agree to just believe people. That we’re going to decide that human beings are capable of accurately and clearly communicating their life experience and that we have to believe them, whether we can relate or not. Are you seeing, in these performances, resistance to that? Or have you seen people, kind of, opening up to belief in ways that you didn’t think they would?

Patrisse: Yes, in both performances, in Kalamazoo and Los Angeles, audiences — specifically white audiences, because that’s really who we’re talking about — were forced to believe. And their hearts and minds were shifted. For black people who are in the audience, it is a moment where they feel believed, and they feel heard just by watching another black person share a story that might be similar to theirs. And that’s been so powerful.

Ijeoma: What are you hoping white people and allies will do with their belief, once they leave with this knowledge?

Patrisse: To take the lead of black people here in Seattle, to donate and put money toward black spaces so that we can continue to cultivate our spaces, and to join the movement. Be an active participant in showing up for black people and black lives.

Ijeoma: Seattle is known as a very progressive —

Patrisse: <laughs>

Ijeoma: — city. It’s also a very white city. I’ve lived here my entire life. But do the stories from black people here end up looking different than from other cities?

Patrisse: No, no, the stories do not look different. Wherever black people are in America, criminalization exists. To be honest, wherever there is a white-dominant space, deep racism exists as well — no matter how progressive. If you cut too far into that progressive, if you do something that’s too radical, white racism will emerge. And we see that time and time again. It doesn’t matter — it makes it even more important for white people to be inside of these spaces and to be continually educating themselves.

Ijeoma: One thing I’ve noticed in Seattle is that it’s very easy to be progressive when you can spend most of your days —

Patrisse: — with white people.

Ijeoma: Exactly. Because you’re never called on that. It’s like a fantasy world we all have in our heads like, “If I was in a war zone, this is what I would do. I’d be a hero.” And similarly, white people are like, “Oh I’m sure I would have SO MANY black friends if only I ever saw black people. We would be down. It’d be great.” Whereas in more openly racist areas, what you get is more of a swift, vocal, violent backlash. What you get in areas like this is a complete exclusion. Your existence can’t be acknowledged if it challenges the identity of Seattle as a liberal area.

Patrisse: In fact, it makes it a different type of dangerous. Because it means that you have to prove more how terribly racist a place is when it’s calling itself progressive. And with this oppressive identity, black people have to bear the burden of proof. And that’s, for me, a different type of dangerous.

Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied runs Thursday, October 20–22 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available here.

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