On this episode of Unlocking Us
This week’s episode features two audio essays from You Are Your Best Thing, an anthology on the Black lived experience of vulnerability and shame resilience, led by my friend Tarana Burke, an organizer, writer, activist, and the founder of the ‘me too.’ movement. It starts with an introduction from Tarana and me, followed by an essay from Jason Reynolds, award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author. All of the essays in the book are urgent, compelling, heartbreaking, and heart affirming. I’m proud and grateful to share this work with you.
Listen to the episode
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience by Tarana Burke and Dr. Brené Brown brings together a dynamic group of Black writers, organizers, artists, academics, and cultural figures to discuss the topics the two have dedicated their lives to understanding and teaching: vulnerability and shame resilience. Contributors include (as they appear) Jason Reynolds, Austin Channing Brown, Tanya Denise Fields, Kiese Makeba Laymon, Prentis Hemphill, Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, Marc Lamont Hill, Keah Brown, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Shawn A. Ginwright, Kaia Naadira, Deran Young, Sonya Renee Taylor, Irene Antonia Diane Reece, Yolo Akili Robinson, Laverne Cox, Jessica J. Williams, Aiko D. Bethea, Imani Perry, and Tarana Burke.
To learn more about the contributors, visit our You Are Your Best Thing page.
You Are Your Best Thing audio. The included audio is excerpted courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio from You Are Your Best Thing, edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, read by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, the Contributors, Mirron Willis, Bahni Turpin, JD Jackson, and L Morgan Lee. Available as a CD and digital download. For more information, please visit penguinrandomhouseaudio.com.
Unlocking Us podcast episode Tarana Burke and Brené on Being Heard and Seen
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: We have a very important episode this week, it’s a special episode, it’s an episode that started with a conversation. Last summer, Tarana Burke, many of you may know her as the founder of the Me Too movement, as an organizer, as a writer, as an activist. To me, she’s my friend, she’s all those amazing things, and she’s also just a good friend. She approached me about working on a project together, and you have to know that I’m always going to say yes if Tarana asks me to do something, which is a dangerous way to live, but it always pays off.
BB: She asked me if I would work on an anthology with her. She said that my work had meant a lot to her in her life and had taught her a lot of things, but that she often found herself having to contort herself and change the work and think about it differently as a Black woman navigating the world today, and she asked if I would be willing to co-edit an anthology with her on the Black lived experience of vulnerability and shame resilience and some of the concepts that I write about. And I said “Yes.”
BB: And our episode today is the introduction to that book, which is a conversation between myself and Tarana about why the book was important to us and why we’re doing it, then we’re actually going to share one of the essays by Jason Reynolds with you. He read his essay, and you’re going to get to listen to it here first. It is like all of the essays in the book, urgent, compelling, heart-breaking, heart-affirming. I’m just really proud of this work, and I’m so grateful to get to share it with you on Unlocking Us.
BB: Okay, so before we share the introduction to the book and one of the essays from Jason Reynolds with you, I just want to tell you a little bit about the book. The title is You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience. It’s a collection of essays from 20 Black writers who share their experiences and affirm the fullness of Black love, Black life, Black joy, Black humanity. There is such a deep, soulful truth-telling in these stories, a generosity, and I just have to say that it was an honor to be asked by Tarana to work on this together.
BB: I also want to thank Penguin Random House Audio. They are exclusively sharing these two excerpts from the audio version of the book with us for the podcast. First you’ll hear Tarana and me discussing the intention and evolution of the project and why it was important to us, and then the second is an incredible essay written and read by the New York Times bestselling author, Jason Reynolds.
BB: In case you don’t know, Tarana’s been on the Unlocking Us podcast, I think she was our first guest… Yes, first guest. First of all, I’d really recommend that you go back and listen to that. In case you don’t know a lot about her, for more than 25 years, she has been a cultural worker and organizer, Tarana has worked at the intersection of sexual violence and racial justice. She is fueled by a commitment to interrupt sexual violence and other systemic inequalities disproportionately impacting marginalized people, particularly Black women and girls, she has created and led various campaigns focused on increasing access to resources and support for impacted communities, including the Me Too movement, which to date has galvanized millions of survivors and allies around the world. She’s received numerous accolades and awards for her work, including being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2017 as part of the Silence Breakers, and one of the 2018 Time 100 Most Influential People.
