On this episode of Unlocking Us
I’m talking to my dear friend Tarana Burke about her new memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement. Her book is beautiful, hard, and breathtaking. Tarana is unflinching in her storytelling. As she takes us on the journey that transformed her life and the world, we can feel our own transformation happening. The person who starts this book is not the person who finishes this book.
Listen to the episode
Unbound is the story of an inimitable woman’s inner strength and perseverance, all in pursuit of bringing healing to her community and the world around her, but it is also a story of possibility, of empathy, of power, and of the leader we all have inside ourselves. In sharing her path toward healing and saying, “me too,” Tarana reaches out a hand to help us all on our own journeys.
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: Oh, it’s so awesome to be back with y’all. I have missed you. I appreciate you being patient while I finished Atlas of the Heart. It was a big, hard, freaking lift, but it is in process at the publisher, and I am back and excited to be with y’all. Oh, and I’m coming back with just an incredible conversation with my beloved dear friend, Tarana Burke, about her new memoir Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too movement.
BB: She was my first Unlocking Us guest ever, and here we are like a year and a half later. And in that year and a half, we’ve both written books and we coedited an anthology together. But I have to tell you, her book, Unbound, it is the most riveting, soul stirring, transforming book. When I started it, I thought the person who starts this book is not the person who finishes this book; something happens. Because she takes us on her transformation, founding the ‘me too.’ Movement, surviving childhood sexual abuse. I mean, it is an incredible, beautiful, honest… It’s just incredible. I can’t wait for y’all to read it and I can’t wait for you to hear the conversation.
BB: Okay, before we jump into the conversation slash hysterical laughing fit that we both get into in the end, I want to tell you a little bit about Tarana and her work in case you don’t know her. For more than 25 years, organizer and advocate, Tarana Burke, has worked at the intersection of sexual violence and racial justice. Fueled by commitments to interrupt sexual violence and other systemic inequalities disproportionately impacting marginalized people, particularly Black women and girls, Tarana 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. Let’s just jump in. Tarana Burke.
BB: All right, so I told Tarana y’all, I’m looking at her on Zoom right now, I told her that we couldn’t talk until we hit go and play because I have so many saved up things to say to you.
Tarana Burke: I don’t know why I’m giggling already. I haven’t seen you in so long and we have to get the giggles out first, so okay.
BB: Yeah. If y’all don’t know, Tarana and I, we giggle a lot and we usually send each other… What are those things that we send each other called? When we have these long conversations?
TB: Some moji.
TB: Face mojis. Memojis, yeah. I was like, face mojis. I don’t know. [chuckle]
BB: All right, so I’m talking to you today. We’re going to talk about your book, Unbound.
BB: I have to say, I’ve never met a person with more integrity than you.
TB: Oooh, that says a lot. You’ve met a lot of people.
BB: I do know a lot of people. But I reread the whole book this weekend. It just, there are no words about this book. First of all, what the hell? You did not even tell me that you got a starred review from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
TB: I know, right? That was crazy. I know. I was so blown away, just first time out the gate.
BB: Okay, so let me start here. How are you? This is a weird time, right?
TB: It is a weird time. I have what my girlfriend calls the gweebles. Like, I feel…
BB: What are the gweebles?
TB: It’s like a weird feeling of giddy, but also nervous. I feel a little bit scary, but also a little bit giddy and a little bit… I’m excited. But it’s so personal. You know, the work is so, so, so personal that I don’t know how people are going to receive it. I’ve seen some reviews have been good and that kind of thing. The questions people are going to ask. I’m just anxious about so much. So I’m a little bit like tense.
BB: Do you refer to it as a memoir?
TB: Yeah. Yeah, or like my diary wrapped in a pretty package. [chuckle]
BB: It is one of the finest book covers ever, isn’t it?
TB: Yeah. I love that… I love it.
BB: So we’ll come back to the book cover because I want to talk about it. So, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too movement. Did you plan for this to be so raw and so vulnerable and so… I keep thinking back to the conversations we were having as you were writing this. And I know it was hard as hell, but did you know it was going to be this vulnerable?
TB: I don’t think I knew until it started really pouring out. So the interesting thing is that I… Obviously, you know your life story. So I knew my stories and I thought I had a very neat timeline of these series of events, and I was going to tell them in a particular way. And as I started telling them, I realized how little unpacking I had actually done of the individual stories. And then when some stories were coming to me, I sort of unearthed others that I hadn’t thought about in years, and it was like literally the floodgates, was like, “Oh, I remember this and I remember that and I remember this.” And it all felt relevant, right? I actually wrote 104,000 words that ended up being 70,000. Yeah. [chuckle] I was spilling. Once it started coming, it just didn’t stop.
BB: What was it like for you to write this?
TB: It’s the hardest creative endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It was healing in the end. You know, I want to say it was this really cathartic and healing experience, but it was gut-wrenching in the process. There was a lot of crying. There was a lot of days when I would finish a chapter or be in the middle of a chapter and push myself away from the desk dramatically and go and get under my covers and not write for two or three days. It was just… There were some moments that happened, like aha moments in the middle of the book, I would… I had to call people. I did some apologizing. I did… I had some soul-searching conversations. It was just a lot.
