'Me Too' Founder Tarana Burke Says Black Girls' Trauma Shouldn't Be Ignored
Activist Tarana Burke is the founder of the #MeToo Movement and has worked with Black and brown girls who are survivors of sexual violence. She originated the phrase and concept Me Too in 2006, as a way for victims to share their stories and connect with others. The Me Too hashtag went viral in 2017, in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations of sexual assault.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Earlier this week, R&B singer R. Kelly was found guilty of charges that include sexual exploitation of a child, racketeering, bribery and sex trafficking. This comes after decades of allegations against him.
Our guest, activist Tarana Burke, has been one of those people fighting for justice for R. Kelly's victims. Burke is the founder of the #MeToo movement and has worked with Black and brown girls who are survivors of sexual violence. She's written a new memoir. She spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of NPR's midday show Here And Now. They recorded the interview last week.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: In the memoir "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement" (ph), writer Tarana Burke takes us back to 2017, the morning she wakes up to the urgent vibration of her cell phone. Tarana's friends were texting her like crazy. Someone was writing about #MeToo, the movement Tarana had created years before for young Black girls who were survivors of sexual violence. #MeToo was a way to connect with each other, to find healing. And Tarana had been doing this work for years, so she was perplexed. How had #MeToo seemingly overnight turn into a viral hashtag? Tarana was in a panic. She didn't want to diminish the work by having women expose their trauma on social media, where clicks and likes are what determine the worth of an experience.
But in this moment, Tarana realized the #MeToo movement had already left her grip. Actress Alyssa Milano sent out the first tweet. And from there, stories kept coming - women baring their souls, sharing their shame. It brought Tarana to tears and started the second wave of a movement she had started years before. It also was the beginning of something else. In order to fully do this work, Tarana Burke needed to tell her own #MeToo story. And she's doing that now in her new memoir, "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." And a warning to our listeners - we will be talking about rape and sexual assault.
Tarana Burke, welcome to FRESH AIR.
TARANA BURKE: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
MOSLEY: Let's start with that morning in 2017 when you woke up to those messages. What were you most afraid of? What was the fear that crept up in you as you saw this movement that you had created go viral?
BURKE: I think I was first and foremost most fearful that I would be erased and that the work would be erased - right? - that people would use the hashtag and would not connect it at all back to its origins, the work - you know, the origins - my origins and the work that I had started. And I knew that there was no way that my small voice could be inserted into this growing conversation - like, 'cause this - if this gets any bigger, you know, who's going to listen to a 44-year-old Black woman from the Bronx? - just like, I did it first, you know? So that was my initial fear.
MOSLEY: When you saw people saying #MeToo in the tweets as a hashtag, one thing that also concerned you was that those who were sharing had no one helping them process...
MOSLEY: ...What they were saying and what they were doing. Can you say more about that?
BURKE: Those of us in this field would reflect back. There was sort of a moment of, like, being a deer caught in headlights. And people didn't know how to respond right away. But there wasn't enough of, you know, if you said #MeToo, call this number or this is a program or you're OK - you know, just was not a lot of spaces that I saw for people to process what was happening. And I thought, God, these people are going to cut and bleed all over the internet, which is, like, the very worst place to be exposed and vulnerable in this moment or any moment. And that was really, really troubling to me, too.
MOSLEY: On that day, when you woke up to that hashtag going viral, you happened upon a particular tweet that changed your perspective somewhat. It was a link to one woman's blog post. Can you describe it?
BURKE: Yeah. It was that evening. By the time I saw the blog post, it had - most - you know, the day had turned into evening. And I was in full on obsession mode. (Laughter) And I was like - and I was scrolling through and randomly, you know, stopping on people's tweets. But this woman had a link. So it just made me click the link because most people just said, you know, #MeToo or had a tweet. And I clicked the link, and it led to her, like, personal blog. And she had this really just heart-wrenching story about what happened to her in college. And she was sexually assaulted when she was in college. And, you know, she described it. And she talked about what this day had meant to her - and seeing a lot of people say #MeToo. And it just was so heartfelt, it made me cry, and it made me - for her, but also for, like, what are you doing, right?
It was sort of a reality check to me. Like, this woman is representative of all the work that I've done. This is the reason why we say #MeToo. This is the reason why I've been trying to make it connect with people so that people can understand the level of community that's necessary for survivors to heal and that - you know, how the exchange of empathy is a part of that healing. And she was showing it in this post. And it just kind of made me step back and take, like, a 30,000-foot view of the thing and say, no, wait, there's a different thing happening here. It's bigger than me. But I think part of the reality for #MeToo is that my work had not really - like, when I saw the Weinstein case, you know...
MOSLEY: The Harvey Weinstein case.
BURKE: ...It wasn't a case yet - but the story unfolding, I was definitely paying attention - right? - because it had captured the attention of the country but also because of the subject matter. But I didn't initially feel sort of connected like, wow, this is going to really advance the work I'm doing, because my experience had been that those kind of things didn't trickle down to community; they stayed in the places that they started.