BB: She received the 2019 Sydney Peace Prize, Harvard University’s Gleitsman Award, and the Ridenhour Courage Prize. Just so honored to co-create and co-edit this anthology with her, really appreciate y’all listing to this episode. Thank you.
BB: So we could start the story of this book when you texted me to ask me if we could talk, and I thought you wanted to continue our ongoing conversation about wallpaper and landscaping, but what came before that, when did you get the idea for this book? When did it come to you?
Tarana Burke: It was after we did #SharetheMic on social media in the summer of 2020. There had been this intense public unrest happening in the country after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. In private, I was having these really heartfelt conversations with Black folks who were just struggling, like, I can’t watch any more of this, I can’t take this anymore, I cannot. And in public, the conversation was, how can we get white people to be better, how can we get white people to be antiracist? Antiracism became the order of the day, but there was no focus on Black humanity. I kept thinking: “Where is the space for us to talk about what this does to us? How this affects our lives?”
TB: And so I was thinking to myself that I really wanted to have a conversation with you. At first, I struggled to text you, I kept asking myself: “Why am I hesitating to reach out to her? We have a close enough friendship to talk about anything.” Your work is so important to me and my experience as a human being, but as a Black woman, I often felt like I had to contort myself to fit into the work and see myself in it. I wanted to talk to you about adding to it, what is the Black experience with shame resilience, because white supremacy has added another layer to the kind of shame we have to deal with, and the kind of resilience we have to build, and the kind of vulnerability that we are constantly subjected to whether we choose it or not.
TB: So yeah, I called and I said all of that, but I was not as eloquent at the time. I will never forget that phone call, I texted: “Can we talk?” And you texted back: “Sure.” And once we got on the phone, I shared the idea. The first thing you said was: “Oh, hell, yeah. Oh, absolutely, yes. I want to talk about that. Yes, I want to do this.” At that point, I was just thinking: “Oh, and here I was worrying about offending you and wanting to have a real conversation,” so that was the beginning from my side. What was happening on your side?
BB: From my side, admittedly, I’d probably do anything you asked me to do, but the timing was bigger than us. I had really been grappling over the last couple of years with trying to figure out how to be more inclusive, how to present the work in a way that invited more people to see themselves. The last thing I ever wanted to do was put work in the world around shame, vulnerability, and courage, then make people feel like they had to do something extra to find themselves in it.
BB: I thought I had controlled for that with my sample because I’ve always been hyper-vigilant about diversity in the people I interview and in the data sources. In fact, one of the earliest criticisms of my work was that the sample population actually over-indexed around Black women and Latinx folks. But I started to get comments, especially from Black women and men, comments like: You know, I’m having to work at this more to see myself in it more than I would have preferred, or more than I would have liked to have to do.
BB: Finally, it was the combination of a conversation with you and a conversation with Austin Channing Brown on her TV show, where I thought: The problem isn’t the research, the research resonates with a diverse group of people because it’s based on a diverse sample, but the way I present my research to the world does not always resonate, because I often use myself and my stories as examples, and I have a very privileged white experience. That was a huge aha for me.
TB: Yeah, that makes sense.
BB: I mean, one of the things that struck me was in The Gifts of Imperfection, there’s a scene where I’m in sweats and I have dirty hair, and I’m running up the Nordstrom escalator with my daughter to exchange some shoes that her grandmother bought her. Immediately, I’m overwhelmed because I look and feel like shit, and there’s all these perfect looking people giving me the side eye, and just as I start to go into shame, a pop song starts playing and Ellen breaks out into the robot, and I mean, full on, unfiltered, unaware, just sheer joy.