TB: I also realized as much work as I’ve done, I had done it some from a sort of protective place. And this is going to sound super cliché, I know, but even in the writing, I was becoming unbound. There was more to go. I think, in a a very sort of front-facing way, I did all my therapy. I’ve done all my… Like all the work you’re supposed to do on paper. But I had more stuff. And we all do, right? Healing is ongoing forever. But this was a big nugget. This was a story that needed to live on the outside of my body for a long time, and I didn’t realize just how much. I’d been telling it to myself for over and over and over and over again for so long. It’s like a negative tape, right? I just would press play on it and I had not like just kind of laid it all out, processed it, and then let it go. That was a big deal. It was a huge deal.
BB: I was… I’m trying to think of the right word to be really accurate. The only word I can think of, really, is taken aback by how forthcoming and how honest you are in this book. You know, a lot of people write memoirs and they’ll include just enough hard stuff about themselves and choices they made to have a little humility. But you’re unflinching about choices you made from a place of pain and absolute life-or-death self-protection. Was that a hard choice for you? Was it a choice to begin with?
TB: I was going to say, it almost wasn’t a choice. Like dishonesty has never served me. And I’m not saying that to say I don’t lie, right? I mean we all have to tell lies in different ways, but it just doesn’t serve me. And so I feel like if I’m going to get it out, I need to say it exactly how it is. And I think when I say dishonesty hasn’t served me, it’s when I’m dishonest with myself. Over the years, I have told these same stories in my head, and I’ve softened them in ways, and I’ve wrapped them in a pretty bow, and I’ve done things to make them easier and more palpable even for me and certainly for the world. And it hasn’t helped. It hasn’t made me feel better. It hasn’t moved the needle any way. And I just felt like, I really had a yearning to just say it. Just call the thing a thing, say what it is, say what you’re actually dealing with. Say what you whisper to yourself, you know, with some stuff that I wouldn’t even put in my journal that I just know, but it’s so kind of raw that I don’t want to say… I don’t want to use this word. All right? I don’t want to say this about myself, but it’s true, it’s what I feel, it’s what I think, it’s what I experience. And it felt like this is the time. Get it all out.
BB: I don’t know how this is possible. I mean, I know it’s true. I even have it on my list of “shit to ask my therapist next week.”
BB: No. And I’m not even kidding, because sometimes when I can’t get into it for a week, I’ll ask one of my sisters to ask their therapist for me. And they’re like, “No, that’s my dollar.” Yeah. But this is on my list. Reading Unbound made me braver with my story and less willing to soften up hard edges that are uncomfortable to talk about. I don’t know how that happened, but I read this book and I was like, “Y’all better move over.”
BB: Let me ask you something about something you do in this book a lot. You talk about your mom. You talk about Mr. Wes, your mom’s boyfriend or husband?
TB: Boyfriend. My stepfather.
BB: Boyfriend. You talk about a lot of folks that… A lot of times I find myself not wanting to talk honestly about the people in my family, maybe my parents, definitely my parents, other people, because I feel the need to say, “Yeah, they’re hard, and they didn’t show up how they should have a lot of times. But I also love them, and don’t make me a bad person for loving them.” And all through this book, you charge headlong into this territory where both things can be true.
BB: Tell me about that.
TB: Brené, I’m going to tell you. That piece right there was probably the hardest, and the most difficult, and particularly my relationship with my mom. I knew that I had to be honest because it has so much to do with how I carried the trauma when I was a young person, and even where some of the trauma came from. But our relationship has evolved over time, and my understanding of who she is, and even about just being an adult, right. I actually went back in and added some of that afterward, because I do think that love is complicated and relationships are complicated and it’s just not cut and dry all the time. And when you’re telling stories about trauma and violence, and my experiences around sexual violence in particular, it’s a story that encompasses everybody around you. People make it black and white sometimes. You know, you hear people say, “Well what about the parents? Why didn’t the parents do something?” Or, you know, “Why didn’t such and such do this and that?” And I think it’s important to kind of situate people in the whole thing and say, “Sometimes there’s complicity. Sometimes there’s complicity without knowing. Sometimes there’s trauma we don’t know about.” There’s all kinds of things. We’re all human, beautifully human, flawed humans. We learn to love people through their flaws. We don’t learn to articulate what that looks like to love people through their flaws, or to what it feels like to be loved with flaws.
BB: Oh, God.
TB: You know, it’s good or bad. It’s not that cut and dry. I was very scared, but I never wanted to paint my mother as a villain. I didn’t want people to see how I was like, “How am I going to write about my mom and my childhood?” And I don’t want people to see her. You can’t talk about her, she’s still my mother, you can’t talk about my mother. And I thought, I’m going to write about her with love. If I focus… This is literally what I was trying to do, if I try to focus all the love I have for her in this writing, I’m prayerful that this will show up in the writing, and I think it did that… I’m flawed, she is, my grandma, we all are. But we’ve managed through some really, really, really tough situations to love and be loved with our flaws, and that’s hard, and that should be celebrated, that should be articulated in some places, and I think people will see themselves in that and understand that once they see it.
BB: What you just said is one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever heard people say. We’re just… We don’t talk about the fact that both things can be true, and there’s so many people in my life and in your life in this book who you want to grab and shake their shoulders, and you want to grab them equally and pull them into you for an embrace. And sometimes within the span of two minutes.
TB: Exactly, exactly. [chuckle] Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
BB: I’m so curious about this. What is the difference to you when you’re writing about your family, about writing from a place of love, because this is not just about writing memoirs, this is about also surviving trauma, like sexual assault, this is about life. What is the difference between loving and protecting?
