I got a call from a friend. He was having a long week, "The longest week of his life," he told me. He said, "D man, you won't believe what I've been going through. Man, let's go out for a drink on you." And we linked at a bar where we knocked down glass after glass of vodka, swearing that old cliché to each other –– tough times don't last, but tough people do.
The same friend numbed his issue with alcohol only to be hit by three or four brand new problems –– like the days of the week, they just kept coming. And he pulled up to my block with another bottle, looking to numb some more, so we drank even bigger cups, but this time we also hit the store and blew money on new Nikes and sweatsuits. The combination of new sneakers, clothes and Absolut was the perfect painkiller for his problem, a beautiful distraction that temporarily allowed him to move forward. The key word here is "temporarily," because his issues were never fully resolved and the painkillers grew from clothes and drink to flashy cars and beautiful homes, all of which ultimately snowballed into a glacier of debt that only bought about more issues for him.
My friend's case isn't rare. Me Too founder Tarana Burke eloquently writes about the process of healing and the danger of avoiding in her new memoir "Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement" (Sept. 14) published with Oprah Winfrey's book imprint, Flatiron Books.
Burke talked to me on "Salon Talks" about how she found the strength to write about her turbulent journey, from being sexually assaulted at the tender age of seven to the years she spent after, blaming herself for the assault because of poverty, a gross lack of resources and colorism –– and then finally how she healed through activism, advocacy and being a mentor for so many other survivors. Unlike my friend, Burke dug deep down to the root of her problems, dug them out and began her own healing. "It was a difficult process. It was the most difficult creative process I've ever gone through," Burke shared with me about her writing. Burke explained how healing is not a simple destination, but something ongoing that you must work at every day.
You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Tarana Burke here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about "Unbound," her thoughts on the Texas abortion ban and why this may be her first and last book.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
First and foremost, I'm extremely inspired by your work, and I want to say congratulations on the new book and the power of the movement you created. Can you start out by telling our readers and our viewers, what does Me Too mean to you in 2021?
It means the same to me in 2021 as it did in 2005 and 2006. I think people miss, because of the viral hashtag, people miss that Me Too is essentially about healing and about action, and it's about a way to build community first between survivors. Between people who have experienced the same, or similar, kind of violence seeing each other, finding community with each other. So it's just like any other reason why you would say, "me too." I found myself in different spaces where people would share about what happened to them, and everybody in the room, or half the people in the room, could say, "Yeah, that happened to me too." And ultimately, it was a situation where I couldn't say "me too." That made me realize how powerful those words actually were.
The reason why I framed the question like that is because it's still an extremely powerful movement, and then dealing with the horrors of the last administration, on top of the pandemic and everything shutting down, I want to ask you how can people support survivors? People are still a little bit apprehensive about meeting up and going to big groups and spaces, so what can people do now?
I really appreciate that question because I think that not enough attention has been paid to the really specific impact that this pandemic has had on survivors. This is a moment where people have been complaining about having to be inside and having to be isolated, but being inside and isolated is actually more dangerous for so many people who deal with intimate partner and sexual violence in their homes. Children who are dealing with child sexual abuse and can't get away from it.
One of the ways we can support survivors is by being keenly aware of the unique situation so many people have found themselves in over the last year and the lack of resources that exist for them. It's heartbreaking when people ask me, "Well, what can I do?" There's not a lot you can do for somebody who is locked in their home with their abuser. But if we can put resources into the places where they can go to get help, that's one of the ways that we can support people, post pandemic. But also it's kind of just understanding what people are up against. This moment in time has been like a spotlight on so many different problems in society, and this is another one. It's illuminated just how serious this problem is, even more so, I think, than the hashtag.
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Your writing is beautiful. Before I became a writer, I luckily got a chance to meet the late great Maya Angelou, and one of the things she said is that I shouldn't say I'm not a writer. My career didn't start yet and I was still trying to find my voice. One of the things I took from her was in memoir and the power of identifying those universal truths that connect us. Reading your book, I felt like so many things aligned with me and my journey. And even though we're from two different spaces with two whole different realities, there's certain things that just bring us together. And that's one of the most powerful things about "Unbound" to me. I feel like you're dropping these gems, but you're not preaching at us. It's not didactic. You're allowing your story to do the work. I'm going to assume that was probably part of the goal, and I want to know what was your writing process like, in regards to what you decided to keep in and take out?
