Black Lives Matter movement co-founder promotes new book, discusses abolition, activism


Trident Booksellers & Cafe has a diverse display for Black History Month. Photo credit to Katie Mogg.

Katie Mogg, news staff

As a part of the Central Library Author Talk Series, the Boston Public Library partnered with Trident Booksellers & Cafe Jan. 31 to host a virtual discussion with Patrisse Cullors,  activist, author and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter, or BLM, movement.

The event was moderated by L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History, and focused on Cullors’ latest publication “An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Change Yourself and the World.” 

When hearing the word “abolition,” Frazier acknowledged that most people think of the 18th or 19th century when the U.S. confronted the moral implications of transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. But Cullors said she wants her readers to re-imagine the meaning of abolition and incorporate the idea into their daily lives. 

“Abolition is really also about how we treat each other. It’s about how we take care of each other,” Cullors said. “My hope and my prayers is that abolition can be a solve and a balm for many of us as we try to chart a new world.”

Frazier explained that Cullors’ vision of abolition is not about the past, but working toward a better future. 

“You have brought to us, just in your definition [of abolition], this idea of change, a change toward a future that is not bound by the practices that we have had here before, nor a narrative that’s been here before,” Frazier said.

Although chattel slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Cullors explained that slavery still survives in today’s society through the incarceration system. Cullors said she hopes that her book can inspire people to lobby against the current criminal justice system in favor of a new structure that prioritizes compassion and care.

Today’s carceral system, which includes “prisons, police, courts, surveillance and detention centers,” Cullors explained, contributes to a greater culture that supports punishment and relies on vengeance. Through these malicious underpinnings, the spirit of slavery persists.

“The 13th Amendment says slavery will be abolished, except if you have been convicted of a crime,” Cullors said. “We are still living in a system that relies on the vestiges of slavery, and that system is incarceration and that carceral system is held up by white supremacy and patriarchy.”

Ellis McNeiece, leading bookseller at Trident Booksellers and Cafe, said he understands how abolition can hold a place in today’s society.

“I think that going towards abolition as [Cullors’] concept is the better choice than just trying to rebuild from what we have,” McNeiece said. “By saying you’re going to abolish the thing, you’re acknowledging that the thing is fundamentally flawed. It’s something that we have to get rid of and [it] can’t be fixed or tweaked in little ways.”

Frazier noted that Cullors’ book is succinct, yet dense in resources and information as it teaches the reader to make abolition a conscious habit. The book uses personal anecdotes from the author and includes quotes from influential figures in Black history. As such, the book strays away from using traditional storytelling and narrative and acts as an interactive guide meant to engage its readers. 

“I really wanted folks to feel held as they read the book, taken care of,” Cullors said. “I’m asking you to dig into yourself. It’s not just about looking at the system outside of us, it’s not just about pointing the finger at something outside of you.”

The abolitionist’s handbook has 12 chapters delineating exactly how readers can incorporate abolition and activism into their lives. Frazier said her favorite part was when Cullors urged her readers to open their minds to imagination as a tool to becoming an abolitionist.

Cullors explained that capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy work together to limit our imagination. These societal structures foster limitation and preclude the ability to envision a society that is more inclusive. 

I believe that our imagination is actually the central force to help us usher in abolition. We have lived in this place, this country that has stolen our imagination,” Cullors said. “It’s why so often when we use the word abolition or we call for abolition, people have a guttural response of fear. …  We’re due for imagining something different.”

Cullors urged people to imagine a new system that prioritizes and actively works to improve the wellbeing of all populations, especially during the pandemic when resources like healthcare are paramount. 

While Cullors has become an influential woman in contemporary Black history in her own right — she created the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag in 2013 and has since been named one of the most influential people of 2020 — Cullors made sure to shine light on other influential Black figures who inspired her most. 

“It’s the women who like Audre Lorde or bell hooks and in particular, Ella Baker. These are the women [who] have helped shape who I am,” Cullors said. “Obviously, I need to make it very clear that the woman that was on my mind the most as I wrote this book and as I’ve been doing this work for 20 years was Harriet Tubman.”

Cullors’ book borrows from the knowledge and lived experiences of acclaimed Black women. McNeiece explained the importance of amplifying the work of authors like Cullors not just during Black History Month, but all year round. 

“I think that matters of race are best told by people who’ve experienced racism in their lives or just want to promote power within their own movements, so we try to have a good selection of diverse names on the shelves,” McNeiece said.

Trident has a Black History Month section on display throughout the month of February. The selection includes classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.” It also includes more modern works like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “Yinka, Where is Your Huzband” by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn representing the diverse lived experiences of not just Black Americans, but members of the general African diaspora. The bookshop is also selling signed copies of Cullors’ handbook.

McNeiece hopes Trident’s diverse Black History Month display will amplify the voices of a variety of Black authors. 

“You need to know Black history. You need to learn about Black history,” McNeiece said. “So educating people is, I think, the most important thing. That’s what books are for, you know?”