TB: Mmmm, I mean I think protection comes from a place of love. The urge to protect first comes from a place, the same place that love comes from. And sometimes you can love somebody but you just don’t have the capacity to protect them, and that’s just the truth. Whatever the need is to protect them, whatever the tool is that’s necessary to provide that protection, we just may not have it. It doesn’t mean we love them less, but we also, like for instance, I saw that lack of capacity later on when I was an adult, in my mom. It doesn’t mean she didn’t want to protect me, it means that whatever she needed, she didn’t get what she needed. And so I built the capacity, or at least I tried to build the capacity, to protect my daughter, to protect Kaia, and build those tools that I saw were missing, because they didn’t get passed on to me, but it all comes from the desire to do it, comes from the same place. The ability to do it doesn’t though. And I think that’s what I was trying to say in the book, desire and ability are two different things. And love is sort of overarching, just because you love somebody doesn’t mean that you can protect them. The desire comes from the same place, the ability doesn’t. And I think that people think because you love me, you should be able to protect me, and that’s just a hard truth that we have to kind of accept, you know.
BB: God, you have a lot of wisdom about this Tarana. So let me ask you this. What happens, and this is a theme in your book that I see. What about… you know, you and I have both worked with a lot of survivors, sexual assault survivors, and a story that I saw coming up in the book a lot that I’ve also heard a lot, which is trying to love someone who has been victimized while also trying to protect the greater community?
TB: Such a conflict.
BB: No one talks about it, or may I dare to say, puts themselves in the line of fire around it…
TB: Yeah, yeah.
BB: More than you. Can you help us understand?
TB: Listen, and I understand this even deeper in the context and communities of color, because of the unique circumstances that we find ourselves in, oftentimes. A lot of us, and I say this often, a lot of us live and work and learn and worship and exist in the same places we were harmed. Which means that we also live, exist, and work, and worship among the people who harmed us. And here’s a perfect example. I have a friend whose grandfather is a child molester, he molested his sister, and he has such a complicated memory… The grandfather’s passed on, but when he thinks about his grandfather, he has nothing but amazing memories of fishing and hanging out with him and doing all these great things, and he found out later that his grandfather had been molesting his sister, who he grew up to know as being like she acted out a lot and she ran away from home and she’d done all these things, so he thought she was just a bad kid kind of thing. And he always talks to me about, I don’t know what to do. Like, I love my sister, but I also love my grandfather, and I don’t know what to do with those feelings. And I was like, you don’t have to do anything with those feelings, but you have to acknowledge your sister’s reality. You can’t like erase your sister’s reality because you have those feelings, and these are the same kind of like holding two truths that we were just talking about.
TB: These two things are true. It may mean you have to make hard decisions though, like, I love my grandfather, but we may not be able to bring him up at family functions, maybe we can’t put his picture up for such and such because of the harm that it’s going to cause my sister, right. These are the sacrifices that we have to make and this is where the problem comes in, I think, that people feel like, “What do I deserve because I love this person? Why don’t I get to love them fully just because they caused harm?” And it comes down to, what do you owe the rest of the community? How do we live together in community and not feel responsible for each other? So I love you, you caused harm to them, and I love them. There has to be some role that I play. I’m not the person to give accountability, right? Because I didn’t cause the harm. But what I was trying to bring up in the book is, we talk a lot about the culture of silence in our communities, we don’t talk enough about the culture of complicity.
BB: Say more.
TB: There is a culture of complicity which says, it’s like I’m just saying. So, it may be the preacher, sort of like the preacher in the book. This is a beloved person in the community, yada yada yada. He feeds the children, he takes in the homeless, he’s done great things, and he molests children. And so people will say, “Well, what about all the good he’s done?” Does the harm outweigh the good? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. We have to make hard choices that say, “I can’t take your memories away.” It doesn’t mean that he never fed the children or eased the homeless, but it does mean that there are people who exist who he has harmed, and what do we owe them?
TB: Especially from a Christian perspective. I think people who embrace Christianity in particular, we talk about beloved community, this is very much at the heart of that. We all have to be accountable to each other, we’re all supposed to look out for each other. If we live in a community with each other, and one person has harmed another, if you can’t get accountability from that person, then I have at the very least need to try to stand in the gap. And if standing in the gap means I have to sacrifice a small piece of that, your relationship with this person may change, maybe it’s distant, maybe it looks different than it has in the past, but if I have to make that sacrifice so that these people are not further harmed, I feel like that’s a small price to pay. And the problem comes in is that people won’t make that sacrifice. They just won’t.
BB: They won’t. I mean, when you were telling your story, especially after your sexual assault and you were so young, seven, right?
BB: There was a part of me that was like literally scrambling in my head to figure out how I could find out, like I need to get Mr. Wes’s phone number and let him know. But then I was like, but you can’t let Mr. Wes know, because he’ll die in the process or get put in jail, he’ll kill somebody on behalf of Tarana. And then someone basically told you that, right?
TB: Yeah. Ms. Davis, my neighbor, yeah.
BB: Yeah. Tell us that part of the story, because I think this happens all the time and nobody talks about this.
TB: That’s right. That’s right. She’s a beautiful person, right? This is another sort of example. It is a part of that culture of complicity, unintentional. If I had to say, “Ms. Davis, somebody molested me,” she would have went to the ends of the earth. “We’re going to stop, we’re going to make sure you’re okay.” If I’d have said the actual thing. She got a whiff of what was happening, I think her elder wisdom kind of put it together based on what she saw was happening and decided to drop that pearl on me. Even though she helped me in that situation and she made me feel safe for just a moment, she knew what I knew at seven, because that was the second time when it happened, when she came into… But she knew that if I activated Mr. Wes around this, that he was going to go apeshit and somebody was going to pay for it.