I want to be really deep and profound and be like, "That was what I was really trying to get at." But in truth, I think the reason why that was the end result is because at the end of the day, human to human, that is the reality. We get really caught up in the titles and the experiences, and those are important, right? The experiences that shaped us, where we come from, all those things are important. But when you strip that all away, how those things affect us are as human beings, and that affects how we show up in the world, and that's where our commonalities kind of come from. And I think that's why people can relate to it, right?
At the end of the day, you're a man, I'm a woman, blah, blah, blah. We come from different – all of the things you're saying. But the way something pierces you and your spirit, the way something makes you feel, the way something sits on your heart, that doesn't matter. I think that's where people will connect.
What I really tried to in the writing process was just tell the truth. I think that's what everybody tries to do, but I mean the hard truth, right? It's an ugly underbelly that sometimes we don't get to, that we're scared to talk about. It's not easy to talk about people thinking you ugly, right? It's not easy to talk about the worst things that ever happened to you in your life about being abused, violence that you experienced. But I needed to say it. I needed to say it out loud for myself, first and foremost, because there's also something about facing that. It's like facing your fears almost. And then there's another part that's like, if I need to say it for myself, there's somebody else that needs to hear it, too.
It's not easy to talk about things that hurt us, it's not easy to always talk about things that we've been through, and it's not easy to admit and be as transparent with any healing journey, but that's also part of your healing, right? A lot of people feel like healing is something that you do, but then it stops. They don't really understand that it's just like learning. You've worked at it every day. Something that I focus on a lot, that I already knew about your story but I think that everybody needs to know, is you were on the ground doing this work for a long time before there were hashtags, and virality, and the whole big Ivy League universities doing studies on what going viral means. Could you talk about some of those experiences?
I think differently than other people who have had these viral moments kind of shape their work. For me, the work came first and then the viral moment propelled that work into the world. I've been an organizer most of my life. And I mean, really, most of my life, since I was a teenager. I've been engaged in community work since high school, I was raised in a very conscious family, very conscious about my Blackness, African sense of family. And so it was really important for me to be connected to community, to do liberation and justice work around community. And then that eventually moved into youth work and youth leadership development, because it's the work that saved me and it helped shape my life.
And then that work morphed. It's like little by little as you get older and you kind of pare down on what it is your specialty is, it became really, really clear after a while that I wanted to work with Black girls. Once I got that clarity, I understood. Once I got that clarity, I was like, "This is where I'm going to be. This is the work I want to do." And I got in that world, I saw what the needs were. And the needs of the same as my needs as a kid, right? I saw a bunch of young girls who had experienced sexual violence, on top of the other traumas that they had experienced in their communities, right? We forget that. And I'm not trying to tell a traumatic story. We are also joyful and full people, but there is a lot of trauma that happens in urban communities that we just normalize, right? My mother actually tells a story about the first shootout I experienced when I was like three or four years old, and I was just walking through. It's like a joke in the family. "Oh, Tarana didn't even duck." That shouldn't be real.
That shouldn't be a reality, that I was in a shootout at three years old, right? But that's trauma that we don't think about. That's the life that I decided I wanted, because I wanted to be able to impact young Black girls lives to make sure that they could even just be a modicum of difference than what I experienced, felt like liberation work to me. The kind of liberation work I wanted to be engaged in. And that is the more I connected with young girls who had experienced sexual violence, I knew this was where I had to direct my energy because I knew what it had done to my life.
Take us to that moment when it actually did go viral. When the Me Too hashtag went viral.
Well, I start the book with that moment because I've been asked that question so many times and I've had to answer it in soundbites for the last four years. Like, "Well, it was really hard. It was difficult." Bah, dah, dah, dah, dah. But the truth is I went through it, right? Not just because it was viral and I couldn't get my arms around it, but also I'm a Black woman, right? At the time I was a 44-year-old Black woman from the Bronx, seemingly up against the world, up against white women in Hollywood, up against famous people, up against even the virality of the hashtag that didn't start with me. And it just felt like I was going to lose it, and I would never be able to shape the narrative.
