First, she was a survivor: #MeToo’s Burke tells her story

“Maybe it won’t stand out.”

That’s what Tarana Burke thought – actually hoped for – when she first found out that the phrase “MeToo” was suddenly circulating online in October 2017, after shocking revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

It was a sentence she had been working with for years to deal with survivors of sexual violence. And she worried it was being co-opted or abused, went into a blue hashtag for a brief moment of social media frenzy and ruined the hard work she did.

When it came out, it worked. Actress Alyssa Milano had asked victims of sexual assault or harassment to share their stories or simply tell #MeToo, and hundreds of thousands had done so on the first day. But Burke’s fears were not realized, and her movement slowed down in a way she had never dreamed.

“I did not even dream so big,” she told the Associated Press in an interview. “I thought I had big, high goals and I did not dream big enough.”

Now, as the MeToo movement – the social bill that began in 2017 – marks its fourth anniversary, Burke, 48, has come out with a very personal, often rough memoir of her childhood in the Bronx and New York City, their journey into activism, and the beginning of #MeToo. She also delivers a vivid account of how she herself was raped when she was just seven years old – an event that deeply shaped her future. She spoke to the AP ahead of the book’s publication this week. (Interview was modified for clarity and length.)

AP: Why was it time for this memoir?

BURKE: People 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 have been affected by #MeToo. I want to tell a different story. My story is ordinary and also extraordinary: there are so many other little black girls stories, so many young women stories. We do not pay attention to the nuances of what survival looks like or what sexual violence looks like and how it impacts our lives. So it just felt important. This is a story that has been growing inside me for over 40 years. It was time to give it a home outside of my body.

AP: What message do you hope to send to other women and girls who, like you, have experienced rape or sexual assault?

BURKE: That their experiences are not unique, and they are not alone. It feels really isolating, especially when you are dealing with sexual violence. I really want to convey the message that you are not alone. YOU are normal and the things that happen to you are NOT normal. It does you no harm.

AP: You write about how you both felt guilt deep shame about what happened to you.

BURKE: Shame is crazy. It is all-consuming. It can get into all the nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices of your life. There are not enough messages that say, ‘This is not your shame to bear. This is not to carry your load. ‘

AP: An important issue going forward is the intersection of #MeToo and Race. Have we progressed in this regard as a society?

BURKE: We did not move nearly enough. It became even more evident during the racist bill that the country found itself in the last year or so. People can not connect the two. Truly, this is about promoting humanity. It’s all about liberation. And that’s why black life doesn’t matter. Women, men, must have physical autonomy. We must live in a world that cares about the environment and about the right space in which we live. All of these things are related to how we as humans live together. And we must recognize that these systems of oppression that we all live under affect us differently. I’m black and I’m a woman and I’m a survivor. And all those things exist at the same time.

AP: A very quiet part of this book explores how you, when you were young, felt miserable. You need to navigate these feelings. Did this experience help you parent your own child?

BURKE: I was very worried about Kaia’s self-esteem. But then Kaia showed herself this beautiful child, a physically beautiful child. And always in high school, she came up to me and said, ‘I want Hannah Montana’s nose,’ and things like, kids bother them because they thought they were ugly. And I was just like, wow, it does not matter how you look physically. People are finding ways to cut you off. When they see the weaknesses and in parts of you that are shining, they take the lowest hanging fruit and try to take that from you.

AP: You describe how when #MeToo exploded in 2017, you were so scared that your movement, the work you did, would be co-opted. How did you get over that worry?

BURKE: Over time, it became clear to me that all I have to do, whatever this task is that I have been given, is clearly a task for ME. And so if you take away how the world or the media #MeToo describe, what I built has not 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 no one can take that away from me. I just became really comfortable. It may not look like it did in October 2017. But that’s OK, because what happened in October 2017 was a phenomenal moment that we should not try to duplicate. We should try to build on that and do other things. So I no longer have that fear. And it was an incredible learning journey.


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