TB: And that ultimately we all would pay for it, the community would lose him, my family would lose him, the community would lose him. And I know she meant it. She meant well, she did, she meant well, she wanted to protect me, she wanted to protect my family, she wanted to protect Mr. Wes. But what she ended up doing was make me double down on that feeling that it was my job, at that young age, to be the protector, and it is never, ever the child’s job. I’m sure Mr. Wes would have said, “I don’t care about going to jail, I don’t care about any of these things. I want to make sure you’re safe.” Or if he, maybe if he had have heard my fear about him going to jail, he might have made a different decision and not done something that would have caused him, I don’t know. But I do know that his choice probably would have been to keep me safe and not having me hold on to those secrets. But again, these are people making decisions based on what they know, based on their experiences, very limited information, and very hard experiences, so it’s complicated. I don’t blame her.
BB: Was that exchange in a stairwell?
TB: It was in a stairwell, yeah.
BB: Yeah. So it took me directly to someone who you write about a lot. It took me directly to Why the Caged Bird Singsand about Maya Angelou’s experience of surviving sexual assault. Tell me what Maya Angelou has meant to you? Tell me about your discovery of her?
TB: So my mom, as I write in the book, my mother was a prolific reader and collector of books, and she had all of Maya Angelou’s books. And her original covers, Maya Angelou’s first editions were these really colorful books, and they all had these rainbows and all kind of colorful pages. And so just as a little kid, I was drawn to them just because they were colorful. And they had names like Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, you know. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was just like, these are great names, and I loved to read, and my mother would let me read almost anything and she wouldn’t let me read this book, which made me more curious and…
TB: Again, I think my life is completely guided by God, so I just think I was led to try to read this book. And that one in particular, she said I couldn’t read. So I was about 12, I have to say, probably about 11 or 12, because it was still during the time when I was being molested by… There’s two separate incidents in my life. And I’ve read the book, and it’s funny, I don’t tell this story in Unbound, but the story that I tell in our book…
TB: It’s not from there, but it’s connected to this in a way. So when I first read, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it reminded me of an incident that happened in the seventh grade, which is the story I tell in our book of running out of the church.
TB: Because she runs out of the church and she’s peeing on herself, whatever. So I was so intrigued by it. And then when I read what happened to her, I was so… I was just floored because it really felt like a secret. I can remember feeling that feeling of like, “Oh my God.” And I really thought that it was just the two of us, right? Like I don’t know if I literally thought that, but I remember that feeling of like, “This is another person that this happened to. I can’t believe it.” And I just sort of became obsessed with her. I just loved her so much. And then I read her books. I read her poems and stuff like that. And when I got to high school, I was more introduced to her as sort of the author, and I… You know, when you’re a little kid you kind of don’t know about… That authors are real people.
BB: Right. Yeah. That’s mythical.
TB: It’s mythical. I remember reading Judy Blume, and then I remember when I first realized Judy Blume was an actual person and I was like, “Oh.” You know? [laughter] I was like, “You can meet Judy Blume? That’s funny.” But yeah, she has been so important to me. And I met her once in my life, and it was a really funny meeting at an elevator that… She didn’t take elevators. And it was outside an elevator when she was getting ready… I guess they were trying to figure out about how to get her up a set of stairs, backstage at this event. And I was, “Uh,” so tongue-tied. [laughter] And you know, she’s always eloquent and always has, you know, knows what to say. But there was a moment, and this is what I write about in the book. What she did for me was really set me on a course to try to understand where her joy came from. Like at the time when I was in high school, and I’d kind of figured things in my mind, right? In my little 15-year-old mind, I thought, “Oh, you just have to keep pretending, just keep being perfect, get good grades, run really fast, do all the things that… You get the accolades and people think you’re a good person. You do good things. Just keep pretending and one day maybe this is who you’ll actually be.”
TB: And then I saw her, on television, but I saw her and she felt real to me, she didn’t feel like she was pretending, she really laughed from her belly. She read Phenomenal Woman like she believed those words. And I thought, “How? How? How?” She just erased everything. I had to start from scratch. And I wrote at the top of my page in my journal that night, “How can you have joy at the same time you have pain? I’ve got to figure this out.” It was just like an algorithm or something. You know like, “I’ve got to figure this out.” And I feel like that is what set me on a like… I didn’t call it healing necessarily, at the time, but I’ve pegged that as sort of the beginning of my healing journey because that’s really what it is, right? Learning to live with all of this at the same time and having people like… It’s just essentially the same thing.
BB: So if I remember correctly, the first time you saw her, kind of as a person, reciting Phenomenal Woman, you were in a classroom with a white teacher who smelled of lunch meat?
TB: Yes Mr. P.
BB: You brought me right into that classroom. I’m like, “Oh, you liberal, white, lunch-meat smelling guy in your elbow patch jacket. I can see you right now teaching in the tough school.”
TB: Yes. That guy. [laughter]
BB: Yeah. And he said something… I’m going to mess it up maybe, but he said something like, “What Dr. Angelou is trying to say here is that she’s as good and as phenomenal as a white woman.” And your hand shot straight up. You were not having that.
TB: Pissed me off. No.
BB: Yeah. Tell me what happened?