BB: And as the perfect people start staring at her, I’m reduced to this moment where I have to decide, am I going to betray her and roll my eyes and say, “Ellen, geez, settle down,” or am I going to just let her do her thing and be joyful and unashamed? I end up choosing her and actually dancing with her, and it’s a great story about choosing my daughter over acceptance by strangers, but I’ve shopped enough with Black friends to know that if I was not dressed up, even if I was dressed up, and I was in a department store where my Black daughter broke into a dance, there would be a whole other set of variables to consider, including being hassled by security, possibly separated from my daughter, even arrested.
BB: So when you asked me if we could focus the work through the lens of the Black experience, it was a hell yes from me. I want to figure out how to better serve. In addition to telling my story, which I think is helpful, I want to co-create so people see themselves in the work. Co-creation is how we can tell stories from the Black experience that illustrate the data. Does that make sense to you?
TB: It does. This is our first time really digging into your grappling with this. Your questions make absolute sense, and it also makes sense why you wanted to do this together. You still said, are you sure you want me to do it with you? You have my permission to use my work and do it.
BB: I know, I was scared, I’m still scared.
TB: No, I get it, I understand the fear. And I know we have to be prepared for the question about you being the editor of a book about Black experience, but there’s nobody I trust more, particularly on these topics who has studied them more and who cares more. It’s not just the research piece, there are other people who study these topics, but you can combine the research expertise with compassion. You are, this sounds really corny, an embodiment of your work, of the research, of the knowledge. I think it takes the eye of somebody who has done this level of research you have done and who cares about other people’s stories.
TB: I feel such a sense of responsibility and protectiveness about the stories we’ve asked people to share for this anthology. We have to be good stewards of this information, so I definitely get the fear and reluctance, but I believe good stewardship takes both of us. I know as we read these powerful essays, we both took turns feeling a little overwhelmed with the responsibility of protecting them.
BB: Yeah, I mean, for sure, I’ve been doing this work for 25 years now. I know the stories in this book can change, even save people’s lives. It’s an honor to do this with you, honestly. I’ve been a shame and vulnerability researcher for a long time, but not any longer than you’ve been an expert in the work too. I mean, you’ve been teaching and training this work for decades. We both used the word shame long before most people could stomach it. They were experiencing shame, of course, but we were naming it before most people were willing to do that.
TB: I just remember this feeling washing over me again and again and thinking, ‘The shame is going to kill us, the shame is going to kill us.” Being at family gatherings, being at cultural gatherings, watching the young people I worked with, knowing what they were like in our private spaces when they were open and free, and then watching them in public spaces and saying, “Oh my gosh, this is going to kill us.” And then this idea of shame resilience added another aha, because my first thought was, “Oh, but shame hasn’t killed us yet.” Then I started asking myself, “Well, why hasn’t it?” I’ve learned it’s because there’s this powerful resilience that we’ve tapped into, but have yet to name.
BB: Yes, yes. And my hope is that co-creating this anthology with these incredible storytellers and writers helps us name it. There’s one thing that I think is important to clarify about our process of working together, especially for other researchers and creators who are thinking, “Okay, but how does co-creation actually work?” For starters, I wouldn’t have done the book without you agreeing to be the first author.
TB: I didn’t understand that at first, but I get it now.
BB: I mean, for me, here’s what we have to understand: In co-creation, lived experience always trumps academic experience.
TB: I don’t know, is that a rule, like an academic rule?
BB: No, but it should be, I guess it’s definitely my rule.
TB: I was about to say, that has to be a Brené rule, because I don’t know that all academics would agree, but I agree that you can’t make your research useful to people, accessible to people if you don’t prioritize lived experience, relevance, and accessibility.
BB: Yeah, lived experience has got to take the lead, unquestionably, and I think in co-creation projects, lived experience should not only take the authorship lead, it should take a financial lead where it can, which is why all of my proceeds from this book are going back to storytellers in the Black community.