It's just been one big lesson for me for the last four years because, one, I realized very quickly it wasn't meant for me. The other thing I realized is that that hashtag is not my work. So that hashtag happened, people still see #MeToo as something that is very different than the Me Too movement, which is the work that I started. And I will never fully regain that narrative, but that's okay. Because what I try to explain to people is if you can't both call me Tarana Burke, the leader of the movement, the founder of the movement, and say that you believe in my work, and then talk about white women co-opting it. What they have is #MeToo. That has nothing to do with what I'm doing.
My work is about healing. My work is about action. It starts with Black and brown folks. It starts with Black and brown girls. It starts with people who are pushed to the margins. And if you believe that, nobody can take that away. Nobody can change that. That is where we stay. That's where we've been. You can look at interviews, you can look at my track record for the last four years. I've been on all kinds of shows. I done talked about all kinds of things. But the work, the core of the work I've done, has been consistent. So I don't worry about who co-opted what, who's saying what, because honestly, think about it. White people have never prioritized our pain, right? They have never decided, "Well, let's see what's going on," unless it's something that is going to benefit them. It's going to sell their newspapers.
They started thinking about Black people, Black women, and sexual violence because they had an R. Kelly story to tell, or Russell Simmons story, or Bill Cosby story to tell, right? They can attach it to something. But they don't talk about sexual violence in relation to Black Lives Matter, right? Because that's a different story, like when they had the second-highest rate of sexual violence in this country. And Black people have the highest rate of adverse experiences with the police. If you want to talk about Black Lives Matter, why are you not talking about sexual violence? Because you know what the second-highest complaint against police is? Sexual violence. You do all of that math, that means not only are Black women dying at the hands of police, we're also being sexually assaulted at the hands of the police. Look up Daniel Holtzclaw. You all don't want to tell that story, right? So it's up to us to tell that story and to do that work.
I've had tough conversations with people who wake up in the morning, pick up their phone, tweet something like "Black people count too," and they say, "Okay, the work is done. Now I can go out and I'm an activist." Activism is blood, sweat, and tears.
So you're a writer, right? Listen, I have a lot of friends. I was a journalist at some point too. There's a connection there. If you are a writer, even, who is writing about these stories, who is telling a different story, you're important to me because then I can use what you're writing to educate the people I'm talking about, saying, "This is what I'm saying." You can tell a deeper story, you can research, and then I can take that and bring that to the young people lens. We're connected in that way. But you with your armchair analysis, and you tweeting, and you're hashtagging, that's not helping me. I tell people all the time, "Everything counts." Do your little part. If that's all you can do, fine. But then do that and be quiet. You know what I'm saying? If all you need to do is tweet, go ahead and tweet and then leave the criticism alone.
It's inspired me to dig in deeper on some of the things that I'm working on because you're brave enough to share some of the darkest elements of your personal story, to talk about what you've been through and the years you spent blaming yourself. And without giving too much away, I would like you to talk about how difficult it was to just revisit some things that may not have been easy to revisit.
Yeah. It was hard. And you know what's interesting? The reason why I was able to write this book, for real for real, is because I have journals that go all the way back to eighth grade. My mother encouraged me to journal when I was younger, and I have journals that's half written in. Some of them are filled up.
I had a story — the story of my life is in my head — and if I had to sit down, I could sort of timeline it out. But when I got into some of the really, really harder stories, and then I went back and I read what I was feeling around that time, what I thought around that time, I thought, "Oh my God, I never really unpacked this." Right? I know the story, I could tell it, I could verbalize it, but I hadn't really unpacked it. I underestimated what it was going to be like to write it out and unpack it in the moment. It was a difficult process. It was the most difficult creative process I've ever gone through. I started in 2019. I put it down for most of 2020. And quite frankly, we have this book because my editor was like, "I mean, do you want to write a book? Because you're going to need to turn in 70-something pages." And I got really serious about it end of last year, because got real serious in my therapy, and also had to have a lot of difficult conversations around writing a book.