TB: I can still see me in the classroom on the side of my class. I was like, “Why you think he’s talking about white women? She didn’t say anything about white women.” You know? I was like, “It’s just like white people to think that she’s talking about a white woman.” She didn’t say anything about white women. And I was in Honors English, right? So this is supposed to be this really vigorous curriculum and vigorous education that we were getting. And still you’re telling all these little brown children that Dr. Maya Angelou is comparing herself to white women. And I’m like, “No.” I had enough conscious-raising as a child and in my home life to know that this was not okay and it wasn’t right. I didn’t know the term “white supremacy” at the time, but I certainly could sniff it out. I was like, “This is not right.” [laughter]
BB: You caught a whiff, nonetheless.
TB: I caught a whiff. Yeah. I was like, “No, that’s not what she’s saying.”
BB: Okay. There’s a quote that you start with and that you end with that’s so powerful, “Unkindness is a serial killer.”
TB: Yeah. You know what? I actually wrote that a long time ago.
TB: Yeah. I wrote that as a part of an essay. That first chapter, actually, was a part of an essay that I had started a long time ago. And to your point earlier about being transparent and being… I didn’t have the courage to put that out in the world several years ago. I just wrote it because I felt it and I wanted to have a real conversation about it, but I didn’t…I couldn’t take it any further than that. Because I really have… And this sounds super naive sometimes when you say it, I really struggle to understand unkindness. And I’m saying that as a person who has been very unkind in my life, right? Very…
BB: Yeah, no. Yeah, same.
TB: You know, I have certainly been very unkind, intentionally and unintentionally. It just doesn’t serve a purpose. And as I get older, particularly intentional unkindness, it’s so damaging. Like for instance, like this last administration that we had. Of course it’s deeper than just unkindness; I don’t want to trivialize it to that. But when you do boil down to it, it’s just these people are so mean-spirited, and you…
TB: Cruel, right.
TB: Just cruel. And I just… What do you gain from it? And the reason why I say it’s a serial killer is because so many of us die slow, slow, slow, slow deaths. It’s like death by a thousand cuts by the deep unkindness that we experience, the deep cruelty and violence that we experience at the hands of people every single day in big and small ways. But a lot of times it’s the small ways…
BB: Oh, yeah.
TB: That do the most damage, right? And I have been on the receiving end of so much unkindness in my life. And some of it has been deserving, right? Because I said, like I said, I have not been kind to everybody. But I think some of my unkindness as a shield, right? And probably the others, some of what I’ve received has come from the same place, right? It’s just we…
TB: Protection. Like the hurt people hurt people thing.
TB: But at some point when you peek from behind the shield and you look, you want to say, “Why are we fighting?” you know.
BB: Yeah. Yeah.
TB: “Why are we doing this to each other?” But most times the other person doesn’t peek out, and so you just got to keep protecting yourself. And it really does kill you over time. But I ended the book with that too because…
TB: Yeah. I realized I had been the most unkind to myself.
TB: You know?
BB: You bent to your own unkindness. You write.
TB: Yeah. And Brené, you know what? I didn’t start the book with that understanding. That was one of those revelations that came to me when I finished, and I kind of re-read it and I realized it was like taking a step back and looking at my life and how it rolled out. I started off talking just about what people had done to me and what I experienced. And I realized that I had bent to my own unkindness. I had sort of created a thing so that I could take everybody else’s and it just… I was like, “No, I can’t. I don’t want this anymore. I don’t want this shell. I don’t want this life.” I think I just want to be out here unprotected and vulnerable, completely vulnerable. But this vulnerability has saved me, and it has shaped me and made me a different person. And I like this person, and I want to say it out loud, “I like this person. I’m not afraid. I like it. I like it. I like being soft.” [laughter] I can say it. [laughter]
BB: Yeah you can. Yeah. You are a beautiful, soft person.
BB: I have to say, a lot of memoirs that I’ve read have kind of like a recording reporting; this is kind of what happened. I felt you transforming on the pages. And you know what? I checked myself because you and I talked a lot while you were writing this book. And I thought, am I confusing what you and I were talking with off the page with what was happening on the page? But then I was talking with Laura, who heads up our podcasting, and we read all the books together and talk about what are questions going to look like, and she was like, “Oh my God, she took us with her. She took us with her on this.” Like, this change was happening in real time, part of it in this book.
BB: And you could feel it.
TB: That [chuckle] That’s really real. That’s really real. I’m telling you, that conclusion when I got to the end, and it’s like I declared a thing and then sort of lived into it, right? I’m like, “I am free. I get that because of all of this work and all of the things. But I am free.” Right? Once it was out on the paper and I saw it and I read it back, I was like, “No, I am. I am free and I’m okay. I’m alive. And it’s not perfect, but I am okay.” And this is the freedom that I’ve been trying to reach. And I couldn’t quite reach it until I got this thing on the outside of my body, and now that it’s out there, I can look at it in its face and say, “You go live somewhere else. Let the people have it. Let them do with it what they will. And now I’m free.” And it just… Yeah, I don’t know that I would articulate it like that, but I think that’s true. I mean, it wasn’t like an intentional, “I want to transform people as I go.” It’s like, “Oh… ” Something like that. But I would say that’s true.
BB: Yeah. It comes off the page and just right into your heart when you’re reading.
TB: Oh. [chuckle]
BB: I mean, that’s a level of generosity that you don’t see very often in the world today. It is the opposite of unkindness.
TB: Now I’m blinking a lot, so I don’t know.