TB: I think that’s dope. But when I think about co-creating, the construct that I didn’t fully grasp until I read your book was vulnerability and the role it plays in our lives. My lived experience told me that the entire idea and experience of vulnerability feels like a very dangerous place to play, an unsafe thing to even consider or think about as a Black person in this country. As I read your work about vulnerability being the foundation of courage and the birth place of love and joy and trust, these are the places that didn’t fit.
TB: I was forced to contort myself and try to understand my reaction of, oh, no. Vulnerability means something very different to me. That was a big learning for me, just naming vulnerability and talking about it and thinking about it.
BB: You know, this is the bones of it. What you just said is the bones of it. I believe the greatest casualty of trauma, including white supremacy, which is definitely a form of intergenerational systemic trauma, is that vulnerability becomes dangerous, I mean risky, even life-threatening. But here’s the painful piece. It’s not like if you’re Black, you don’t need vulnerability to experience joy, belonging, intimacy and love, it’s that we’ve created a culture that makes it unsafe for you to be vulnerable.
TB: Exactly, that’s the rub right there.
BB: Yeah, it’s not like you need less of it, it’s just that we’ve created a world where you’re afforded less.
TB: Exactly, and this is why I feel like this book is so critical, our humanity, our individual and collective vulnerability needs and deserves some breathing room.
BB: Oh, God, that’s so beautiful.
TB: We need to live in an antiracist society, and people need to learn to be antiracist and practice antiracism, but I do not believe your antiracist work if you have not engaged with Black humanity.
BB: Oh, my God, will you say that again?
TB: I don’t believe your antiracist work is complete or valid or useful if you haven’t engaged with Black humanity. And so to that end, I feel like the audience for this book is first and foremost Black people, right?
TB: These pages are breathing room for our humanity. I learned so much about the Black experience reading these essays. It’s not like Black people don’t have anything to learn about the Black experience: Our experiences are vast and different. It’s validating to see that even in our own various identities and experiences, we engage in similar struggles, we have the same needs, and as other people engage with the book, it’s about seeing the breadth of our humanity and the depth of it, because this is the reality. It comes back to compassion and love, always love.
BB: You know, when I read the book as a whole, it was very, very overwhelming for me. Was it overwhelming for you?
BB: I mean, yeah, just as each essay came in…
TB: It takes your breath away.
BB: I kept thinking when I was reading about bell hooks’ concept of lovelessness and how she talks about lovelessness as the root of white supremacy and the patriarchy and all forms of oppression, and that the answer to lovelessness is love. I’ve read bell hooks for 30 years, but these essays and the process of co-creating with you taught me what love in the face of lovelessness really feels like, I mean, the marrow of it. When you say, I don’t trust any antiracism work that doesn’t embrace and see our humanity, I can feel the call for love, I mean, I get it so fully right now, it’s like you’re telling us that if you don’t see the heart and the love and the humanity and the joy of the Black experience, of Black humanity, then the antiracism work is bankrupt.
TB: Exactly. It’s just like knowing something intellectually, but not feeling it, and this is feeling work. It’s heart work as much as it is head work. These two things have to be in tandem. And I love that we have the ability to make this offering to Black folks who have felt stifled in this moment and overwhelmed and have not had space.
BB: So is your hope or was your hope for the book, then, that it lands in the hands and hearts of Black folks who have had that experience that you’ve had, where you’re like, oh my God, there’s language for this, there’s words for this, I’m not alone?
TB: Absolutely. I haven’t read many books about the Black experience that get past some of the first layer stuff and really get into the heart work, and I just want us to see ourselves in this differently, to see our insides, the parts that we don’t want to show people, the parts that we don’t talk about often, the parts that we feel we have to cover and hide and keep away from the world in order to survive, in order to exist. I don’t want to talk about my illness. I don’t want to talk about my insecurities, I don’t want to talk about how this thing really bothers me, but I need to, and I can only do that with some semblance of safety. I want this book to be a soft place to land, give our humanity breathing room.
BB: Oh, I think you can make it that, I think we can. I think we can translate it, because collecting and sharing these stories is breath and space, and the act of seeing people… I don’t know what to make of this, but every time I read an essay, I had this really paradoxical experience of a deeper understanding of how much more I have to learn about the Black experience, yet at the same time, I saw myself and felt deeply connected to the shared humanity of these yearnings.
