First, she was a survivor: #MeToo’s Burke tells her story
“Maybe it won’t catch on.”
That’s what Tarana Burke was thinking — indeed, hoping — when she first found out the phrase “MeToo” was suddenly circulating online in October 2017, in the wake of shocking revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
It was a phrase she had come up with over years of working with survivors of sexual violence. And she worried that it would be co-opted or misused, turned into a mere hashtag for a brief moment of social media frenzy and ruining the hard work she had done.
As it turned out, it did catch on. Actor Alyssa Milano had asked victims of sexual assault or harassment to share their stories or simply say #MeToo, and hundreds of thousands had done so on the very first day. But Burke’s fears did not materialize, and her movement has taken off in a way she’d never dreamed.
“I wasn’t even dreaming this big,” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I thought I had big, lofty goals and I didn’t dream nearly big enough.”
Now, as the #MeToo movement — the social reckoning that began in 2017 — approaches its fourth anniversary, Burke, 48, has come out with a highly personal, often raw memoir of her childhood in the Bronx in New York City, her journey into activism, and the beginnings of #MeToo. She also provides a vivid account of how she herself was raped when she was only seven years old — an event that shaped her future in profound ways. She spoke to AP ahead of the book’s release this week. (Interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
AP: Why was it time for this memoir?
BURKE: People will think this is a book about, you know, going to the Golden Globes and meeting a bunch of celebrities, and a bunch of powerful men whose lives were impacted by #MeToo. I want to tell a different story. My story is ordinary and also extraordinary: It’s so many other little black girls’ stories, so many young women’s stories. We don’t pay attention to the nuances of what survival looks like or what sexual violence feels like and how it impacts our lives. So it just felt important. This is a story that’s been growing inside me for more than 40 years. It was time to give it a home outside of my body.
AP: What message do you hope to send other women and girls who, like you, experienced rape or sexual assault?
BURKE: That their experiences aren’t singular, and they aren’t alone. It feels really isolating, particularly if you’re dealing with sexual violence. I really want to convey the message that you are not alone. YOU are normal and the things that happened to you are NOT normal. It doesn’t make something wrong with you.
AP: You write about how you felt both guilt deep shame about what happened to you.
BURKE: Shame is insidious. It’s all-consuming. It can get into all the nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices of your life. There’s not enough messages that say, ‘This is not your shame to carry. This is not your burden to bear.’
AP: A key issue moving forward is the intersection of #MeToo and race. Have we moved forward as a society in that regard?
BURKE: We haven’t moved nearly enough. It became even more evident during the racial reckoning the country found itself in the last year or so. People cannot connect the two. Really, this is about advancing humanity. All of it is about liberation. And so Black lives have to matter. Women, people, have to have bodily autonomy. We need to live in a world that thinks about the environment and the actual space that we live in. All of those things are related to how we coexist as human beings. And we have to recognize that these systems of oppression we all live under affect us differently. I am Black and I am a woman and I am a survivor. And all those things exist at the same time.
AP: A very raw part of this book explores how when you were young, you felt ugly. You had to navigate those feelings. Did this experience help you to parent your own child?
BURKE: I was very worried about Kaia’s self-esteem. But then Kaia turned out to be this beautiful child, a physically beautiful child. And still in middle school she came to me and said, ‘I want Hannah Montana’s nose,’ and things like, kids were bothering them because they thought they were ugly. And I was just like, wow, it doesn’t matter what you physically look like. People will find ways to to tear you down. If they see the vulnerability and and parts of you that shine, they’ll take the lowest hanging fruit and try to take that from you.
AP: You describe how when #MeToo exploded in 2017, you were so afraid your movement, the work you’d done, would be co-opted. How did you get over that concern?
BURKE: Over time it became clear to me that whatever I’m supposed to do, whatever this assignment is that I’ve been given, it’s clearly an assignment for ME. And so if you take away how the world or the media describes #MeToo, what I built hasn’t really changed. I say this in the book: little Black girls in Selma and white women in Hollywood really need the same things. And I realized, nobody can take that away from me. I just became really comfortable. It may not ever look like it looked in October 2017. But that’s OK, because what happened in October 2017 was a phenomenal moment that we shouldn’t be trying to duplicate. We should be trying to build on that and do other things. So I don’t have that fear anymore. And it’s been an incredible journey of learning.