BB: You can blink all you want. I’ve known you way too long. You go ahead and blink all you think you need to.
BB: I want to talk about something that is really powerful to me. Like, I learned a lot about you and I started loving you, so there was nowhere to go but more, but I learned a lot about the ‘me too.’ Movement and your founding of that movement, reading this. And what I learned… And you and I have talked about this before, but I want to get your take on this. What I learned was the inextricable founding connection between the ‘me too.’ Movement, empathy, and silenced black and brown girls.
BB: Because the ‘me too.’ Movement has been, in some ways, not the movement itself, but at least the hashtag and part of it has been weaponized a little bit, but I can’t… Since I’ve gotten to know you and we’ve become friends, I can’t abide by that very much when it’s stripped of empathy and “survivor focus” maybe is the way that I want to say it. Tell me.
TB: Yeah, I think part of what I was really, really important for me in this book was to take my time to tell that part of the story, to get to that part of the story, right? How my life led to the work, and how that work led to the moment, because I’ve been talking in soundbites, right, for the last four years, and here is a little piece of this, and once you read the story, how can you tell that in 30 seconds on MSNBC? You kind of have to bring people along, and I really wanted to do that on my own terms because you have heard people say, “Well, she’s been doing the work, the work, and she’s been doing the work blah, blah, blah for such and such amount of years.” And there’s a few things to that, one, I wasn’t doing it alone; two, it was under conditions that were not ideal, [chuckle] right? And so there were literally… And sometimes I try to draw comparisons between the viral moment in that, in the sense that, there were literally dozens, not millions, of children, these young girls in this community who needed support, who needed an outlet, who needed various resources that just weren’t available, that just weren’t there. There was no…
BB: I mean even just safe harbor.
TB: Just safe harbor, it just literally wasn’t there. And although I was a survivor, just a mere… Being a survivor wasn’t enough. What it did was give me enough information to say, “I know what I would want if I was at this age, or what I needed at this age,” but I didn’t know how to go about it. As you could see, I’m going to people, trying to ask, “Well, can you help me? Can I get some support?” And it’s also connected to my own healing journey and I needed to kind of do this stuff too, but it was very, very much about… At 10, at 12, at 9, whatever age, at 7, but very much in the middle school years, I literally just didn’t have this.
TB: And now I’m put in a position where I have little girls in the sixth to eighth grade who don’t have it. What are you going to do? I have been trained to respond to community issues, and what I saw was a growing community issue that there was no response to. There was not a outcry like we saw when there was police brutality, or when there was like gun violence or whatever, in the community, there just wasn’t a response. And, at first you felt like, “Well, I can’t do this by myself.” And then as you see, I started getting the message that nobody else is going to do it. So pull together whatever you have and make something happen. I for one, don’t think it was much different when the hashtag went viral, you have the writ large Me too, hashtag Me Too, and all of the Weinstein and the blah, blah, blah, but at the core of that, you have the millions of people who literally said, “Me too,” who were looking for safe harbor.
TB: Who were looking for community, for a place to rest, a place to put that story, who were dying for empathy, right? For somebody else to say, “Oh my God, you know what this feels like.” And that is the reason why I felt like I had space when this happened, why I had space in this moment because I know how to respond to that. I don’t know what it is to be in Hollywood and to do all of the da da da da da. But I definitely know how to respond to that because that’s the experience I had with my girls, with the kids in the programs that we ran and stuff. So I wanted to make sure people understood, this is at the heart of this work. Survivors are at the heart of this work. And if they’re not, then it’s really not the work, right? You’re not really doing the work.
BB: Yeah. If there’s not love, humanity, survivors and empathy, it’s something else, whether that something else is important or effective, I don’t know, but it’s not yours. It’s not Me Too.
TB: Exactly, exactly.
BB: It’s funny because there were a couple of times in the book where I would be reading and I would think, “Oh good, she’s involved in this, in this activism and this organizing, and then I’d read a page, and I’m like, “Oh shit, no one else is going to do anything. Oh my God, she is going to have to talk on campus for the Rodney King protest. It’s just going to be her.” [laughter] How many times were you involved in something and then everyone just stepped back and you’re like…
TB: Really, God? [laughter]
BB: I mean no, I just kept thinking, you and I talk about faith in God a lot, and I was just thinking, “She’s hard-headed, [laughter] God, and Tarana, they’re both hard-headed.” And you know, like…
TB: Oh my gosh, I…
BB: And you fought. You fought it.
TB: Tooth and nail. Well, and part of it is left over from my experience of how I thought of myself. I thought I’m a worker, I’m here to do the heavy lifting, I’m just here… I’m a mule, I will get things done, I will work, I will show up early and I will leave late. I don’t want to be on a microphone, I don’t want a lot of recognition, don’t put me in the front, that’s how I always thought that I was supposed to be. And God kept saying, “Nope, it’s you. [laughter] No, it’s you.” And I was like, “No, it’s not. It’s them, it’s that person and I’m just here to support.” And you see, I would have these visceral, “No God, no stop it. [laughter] Stop doing that.” And then, no, not my God, He was like, “I’ll wait, I’ll wait.” [laughter]
BB: I felt bad, because I was laughing, even though I knew you were in pain, I didn’t want to laugh at you, but I was like, “Oh my God, Tarana thinks she’s going to win this.” You cannot win.
