Q+A: Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter co-founder talks about the movement, the current political situation and how BLM applies to Hawai‘i.
Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.
Photo: Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors
One of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement will speak in Honolulu this weekend about art and social change, at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.
Patrisse Cullors is a performance artist and anti-incarceration activist who has become one of the country’s most recognized voices in civil rights. With Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, she founded Black Lives Matter—the protest hashtag that has blossomed into a movement, with chapters across the country and in Canada. In 2015, Time Magazine included Black Lives Matter on its shortlist for Person of the Year. Now, with a new administration in place, Cullors is intent on expanding the movement’s mission, which continues to gain steam.
She will speak at Doris Duke Theatre on Feb. 12 following a free screening of Ava Duvernay’s searing documentary 13th (her Feb. 11 talk with Alicia Garza on art and racial justice is sold out). We caught her on the phone to ask a few questions in advance of her arrival in the Islands. Even through a phone, she comes across as focused, strategic and driven.
In 2013, did you imagine Black Lives Matter would grow into an international movement?
I did. Me and Alicia did a Facebook post saying we created Black Lives Matter and we hope that it would grow bigger than I ever imagined.
In a short amount of time, Black Lives Matter has become a force in shaping the national dialogue on race. Has the election of Donald Trump put the organizations’ chapters on high alert and shaped the vision of where the movement is going?
Most definitely. We knew that with either candidate we would continue our work, but, with the rise of a fascist president and administration, our work is now geared toward, how do we build a broader strategy where we are organizing within the human rights movement, the Muslim community, the LGBT community. We are joining forces over the next four years so Trump is not elected again.
Last year, The New Yorker reported that you were disappointed with President Obama’s State of the Union address, that he was soft on police reform. With his second term now ended, how do you feel about his accomplishments?
I think we were able to see specifically on policing and incarceration that President Obama allowed for space to have a conversation and for our movement to meet with him at the White House and with the administration. But we never saw real reform that would stop the killing of black people by law enforcement.
From Picasso’s Guernica to Carson Ellis’ hooded Martin Luther King Jr., art has played a powerful role in protest. You yourself are an artist. How did art enhance the Black Lives Matter movement?
Art and culture is a huge thread in our movement. Through art we have been able to see a new vision for black people in this current moment. We have used art and culture to communicate what black features could look like. Art allows us to imagine what might be different, what might not currently exist.
Tell us about your art practice.
I’m a performance artist, and my work generally speaks to the trauma that black communities face in the United States and their resilience. I’ve used installation as well as theater, and oftentimes audio and video recordings to share my art. I studied dance and theater as a child and as an adult I studied with Augusto Boal’s theater.
Hawai‘i has a reputation as a harmonious “melting pot” but there is actually a lot of deep-rooted racism in the state. Do you have any words of guidance for Hawai‘i—how can Black Lives Matter be relevant to us?
When we talk about Black Lives Matter and black people, we have to talk about indigenous people as well. And, in this context, talking about Native American folks, indigenous Hawaiian folks, we need to do a better job at cross-referencing our circles and building out a culture where our movements and people are in direct relationship to one another. Colonialism impacted the different groups differently, but it still impacted us. Until we have a deeper understanding of how it impacts us, we’re missing the point. I’m looking forward to hearing about the Native Hawaiian struggle and how we can be in a better relationship with one another.
Film + Talk: Sunday, Feb. 12, 7 p.m., free, Honolulu Museum of Art Doris Duke Theatre, see the documentary 13th, then hear a panel discussion featuring Patrisse Cullors, for more information visit honolulumuseum.org/events/films/16078-13th
There’s more to see at the Honolulu Museum of Art during African-American History Month:
Karen Hampton: The Journey North
The Los Angeles-based artist’s examination of the African-American diaspora through textile art.
On view through April 23
Harriet’s Return: Based on the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman
Karen Jones Meadows tour-de-force one-woman show.
Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m., click here for more information.
Feb 10: Daughters of the Dust, the seminal film that inspired Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Feb 12: 13th
Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.