MOSLEY: And Harvey Weinstein is the big Hollywood honcho who was accused and then convicted of rape and sexual assault. At that time, he was taking up a lot of media space.
BURKE: Oh, yeah.
MOSLEY: And you hadn't connected it because you were working with young Black girls who had...
MOSLEY: ...Been dealing with sexual assault. So that hadn't come together for you. You write, the essence of #MeToo is found deep in the marrow of this lifelong story. And we're talking about you here. There is no here without where I was, you say, stuck and scared and ashamed - a place I remained until the need to care for someone else's shame saved #MeToo.
Before we get into your own #MeToo story, can we sit for a moment on the shame? It's a universal feeling. Yes, the assault itself brings shame, but there's also the shame of not being able to do - and you write about this so profoundly - not being able to do what the adults told you to do as a child. And that's, don't let anyone touch you.
BURKE: Not being able to protect yourself - and then the shame of breaking the rules, right? And who wants to - once you break the rules, you - when we're children, it's sort of cut and dry. You're either good or you're bad. There's not really an in between. And when you are given a message over and over and over and over again that says, you don't let anybody touch your private parts. You don't - those are nasty things. Those are fresh things. Those are, you know, things that fast girls or bad girls do. And you find yourself in this situation at a very young age. You're either one or the other. You're good or your bad. And there's a lot of shame attached to that.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. Her memoir is called "Unbound: The Story of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." We'll be back after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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BURKE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking to the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, about her new memoir, "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement."
You were 7 years old when you were first raped. The perpetrator was about 18. And this point you're making is that you didn't tell your mom and stepdad, who you call Mr. West, not because they wouldn't believe you, as you said, but because you wanted to protect them. This resonated with you in a way that was very clear when you were able to read Maya Angelou's 1969 biography, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings." She was raped when she was 8, and her rapist was found guilty and then spent a little bit of time in jail. And then when he got out, he was murdered. And Maya Angelou felt that it was her fault because she felt like she was responsible for this man's death because she spoke up. So she didn't speak for several years.
What was it like as a girl reading those words that was so familiar to your own experience? You were learning that in that moment by reading her story.
BURKE: It opened my mind up to the idea that, first of all, that this could happen to other people. I didn't even think about other girls. I thought - when I read it, I thought, even then, it's just me and Maya Angelou. This is somebody else that this happened to. And it made me wonder why God would let something like this happen to a good girl because I - in the book, I'm perceiving her as different than me, right? She was a good girl. She listened to her grandma. She did what she was supposed to do. She did her work. She did her chores. Why did this happen to her? So it was such a beautiful thing for me to have that connection. I felt just less alone to have a story in the world that I could even connect to.
MOSLEY: You just said you thought about what was it about you that made boys know that you wouldn't tell. What have you learned about sexual assault that has shattered that idea that somehow a defect within you is what made these predators choose you?
BURKE: Oh, I'm super clear now. One, I often wondered why this person picked me. It could be something that he saw in my personality. It could be any number of things, but it's all his - the depravity in his mind. It was - had nothing to do with who I was as a child or anything that I did as a child. And there's been all kinds of research, and we've seen stories, even anecdotal stories of predators telling about how they pick the children that they decide to go after and why. Maybe it's the quiet child. Maybe it's the loud child. But they all have their reasons.
But none of those reasons are connected to who - to me. None of them were connected to, like, me being a particular type of girl this happened to, which is what I put in my mind. I'm the type of girl this happens to. I had to work to go through a whole bunch of steps to take the blame from myself and put it where it rightfully belonged, take the burden from myself and lay it at the feet of the people who actually should hold that. That took a lot of work.
MOSLEY: Do you see this a lot in the young women that you work with, is this a common refrain where the anger is not at the perpetrator, it's like it's internal anger, and bringing that anger out to that place where you can lay it at the feet of the perpetrator?
BURKE: Absolutely. And I think, you know, I don't have any evidence of this? I don't want to say this as if it's definitive. This is anecdotal from just working with young, Black and brown girls. But I really feel like our community does it even more - right? - because I think these external messages, which is why I included the other stuff in the book about how I was ridiculed as a little girl and things like that. Because I think, when you couple the messages that we receive from the world about who we are and how we show up and how we should be valued with this kind of abuse, that it creates this really sort of disturbing mixture of emotions and bad thoughts that make us believe stuff that's not true.
And so I think a lot of girls - a lot of little Black and brown girls internalize it. And then we see it come out in anger and behavior and things like that. But nobody tends to ask us those questions about where that came from. So it's just a label, these little Black girls with these attitudes, these little angry Black girls, right?
MOSLEY: Right, right, these fast Black girls.
BURKE: These fast Black girls, right. We don't get the questions that say, well, where did this come? This is a child - Black, white, yellow, green and different. This is a child. And children aren't born angry. They aren't born with attitudes. Something has to happen. Something has to have affected them in order to bring that about. Obviously, it's not always sexual trauma, but there is trauma. And knowing that there's so much trauma in communities of color, you would think that the first place that people would go is, what happened?