TB: You know, that’s another reason why I… When people ask me about like, “Tell me how you found the founding of Me Too?” I never really told the story because I thought people are going to think she’s some kind of religious quack or some kind of weirdo. And I’m a Christian, I have no qualms about saying that, but Christianity as a thing in this moment is so tethered to like right wing…
BB: White supremacy. Yeah.
TB: White supremacy, and that’s not the Christ I serve. And so my life has been so guided, even when I was Catholic, right. Even in that, as much as it was good and not so good, it’s been very, very guided. And even the lesson I’ve learned in the last four years is the same lesson that I kept getting over and over again, my assignment is my assignment. So hashtagging Me Too can be as big and as viral as it wants to be, what is meant for me is meant for me, my assignment is my assignment, and that has been a consistent thing in my life. If this is something that God wants me to do, it’s going to happen one way or another, big or small, because the viral hashtag could have happened, nobody could have known who Tarana Burke was, I’d still have my little black and pink t-shirts [laughter], my little flyers…
BB: And your pink stilettos.
TB: And my pink stilettos, right. [laughter] I’d still be a fashionable activist doing what I could, and it’s just… Because the assignment is what it is, and I think that’s another important thing, because we were up against challenges in Selma, it wasn’t just sweet story of like, “It came to me and then I just organized and then the people came, and then the money came, and then the movement came.” That’s just not how it happened.
BB: Just FYI, let me give you the spoiler, the money never comes in Selma.
TB: The money never comes. FYI, the money still hadn’t come.
TB: But we still wait. Oh gosh.
BB: I say the same thing all the time. I’m here for my purpose, that’s between me and God. I don’t know how you invited yourself into the conversation like that’s just… Not you, but in general, the people that tell me to, “Stick to the writing and stick to inspiring me.”
TB: How’d you get here? [laughter]
BB: Yeah, all right. I just have to say again, I’m going to say it 5000 times, and if you’re listening, just bear with me. What a transformative book. You changed me.
BB: Come on, no you did. You’ve changed me in a lot of ways, but this book changed me.
TB: I don’t know that you can grasp how incredible that is, that I at 10… I don’t know when The Gifts of Imperfectioncame out, I just use 10 as a… It’s 10 years isn’t it? Because…
BB: It’s 10. Yeah.
TB: Yeah, so, 10 years ago, you changed me, and I was just sort of gazing out, thinking about my white lady friend in my head [laughter] Brené Brown. I told you that my friends used to be, “You always talking about that white lady,” I’m like, “I love her, y’all should read her.” [laughter] Can you imagine making a list and I’m like, “Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Brené Brown [laughter]
BB: Oh yeah. Which one of these things is not like the other?
TB: And they’re like, “Why you always talking about that white lady?” I’m like, “Y’all have to read her.” But it does feel… You know this already, I’m so informed and moved by the work. And not just moved by it, but I feel like the kindred, that kindred… It was like I was moved by it, but I found a kindred spirit, and I just have never felt like that. So, I love you.
BB: I love you too, and I’m so grateful that your purpose and your assignment from God, and my purpose and my assignment from God has allowed our paths to meet and do some stuff together.
BB: It has been… Yeah. It’s been the highlight. All right, you ready for some rapid fire?
TB: Oh yes, let’s go.
BB: It’s so funny now, because I’m using you as a verb in my prayers, I just have to say that. Where if God’s like, “You know you need to publish this thing you’re writing, you’re going to draw a lot of fire and hate, but let’s skip the part where you try to Tarana your way out of this and just… ” [laughter] I’m like, “No, I can negotiate with you, I will give you… ” And then really, no, because let me tell you what was so… Wait I’ve got to tell you this, wait. [laughter] So, I almost had a shame attack when I was reading this. Okay, I went to Catholic school, I was Catholic until I became Episcopalian later, but I would only give so much in confession, but then I would double my sentence.
TB: Oh my gosh.
BB: Like myself… Yeah, or if I had three Hail Mary’s and two Apostle Creed.. Whatever they are.
TB: So you get it? [laughter]
BB: Yes, I was like, “I’ll just do six and we’re good.” And so, when you said that, [laughter] when you wrote about that in your book, I was like, “Leave it to me and Tarana to be altering our own penance.”
TB: Exactly. [laughter] Exactly, I’m like they won’t know, I’m just going to double this this week, we’re going to cover everything. [laughter] I was like, I love being Catholic, this is great. [laughter] Oh, man. That’s funny.
BB: I thought I was the only one, I thought that would be, that would die in my little shame pouch, my internal shame pouch. Okay, fill in the blank. Vulnerability is…
BB: What’s something that people often get wrong about you?
TB: That I’m mean.
TB: Yeah, people think I’m mean. I mean I am kind of mean sometimes, but not always. [laughter]
BB: I would say, I don’t think you’re mean at all. I think you don’t suffer fools and you take no shit, but that’s different than mean.
TB: Well, yes, see?
BB: Um, all right. What is one piece of advice that you’ve been given that was so helpful you need to share it with us or so shitty you need to warn us?
TB: Oh Brené I can’t… Okay, let me think. I went to shitty immediately because I’ve gotten some shitty advice. [laughter] Oh, yeah, I once had an adult tell me that I need to… This is… Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but whatever, I had an adult tell me I should try to get pregnant to keep a guy, [laughter] because… [laughter]
BB: We’re filing that under shitty…
TB: Yeah, it was a very shitty advice, yeah. And I had another adult tell me I should marry my daughter’s father because I don’t want to be a statistic. Both shitty advice.