I went back to talk to people and revisit some old stuff that I had, and people were like, "Why are we talking about this now?" And I'm like, "I'm sorry. I just never . . ." You know, it's been a while. It was hard, and they keep promoting this as "her first memoir," and in my mind, I'm like, "I always wanted to write a series of memoirs, like Maya Angelou." But I'm like, "I don't know if I can do it again." It's hard. It's definitely hard.
Was any of it healing?
Yeah, absolutely. Now that's the flip side. The thing is, once you unpack it though, it's unpacked. It's just like any process. It hurt. It really hurt. A lot of the stuff around my mom was really, really difficult and I just needed to get it out. I think that when you have people in your life and you love them, we find ways to soften the experiences just so we can live with it, right? I know this happened, I know it made me feel this way, but I'm going to, I'm going to let it live in my mind in a particular way, just so that I don't have to face the reality of it. And what was healing was that I realized I could face the fullness of what happened and I can still love my mom, and we can find a new place in our relationship where both of those things could exist. And that alone was incredibly healing for me, and I think probably for my mom, too.
What would you say to a person who's going through a similar journey? Somebody who's trying to understand that healing process, based on what helps you. We talked about therapy, we talked about writing. What about someone who wants to start that journey?
I try not to be prescriptive.
It's so, so different for different people.
I feel you.
I will say that if it sometimes feels . . . the actual thing, the trauma that you feel like, feels like – I think of it like a house sometimes. It feels like your house burned down, right? I mean, it's such a traumatic thing to even think about. You lose all your worldly possessions and, you know . . . But even when a house burns down, you still have the ground that the house stood on. Regardless of what the brick and mortar that was there, or even the possessions that were inside of the house, you still have ground to build on. And who we are at our core doesn't really change. It doesn't have to change. Sometimes the violence that we experienced, the childhood we experienced, feels like it can change our alchemy. But that doesn't have to be bad.
Without being complicated and all extra cerebral, I try to help people understand. Some people say healing is about how you're going to be whole again. And you want to try to be whole again, but also know that c That's been my experience. I got stuck for a long time because I kept thinking I was failing at the healing because I wasn't feeling a particular way. Where's the magic? Where's the thing? Why don't I feel this? And then it was like, "Oh, this is it. This is what you get. This is who you're going to be." It was sort of a journey to accepting this person. This person with the scars, this person with the trauma. It doesn't go anywhere.
Even the ground you build on, maybe charred from the fire. That may not go anywhere, but you still get to rebuild. And what I've done is I control what I rebuild this time, right? It's up to me. It's a beautiful process. And particularly for sexual violence, but I think any kind of violence... and I've been through all kinds of violence, there's a way we lose control. Losing control of yourself, of your body, of your functions in any way it's debilitating. Every decision I make in my life that I have control of is so precious to me. It's that much more important to me. So, yeah, I just revel in being able to make decisions for my life and that's healing for me. I don't know if that's good advice for people, but I just know it's a process and it's a good process. And it ain't always good, but all of it counts.
"Peace from broken pieces" is the thing I think that we need to talk about. Because we spent so much time looking for magic and waiting for magic, and not even understanding that, the work is something that's constant. It's not just a one-time thing.
People don't realize that healing is the journey. There's no destination. It's all in the journey. You have to decide every single day, when you get up, to heal. You have to decide. And then some days decided not to. There's days when when I'm like, "Yo, I'm f**ked up. I can't do it. I can't do it. Today I'm going to cry." Or I have a girlfriend who I love so much because when I'm going through stuff, she'll say, "Okay, well, who do you need me to be?" You know? And she was like, "I'm going to give you about 24, 48 hours with this. Do what you need. Cry, rant, whatever, and I'm going to come back and then we're going to get back on track."