TB: That’s so interesting, right? That’s another reason why antiracist work is important. You have to engage with Black humanity because the expansiveness of our humanity is so great that it reaches to other people. I don’t want to sound all Kumbaya and we’re all just human beings, but we’re all just human beings whose experiences and environments and these systems have affected in different ways, but we must tear away the layers and reveal the core, then work our way back from that.
BB: Yeah, yes. One of the things that I learned a lot about is the unrelenting nature of intergenerational trauma.
TB: And that’s not familial trauma. There are some things that have improved for Black people in the United States, and then there are other things that are exactly the same, but with new faces. Systems that have not necessarily improved, they just look different, and we just keep trying to reshape the same tools that we use to dismantle the ever-changing systems. It’s very tricky, but I do think this is a great moment for us to stop and focus on and give real attention to what effective dismantling looks like and requires. We need specific attention and action and not just general thoughts.
BB: I think I even feel different after this conversation, to be honest with you.
TB: Years ago, I went on a trip to Tunisia and it was for this big conference. It was a delegation of folks from the United States, from all over. I met this woman named Ra. She was a Vietnamese woman who also did work against sexual violence, also with young girls. We just connected quickly and became fast friends. And in the course of three or four days of us just talking, talking, talking, talking, I learned so much more about what Asian women, particularly the Vietnamese girls she worked with, have to deal with every day. There were very similar issues, very similar consequences, but very different reasons that explained how they had arrived at the places they were.
TB: I had the same experience with another girlfriend of mine, Thenmozi, a Dalit Indian woman who does work around sexual violence among her people. We always landed in the same places. We often carry our trauma in similar ways, but the roads that led us to the trauma are all so different. We must pay attention to that road. That road is our humanity. That road is the piece that we’re talking about. A lot of times, we’re happy and relieved and find similarities: “Oh, you too? You too? Me too.” No pun intended. These experiences create community, and it’s wonderful, but it is still critical to understand the very different paths that led you to the trauma.
BB: That makes so much sense to me. We have to know the road if we’re going to walk back down it and dismantle the systems that lead us to trauma.
BB: Before we share Jason’s essay that he’s reading to us, I want to tell you a little bit about Jason. He is an award-winning and number one New York Times best-selling author. His many books include Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, which is a collaboration with Ibram Kendi, Long Way Down, Look Both Ways and the Track series. He is a prolific and beautiful writer, and we’re so honored to have his contribution, both in the book and in the audio, Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds: “Between Us: A Reckoning With My Mother,” written and read by Jason Reynolds.
JR: I was 13 when my grandfather’s leg was amputated above the knee. An infection, they said, something nasty spreading throughout his body. My mother and I traveled nine hours to South Carolina to ensure the oak tree of our family could sustain after losing a limb. I don’t remember the ride to the hospital or the hospital itself, but I do recall him sleeping flat-backed in bed post-surgery and my mother talking to the doctor, or maybe it was the nurse, about the dressing on the wound. A mound of gauze as if the base of what was left of his leg, now footless and blunt, had been fashioned into a giant Q-tip.
JR: My grandfather had been turned into someone else, someone I would never actually get to know, because he would never leave the hospital again. I was 13 when my grandfather’s leg was amputated above the knee, and 13 when he died. His death would mark the end not only of his life or my mother’s tangible relationship with her parents, my grandmother had passed three years prior, but also of our bi-monthly journeys to the South. It had become routine for my mother to get off work every other Friday, have my older brother, Allen, and me pack the trunk with duffel bags and a small cooler containing a few aluminum foil turkey sandwiches, then give Allen a list of instructions of what not to do while we were gone, though she knew he wouldn’t abide by a single word.
JR: But I suppose she figured his disobedience in absence was better than his persistent griping, which included tying each word to a disrespectful groan and taking everything in his life out on me, by trying to take life out of me. Allen was afflicted with adolescence and there was just too much ground to cover for my mother to deal with the futility of trying to cure him. Not to mention, at this point, my parents had come undone and she was doing this alone.