BB: I have a question for you… In all seriousness, were these Texans? Were these white guys from Texas that gave you this advice?
TB: No. [laughter] They were both black women from Alabama, which, we’ll talk about that later. [laughter]
BB: Oh, this is a good one, I can’t wait to get this answer. [laughter] I’m so excited. Sorry [laughter]
TB: I’m laughing at you laughing already.
BB: Okay. What’s one hard lesson that God just keeps putting in front of you? [laughter] I’m sorry, because you have to learn it and relearn it and unlearn it.
TB: Um, I guess that I am a leader.
TB: It’s you Tarana. I’m like, “No, it’s not, I’m the leader’s liaison.”
BB: We’ll get you a trucker cap that says “leader’s liaison”. No, you’re the leader. Okay. One thing you’re really excited about right now.
TB: My deck. [laughter] I’m sorry. No, let me give a better answer.
BB: But I just need to clarify what you said. I think I misheard you.
TB: Terrible Texas women. Geez, where is spirit?
BB: I’m so shocked.
TB: Where… [laughter] So, I sat on my deck, as in deck outside in the back that has my hot tub in it. [laughter]
TB: Oh, that gets it… Oh, okay, yes. Deck with the hot tub, yes, right.
TB: Although… Let me not go there, never mind… Sorry. [laughter]
BB: We’re going to get kicked off Spotify.
TB: We are, we are. I’m sorry, this is a wholesome show, go ahead.
BB: Well, I hope not, but okay. I don’t even know what’s happening anymore. Okay. One tell me one… I’m scared to ask, but one thing you’re grateful for? [laughter]
TB: My deck. [laughter] My friends keep me laughing, boy, and in good spirits.
BB: Okay. I can barely hold on.
TB: All right, all right, here we go. We’re grownups.
TB: Here we go.
BB: Yes, I am, dammit. All right, you gave… We asked you for a mixed tape, five songs you can’t live without.
TB: Oh yes.
BB: Okay I’ve got it right here.
BB: So “Be a Lion” from The Wiz. Oh, so good.
BB: “La Vie En Rose” by Louis Armstrong. I mean come on. “For You I Will” by Monica.
TB: It’s my tattoo.
BB: Beautiful. “Be Happy,” by Mary. “It’s Alright,” or “Send Me” by the Winans Phase 2. And then tide with “Sing” by… Pronounce that for me?
TB: MeLa Machinko.
BB: MeLa Machinko, okay. In one sentence, what does this mixed tape say about you, Tarana Burke?
TB: Oh gosh. A lot of that mix tape, a lot of this is about resilience. These are the songs that I go to to make me feel good, to give me energy, to kind of keep me going, and… Yeah, like, “It’s Alright Send You” is a gospel song, but it’s the… A lot of it is prayer. Even though it’s R&B or whatever, but it’s kind of like, “Okay God, this is my sort of promise back to you,” you know? And Mary, “Be Happy” was definitely… I wrote about it in the book, it was definitely like prayer, it was like aspirational, right, I just want to be happy. And “La Vie En Rose” is a little bit different, it’s just a song that I fell in love with many years ago.
TB: Just the horn in the beginning is so mesmerizing that it literally feels like filling me up, like it fills my heart when I hear it, it makes me feel so good. “For You I Will” is a song I used to sing to my daughter, we have matching tattoos, and so it’s like a promise right, it’s just a promise that I make over and over again to my baby. And “Be a Lion” has made me feel encouraged since I was a little kid, and I used to sing it to Kaia when Kaia was a little kid. And so yeah, these are all of my like “come on we can do it” songs, these are my get up go. And “Sing” is a… I had to put that in there as a tie because when I feel like melancholy or even a little bit depressed, I put that song on. It’s not as upbeat, but it’s like a song that understands me, if that makes sense?
BB: Yeah, no. Yeah. Oh, no, I totally speak that.
TB: Yeah. It feels like a song, like this song gets me. So, yeah, that’s my list.
BB: Beautiful. Okay I’m going to have to take a nap, but I’m getting a note. What does that mean? Hold on just a sec, Tarana.
BB: They say we were laughing too hard.
TB: I imagine that could be true. Okay.
BB: Really? We have to leave the laughing in. The world needs the laughing and everyone needs a big deck.
BB: All right, I love you, thank you.
TB: I love you too.
BB: You know what, I was going to apologize for the hysteria that ensued during the rapid fire, but I’m not, because you know what, it is a mark of friendship, it’s a mark of joy, it’s a mark of, I don’t know, exhaustion and love and important things, and I hope that sometime this week you laugh until you cry because I think we need it right now. You can find Tarana online on Instagram at @Tarana, let me spell it for you, it’s T-A-R-A-N-A Janeen, J-A-N-E-E-N so @taranajaneen. You can also find her @metoomvmt which is M-E-T-O-O-M-V-M-T. All of these links, you can find them all online on brenebrown.com we have all of the transcripts, the guest information and how you can get to them on social media. We’ll also have a link to her book which, again, you just got to get right away, it’s called Unbound, you can get it from your favorite independent book store. We’ll also have links on the episode page.
BB: I’m so grateful to be back with you. Thank you for all the support while I was writing the book. This is definitely the awkward, brave and kind community that I needed for that herculean writing effort. I think that’s all I’ve got today. We’ve got a lot of great conversations coming up tackling some big topics, and I appreciate y’all. Stay awkward, brave and kind. See you next time.
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 Tristan McNeill, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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