I think that's a beautiful thing, to allow yourself to feel what you need to feel. Give yourself that kind of space. This world of social media, with all those little listicles of "10 ways to heal in your life" that's not real. It's not. It's going to look good sometimes, you're going to feel great, and then you going to feel terrible sometimes. But you have to know that when you feel terrible, that's part of it too, and it's okay.
Something that frustrates me is when we talk about a movement as powerful as Me Too, when we talk about survivors, people who feel like they don't assault, or they don't rape, or they didn't do anything wrong, think that they should be exempt from having the conversation. My question for you is as a man who could potentially come across people who talk like this, what should we be saying to them, to people who feel like they're above the conversation?
This is such a really important thing. And I think it's not even for men. It's for people, right? Because I've had sisters, women, who I've had to say that If you're the kind of woman who sees another woman and will be like, "Look at her. Why she got that skirt on?" or "She's so drunk. Somebody is going to end up." If you're that person, you're part of the problem, too.
I don't think we're going to have a shift in sexual violence until we have a shift in rape culture. And all of us contribute to rape culture. And I think that's the approach we take, not "You could be a perpetrator" or "You probably harmed somebody," because I think that makes people defensive. But when you can show the breadth of rape culture . . . and it's so broad. It's everything from the little jokes we laugh at, the little memes and things that we let slide, you know? And it could be as simple as saying "Man, that's not funny." You don't have to be the guy that's like "I have a daughter," and da, da, da, da, da. Or you could be. But to just kind of have boundaries and be clear, "That's not funny."
That guy frustrates me too though. The guy who's like "I would never do that. I have a daughter." It's like, even if you don't have a daughter . . .
Even if you don't have a daughter. Human to human, you shouldn't do that to other people. But I'm just saying, let me tell you why I'm not as frustrated with those people anymore. Because at this point, I just want any entry point. If it's because you got a daughter, all right, let's take it from there and hopefully I can get you to someplace else, but I hear you. What I need people to do, regardless of how you identify . . . because what happens is that the focus also becomes on men, right? If men could just be different, we wouldn't have rape. That's not true because also women cause harm, too. Women also can commit sexual assault. But we don't talk about trans folks, right? And I've seen so many women who uphold rape culture around trans women.
This is a learning curve for all of us. We really have to reshape how we think about sexual violence, how we talk about it, how we normalize it. You got people like the rapper Lil Boosie who was talking about his son. This is the kind of stuff that we normalize. Or the other rappers who are talking about, "I lost my virginity at 11." That kind of stuff, it's the normalization. What I try to tell brothers is "Be the difference. Create really hard boundaries and make sure that people around you know. Talk to the young people around you." It may be too late for some of your peers, but certainly talk to the young people around you because we have to re-socialize our young people, so that by the time they get to teenage years, this stuff is very normal for them. Gender identity, boundaries and respect, all of those things are just normal for them.
It's not that they're rubbing up against the norm. It's just normal, right? If people all the time in the exercise, replace the rape with murder, so if you were talking in general and the people were like, "Isn't that guy who they said he raped a girl, didn't he?" And people would be like, "Maybe, but you know how that is." If you said, "Didn't he say he murdered somebody?" That's going to give you a full pause. "He done like murdered. Did he murder somebody? What?"
We so normalized rape and we immediately put excuses in our head. What happened? What's the circumstances? We gotta know extra information. The other last bit I'm going to say about this is we have to move from the idea that sexual violence is an individual issue. So there's somebody in the community who has that experience of sexual violence, it's just about them. "Oh, you heard what happened to so-and-so? Oh I hope they getting help. Oh, did she go to the police? Oh did they get counseling?" We start thinking about individual solutions for that person. We don't think about community solutions.
When you hear about social justice issues of the day, you hear about gun violence, you hear about police violence. We hear about climate change. You hear about all these different issues that we think of collectively affects us. But we don't add sexual violence to that because it's seen as an individual issue.
I use this to drive this home for people because when you're in a community and you hear about gun violence, particularly against children, what you see is people rally around that as an issue. "We do not want guns in our community. We want to keep our children safe." They connect their safety, and the safety of their family, to that particular incident, right? That makes sense to them. They can draw that connection. When you hear about sexual violence in the community, people repel from that. You hear a child is shot, we want to make sure that people are safe. You hear a child is molested, people start whispering. "You don't know if it's true or not. I don't know what happened. What are they going to do? Who is so-and-so?" We don't feel collectively responsible for the wellbeing of that child or the safety of the community. And that has to change. We have to feel collectively responsible.