JR: In the car, we’d listen to the radio, oldies, and I’d wait for my mother to ask the same question she asked every trip: “How do you know these words? You weren’t even born when this came out,” she’d say. Or, “Boy, what you know about The Temptations,” or Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin, as if she hadn’t been playing this music each day of my life. Their lyrics seemed to be spackled to the roof of my mouth, sharing space with the emcees of my time, an internal intergenerational residence and resonance.
JR: We’d pull into rest-stops where I’d get peanut M&Ms or gas stations where we’d load up on six packs of peanut butter crackers, my mother referred to as Nabs, to go with the turkey sandwiches, of course. Sometimes she’d even play a number. Out of town lottery felt luckier, she’d say. And whenever she’d get tired, whenever the hypnotic perforated line began to lull her to sleep, she’d crack the window and talk. My mother would sermonize about the importance of dreams and purpose searching, meditation, and energy. She’d say things about how she wanted me to live a grounded life, a centered life, and a life in flight all at the same time, conversation she felt like she could have only with me, her child, a child, because the bulk of our family saw her crystals and smudging as the antithesis to their conservative views on God.
JR: “Some things are meant to stay between us,” she’d say. My mother would tell me stories about growing up in a no-stoplight town on 200 acres of land acquired by her great-great-grandfather who was a freedman, how his chosen name after emancipation was January and how no one actually knew how he’d got the land, but everyone believed he somehow inherited it from the family who formerly owned him. He built a house on this acreage, but he only knew of two types of homes: Slave quarters and the big house, and to build slave quarters was out of the question. So he built a house resembling the one of the family who had treated him as property, and he tilled the soil and planted vegetables, grew fruit trees, had hogs and chickens. He got married and raised children.
JR: One of those children, John Wesley, would inherit January’s green thumb, making him the heir to the land. And as John Wesley grew older, he would eventually informally adopt his grandson, my grandfather, whose mother had abandoned him for a life in the North. John Wesley raised my grandfather as his own, taught him how to reap and sow, taught him the value of hard work and heredity, taught him family.
JR: When John Wesley died, he left the land and the house in my grandfather’s care, and that’s where my mother was born and where she lived until she was 10 years old. It’s where she learned to snap peas and pick cotton and pluck chickens. It’s where she learned as the middle child how to take care of her older and younger sisters, the independent and dependable compass of a sometimes wayward siblinghood, where she too would learn family.
JR: That land is the same land my mother and I would pull up to in the middle of the night, the darkness of Carolina a cataract to this country town. But the house wasn’t the same house, it had burned down after my mother, aunts, and grandparents packed up and moved to Washington DC for more opportunity in 1955. The farm had dried up and the nation’s capital, Chocolate City, was installing a new subway system and needed hands, so life in the country castle was traded for survival in a one-bedroom apartment in the projects.
JR: Once my mother and her sisters were all grown and had children of their own, my grandparents moved back to South Carolina, back home to their land. My grandfather built a new smaller house with his hands and use those same hands to wake up the dirt. Out came the collards, the mustard, the turnips and kale, out came the watermelon, the cantaloupe, the tomatoes, and butter beans. Before Allen was old enough to stay home by himself and before the divorce, we’d come down every summer as a family, my father taking the wheel, Allen and me in the back seat exchanging elbows. We’d had our first bouts with everywhere dust and our first tastes of squirrel, buckshot still in the meat.
JR: We’d gotten to know our cousins, trained our ears to decipher their drawls, and most important, were introduced to a part of our grandfather we’d never known. We’d only known a city man, but down South, we’d gotten to know a farmer, a giant who walked the rows, who sprinkled seeds and steered a tractor, a man who smashed melon on the ground and clawed the heart of it with his bare hands and passed it around to my brother and me, like communion host. There was a tenderness to him, a different kind of tenderness, but a tenderness all the same.
