As much as you may think you know about Tarana Burke, her newly released memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, reveals so much more about the woman who crafted the two words that seek to forever change the way we discuss sexual violence.
In a few hundred pages, the first-person account takes the reader through Burke’s upbringing in The Bronx, her community activism in Selma, Alabama, and on to the day she was startled awake by a hashtag version of her personal project, Me Too. She pours into each page, unloading past traumas and lessons learned, from feeling unattractive to being physically harmed to even pondering why her abusers always seemed to know that she’d never tell.
After several years on the world’s stage, Burke said she believes it is finally the right time to release her book, because contrary to popular belief, the world really never heard her story.
“You can scour the internet and you’ll find the same facts about me over and over again – that was very deliberate,” Burke told Blavity. “I’ve never told the details of what happened to me. People know what I want them to know. I thought this was a good time – I’ve always wanted to write a memoir, and I thought, what better way for me to control my own narrative. Like, this is the work that I’ve been doing and this is the why.”
But that work of standing in the face of sexual assault and simply saying, “me too” was almost attributed to someone else.
“Someone turned ‘Me Too’ into a hashtag and it’s all over the internet. I don’t know what to do,” Burke writes in her book of a conversation with a friend on the day she realized her movement was being used without attribution.
Once the emotions were shaken, Burke pulled the receipts she needed to lay claim to her movement and sent out a tweet accompanied by a video in which she wore a shirt emblazoned with the words “Me Too.” And then, Black women took to the internet to help her reclaim her work.
“It was not unlike what we’ve seen before — Black women being erased. What has happened to me in the last four years is pretty unprecedented, like, white people couldn’t take over Black Lives Matter, right, because that would have been a little difficult,” Burke said with a chuckle. “I was inspired by seeing Black women kind of form like Voltron and swing into action and say, ‘We’re gonna protect one of ours,’ many who have heard of me, many, many more who had never heard my name, but this is how we get down for our own.”
As the hashtag version of her work continued to circulate, Burke said she felt vulnerable.
“But, then I also very quickly realized is that this is not something that anybody can really take from me. This is my work!”
Burke further explained that #MeToo is not the same as the Me Too Movement that she has spent years developing. This is yet another reason the story behind the work felt necessary. But the story that led to “Me Too” is not an easy one to read, and crafting the book was not a comfortable process for Burke, who said she practiced loads of self-care during the writing, which primarily took place at the top of the COVID-19
“Obviously, I was at home like everybody else, so I was surrounded by my family more than I would normally be, so that was really helpful,” Burke said. “I was in therapy — I had two therapists! Just doubled down, made sure everything was good. And, I also just enjoyed solitude and really taking the time to decompress when I needed to — that was a really big part for me.”
Even though it was a bit of struggle to get down the words, Burke felt it was essential, as she writes in the book, “Black women and girls deserved this moment.”
“Whenever there’s a moment, Black women don’t find centering, even if we’re at the helm of it,” Burke told Blavity. “We deserve to have our stories prioritized. We deserve to have space to process our trauma. We deserve to have a spotlight on the things that we are going through and have folks step in and say, ‘We support you — you matter.’ We deserve that. We deserve the moment, too.”
“When it comes to sexual assault in the Black community, the culture of secrecy and silence is more complex than just wanting to protect the perpetrator,” Burke writes in her book. “The pain of watching folks twist themselves out of shape finding a new way to blame Black girls for their own abuse plays a part.”
Because of these complexities, Burke said she finds community healing to be a radical idea.
“When it comes to sexual violence we often hear of individual healing, because that’s very necessary, but we don’t hear as much about community healing,” Burke said.
She likens this concept to how communities come together in light of gun violence, comforting the survivor, the families and others in their time of grief.
“We want to promote the idea that sexual assault is not an individual issue — it’s a community issue,” she said. “Just like if there’s one person shot in your community, nobody’s safe. If there’s one person that doesn’t have bodily autonomy, one child is molested, one person sexually assaulted — this is not a safe community. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do, just reshaping the narrative.”
As her work continues, Burke said that Gen Z is leading the way for safer communities.
“The great part about this generation — younger people in their teens and 20s — is that they’re so much more self-aware than older generations, even millennials, and they refuse to not have joy in their life and they refuse to not have the freedom to express themselves, and I think that’s lending itself to a space where they will say, ‘This is harmful and I won’t accept it,’ or ‘I’ve been harmed and I demand accountability.'”
Learning through her experiences gave way to “Me Too,” understanding that her voice and her story were a powerful force for change birthed the movement that swept the country and amplified the painful truth about sexual assault: more people experience it than anyone can ever know. But even bigger still is the need to make sure Black women keep taking every opportunity to stand firm in the face of a world that believes them not.
“I have always had a vision for creating safety and healing in the Black community,” Burke writes in her book. “It needed space to be nurtured, developed and implemented. The glare of Hollywood and social media won’t provide a pathway for that to happen, only we, in our community, can forge that path, and so I stay and keep on trying.”