At some point, a lot of people tried to tie Me Too to cancel culture. What do you make of that? Or how can we just draw a wedge? Because it's not the same.
It's so not the same. I mean, if that was the case, we'd see a whole level of people being canceled, right? It's not the same. Asking for accountability, or even consent, is not the same as canceling people. And I wish that people would have a little bit of nuance when they think about these things.
What most people who experience sexual violence are looking for is somebody to be accountable for the pain, to be accountable for the trauma that the person experienced. That accountability can look like a lot of things. Because sexual violence happens on a spectrum, accountability should happen on a spectrum. It doesn't always mean lose your job, go to jail, blah, blah, blah. But it does mean that somebody has to accounted for it. In a very, very simple way to look at it.
We have been socialized most of our lives, just because we're Americans, to think of everything in a crime and punishment framework. Law and order, crime and punishment. This thing happened, these are the set of consequences you have. But at the end of the day, this is about harm and harm reduction. There's not enough laws to cover the breadth of sexual violence. But right now, if we was face to face and I was to smack you, you may not call the police, right? You're not going to call the cops necessarily. And you may not even hit me back.
The next time somebody says, "Do you want to interview Tarana Burke?" You're going to be like, "No, because she smacked me last time. She didn't apologize. She didn't help me out." I harmed you and I wasn't accountable for that. And I mean, I'm being flippant a little bit, but the point is whenever anybody is harmed, somebody should answer to that harm. This is not about people being canceled. This is how you get towards wholeness. That healing that we're talking about, this is a big step in that and everybody deserves healing. It's not trying to cancel people.
But the other part that I just have to say, and I know people are going to say whatever… There are also some people who sometimes need to be outside of our community, right? That's just the truth, and I don't understand why we cape for certain people who cause harm inside of our community, even when they famous.
This whole thing around R. Kelly and the debate and blah, blah, blah. I've had so many Black men, and I wrote about it in a book, who attacked me, or who attacked the new R. Kelly organizers around that, and I'm like, this is a singular man who wrote great songs, but this is a singular man who does not represent Black men.
Absolutely not. I know Black men. I know amazing Black men. In fact, most of the Black men I know are amazing. Even the most trifling of them are amazing, right? Just at their core. Good brothers who would never cause harm, not intentionally in the way this man does. Why is this the hill you want to die on? Sometimes they got to be outside the community and that's okay.
That man needs to be somewhere getting some help. He's clearly out of his mind.
This is what I'm saying.
I can't let you go without asking you about the Supreme Court's decision to not block the Texas abortion ban. This is one of the many things that have just thrown off the month of September.
We've watched this happen, right? This is the track that has been happening for several years. This is sort of the culmination of a very carefully calculated plan from the right, from the ultra conservatives, the Christian right wing, whatever you want to call them. It's kind of a lesson for those of us on the other side. People did not realize how tactical and organized they were. It is horrific, obviously. It is going to be such a monumental setback for reproductive rights. Of course the least of us are going to bear the brunt of it. But I also hope it's a catalyst for us to double down on our organizing and be as tactical and strategic.
We really have to raise the bar and sort of meet these people where they are, and even exceed the kind of organizing they're doing. They have laid the groundwork for this for years and years, and they finally got to this place. It just didn't happen overnight. It's not a fluke, and it's not just because Trump was president. It was going to happen. They found an opportunity with Trump's presidency to kind of fast track it, and get it in there with the Supreme Court justices. But it's sad that this is where we are, and I mean, we're kind of in a really sad time in this country.
Your book is brilliant. Can you please tell everybody where they can check in with you at, and buy the book?
I'm really only on Instagram. I'm sometimes on Twitter. My name is Tarana Janeen on Instagram. And the book is everywhere books are sold, but you should buy it from bookshop.org because that's where the independents get their money.