JR: He wasn’t one for hugs and kisses but was always sure to thank his children and grandchildren for coming to see him. “I know you are busy with your own lives and you don’t have to think about me and your mother down here,” he’d say. “You’re my father,” my mother would reply, “And you raised us to always put family first.” Then he’d pull a $5 bill from his wallet, press it into my palm as if it were a nugget of gold and say, “Split that with your brother.” And when I’d complain about how ridiculous that seemed, seeing as I’d surely blow half of my share on peanut M&Ms on the way home, he’d say, “Don’t matter. Y’all brothers. Family.”
JR: I was 17 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in her bladder. Caught it early enough, they said. It had eaten away at a part of her before she’d ever told me, but when she did, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, I could see the bite marks, could see the fear in her eyes. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m going to make it because I need to see you make something of yourself. I ain’t going nowhere until then.” So I was thrust into adulthood with a ferocity that seemed unfair and unforgiving, struggling with college classes, working a boring but paid internship, then going to the hospital to check on my mother who was in and out of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
JR: I don’t remember the daily ride to the hospital, and honestly, I don’t remember the hospital either, but I do remember seeing just her head lifted above the horizon line of white sheets, her skin ashen and cracked, tubes beeping, and a spot of moisture always in the corners of her eyes. She’d squeeze my hand and nod just enough to let me know she knew I was there. When I’d leave the hospital, I’d return to my hot box of a dorm room where I’d write for hours. Those lyrics I grew up listening to, the rappers and crooners, had somehow through some back door miracle transmuted into a love of poetry.
JR: So every moment I wasn’t in class, at work, or in the hospital, I’d be scribbling well-intentioned self-righteousness to be recited aloud at open mics. It became both a thirst and a therapy; on the one hand, stretching a hole wider and on the other smearing salve on a wound. I look back now and I wonder how much of it had to do with the weight of family complications, and how much of it was what my brother had, the affliction of adolescence, the natural irritation of growing up, let alone growing up Black.
JR: Either way, if it’s true that you are what you do most, then over time the writing thing started to crystallize, it started to take hold, and as it did, my mother’s cancer started to let go, easing its grip on her life. I remember the doctor explaining to me the dressing on my mother’s wound, there were things in her that had been extracted, parts of her no longer, she’d been turned into someone else, but she’d made it, which gave me the permission to leave.
JR: I graduated, packed a trash bag with clothes, jumped in a U-Haul with my college roommate, also named Jason, and headed to New York City to chase my dream of being a writer, an unavoidable cliche. I’ll spare you the details of the mattress on the floor and the 40-ounce beers for dinner. What’s more important to note is that six months into my life in Brooklyn, I’d landed a literary agent, which at the time felt like hitting the numbers. Like my mother always said, sometimes out of town lottery feels luckier.
JR: But the thing about luck is, I was 22, I was 22 when my mother was admitted to the hospital again, this time for vomiting and belly pain. Because of the previous surgeries necessary to remove the cancer and the constant cutting into her abdomen, an immense amount of scar tissue had formed and had somehow wrapped itself around her small intestine, pinching it, blocking everything from passing through. To correct it meant risking her life, a 12-hour surgery where any mistake could puncture the intestine and sepsis would bring on an infection, she, according to the doctors, wouldn’t survive.
JR: I boarded a Greyhound at Port Authority and took the four-and-a-half hour ride from New York City to DC to ensure the oak tree of this version of our family could sustain after losing bits of its bark. The trip seemed nothing like our rides down South when I was younger, no turkey sandwiches, no M&Ms, no Nabs. Headphones took the place of car speakers blaring Sam Cooke, and there was a man sitting next to me taking up more space than should be legal, more space than Allen ever did. Also, a baby was crying. Also, the bathroom had an encyclopedia of excrement strewn across its surfaces. Someone was sick. There were no stories being told, so I told them to myself, told myself tales about how I’d willed myself into this position, how I’d bootstrapped and hoofed from city to city, stage to stage, a troubled troubadour who’d taken the hard road and now it was finally paying off.
JR: See, while I was going to be with my mother the day before her surgery, I had never planned to stay. The trip was going to be a down and back, a quick turn around, because the day of the surgery was also the day I was supposed to sign my first publishing contract, the day my dream was to come true. I was 22 when I met myself. I don’t remember much about the night before, about getting off the bus or who picked me up from the station. I don’t even remember how I got to the hospital the next morning. Maybe I rode with her. Maybe my mother was already there and I rode with my aunt.
JR: What I do remember is just after the doctors prepped my mother for surgery, just before wheeling her down to the operating room, I was able to stand at her bedside, her face bare, the gold teardrop earring she wore every day absent, as was the red lipstick. “Ma, I want to be here, but today is the day I sign the deal. This is it, what I’ve been working for. Black boys don’t get this kind of shot often. This is my purpose, my dream,” I said, salivating at the thought of success. She nodded, told me to do what I needed to do. I kissed her on her forehead and was gone.
JR: At 22 years old, I left my mother and a potentially fatal surgery so I could do what could have been done a day, a week, even a month later, but I thought about how I’d never seen Black writers growing up, so there couldn’t have been many, and if I didn’t do it then, they’d retract the opportunity and I’d never get to see who I might become. Instead, I got to see who I already was.
JR: I’m 36 now. My mother and I have never talked about the intricacies of that surgery, and whenever I ask about it, she brushes it off, but I know what happened, I know things got shaky, that there were moments when her life teetered, but she made it, again. And today, as I write this, she turns 75 years old. This morning before sitting at my computer, I called her, we talked about how proud we are of each other and how our lives together have been nothing short of miraculous. I told her I was working on this essay and about the shame I carried for over a decade, it sat heavy in me, like a dumbbell in my belly, dragged behind me like laces too long, an infection, something nasty spreading throughout my body.
JR: “That was a long time ago,” she said. “I know, but sometimes I still feel it,” I said. “Baby, you’ve got to forgive yourself,” she said, and went on to talk about how she raised me to go get what I desired, to go be who I wanted to be, to simultaneously live a grounded life, a centered life, and a life in flight. “But above all, I taught you like my daddy taught me, family first.” “Right. And that’s the reason I… ” “And you’ve done that every day since. Why be ashamed of what you’ve atoned for?”
JR: Once again, she was the independent, dependable compass, pointing true north. And in that moment, this moment, I realized that perhaps I’ve scratched at the emotional laceration of shame, of selfishness, but if my mother is right, the itching isn’t coming from infection anymore, it’s coming from the fact I’ve never removed the dressing from the wound. “You understand what I’m saying to you, son?” she asked. “I think so.” “Well, let me make it plain. Some things are meant to stay between us, but this ain’t one of them.” We talked for a few more minutes between tears and laughter until finally I had to go. “Happy birthday, Ma.” “Thank you, baby. And thank you for calling me. I know you’re busy with your own life and you don’t have to think about me, so I’m always grateful when you do.” “Of course,” I chuckle. “You’re my mother.”
BB: Again, I want to thank y’all so much for listening to this episode. This book occupies a very large space in my heart, and Tarana’s point that any antiracism work that does not embrace the full humanity of Blackness is not effective antiracism work. I feel that in every inch of my being as a person. You can find You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience wherever you’d like to buy books. We’ll also link to it on our episode page. Again, audio excerpts were courtesy Penguin Random House Audio, the full audio book is available as a digital download.
BB: You can find Tarana online on Twitter and Facebook at @TaranaBurke and @MeToo movement. Me Too movement is at @metoomvmt. On Instagram, you can find Tarana at @taranajaneen, and on Instagram @metoomvmt. Her websites are taranaburke.com and metoomvmt.org. You can find Jason online, Twitter and Instagram JasonReynolds83. His website is jasonwritesbooks.com.
BB: Every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on brenebrown where you’ll find all these links, which will be much easier than listening to me read them to you.
BB: Thank you again for listening to the episode. You can find all of my stuff, play lists, both podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare To Lead, on Spotify. Stay awkward, brave, and kind, and I’ll see y’all next week.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits, and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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