MOSLEY: I want to parse this out a little bit more and specifically your experience growing up because you existed in two ways. There was the external you, as you say, like the good girl, the smart girl. And then there was this internal feeling that you were the bad girl, the ugly girl with secrets. How did one compound the other - meaning like, how did these dualities help you survive?
BURKE: I think I needed the bad girl sort of idea in my head that this is who I really am. This is my true personality, so to speak. But the good girl persona and, like, the overachiever, the perfectionist, which is also another thing. I think generally we've gotten so many messages about what sexual violence looks like and how it shows up in young survivors in particular. And so we look for the sad girls and the girls who might be cutting or harming themselves in some way or the girls who retreat from society. And those are also markers. But the overachieving perfectionists, you know, meltdown-at-getting-a-B girls are also going through something. And that's who I was.
MOSLEY: This is so important, what you're saying right here. I mean, I just want to pause for a second...
BURKE: Sure, sure.
MOSLEY: ...Because - right? - in Black communities and probably, you know, in other communities, too - right? - we see the overachieving girl as the one we don't have to worry about.
MOSLEY: But that undue pressure, that pressure that they are putting on themselves could also be a marker...
BURKE: That's right.
MOSLEY: ...Of - yeah.
BURKE: That's right. And I think, you know, again, we're so proud. We're - in the - I'm talking in about Black community and communities of color, too. We're always looking for more evidence that we're good for the world, right? See, we are just as good as. We're just as worthy. And so look at this high-achieving student. Look at this straight-A student. And those kind of things get applauded. But I mean, I was, at some point, just really ridiculous. (Laughter) You know, like, I would literally have a meltdown.
MOSLEY: In what way?
BURKE: I mean, just having a meltdown at poor grades - not even poor grades, at average grades - or just wanting to do too much. You know, I'm on the track team and a debate - and in the honors club. And I'm taking extra classes, and I have the honors - it just - all of those kind of things, just anything, anything to distract them from seeing what I thought was my real personality. Nobody would ever guess that Tarana did these things because Tarana's great. She's perfect. She shows up. She's a - and I mean, good daughter, good friend, all of those kind of things.
MOSLEY: You were a fighter in high school...
BURKE: Yeah (laughter).
MOSLEY: ...Both with your words and physically.
BURKE: Mmm hmm.
MOSLEY: There is this story you tell in the book about a boy that you were saying who was really handsy. You weren't even sure if you liked him, but you dated him. And then one day, your friends tell you another girl had sex with him. And you beat that girl up so bad she had parts of her braces coming out of her lip.
BURKE: I should - yeah, it was - it's not my finest hour. But...
MOSLEY: Why did you want to share that story?
BURKE: Well, I also - I really wanted to talk about - for two reasons. One, I wanted to give a snapshot of the kind of rage that I was holding in high school, that I was shedding this sort of the good girl, the need to be seen as a good girl thing and moving into this other place that was just as toxic but was the next level of me trying to cope. And that was a result of, like - it didn't take much for me to go off. But the other part to that was that I had this revelation about that girl some years later that I also wanted to share, which was that I was actually grateful.
One, I was grateful, and I didn't know how to say I was grateful that she had had sex with him because I didn't want to. And I didn't know if I had the - whatever I needed to say no if he kept pressuring me - right? - 'cause he was already very handsy. And two, because I knew he was so handsy, it occurred to me later that she might not have agreed to have sex with him, that that might have been a situation that was beyond her control, and she might have been forced or really, really, really pressured into having sex with him because of how she responded to me.
You know, she didn't respond to me like, well, so what? I had sex with him, you know? You know, your loss. It wasn't with an attitude, which a lot of girls would have done. It was a lot of - she had a lot of shame, and she had a lot of - she was very apologetic. And when I started reflecting on just her response now, you know, as an adult, like, who's seen girls who have gone through things, I thought, God, isn't this terrible how Black girls are turned on each other? This Black - one Black girl with all of this rage and this other Black girl with all of this shame - and again, I don't know where the shame came from, but I certainly recognize it and how it was performance.
I didn't even want to fight her, really. I was just being pushed up to do it by the other kids, and it felt like that's what you're supposed to do in these moments. I was disrespected, you know? And it was this performance that I've seen over and over and over again when I've worked with high school girls and junior high school girls, that, again, we don't get to the root of. I'm just beating you 'cause you look like me.
MOSLEY: Right. How did that revelation - how does that revelation factor into your understanding of the work that you do?
BURKE: I have seen any number of things happen with my girls. I worked in both a junior high school and a high school - middle school, junior high school and high school. And I've seen these fights that break out, that when you bring the two girls together and you get - you boil it all down and get to the nugget, like - why are we here? - it is something that is really about their sense of self-worth. And so I've just seen it play out in so many different ways.
It's what I felt. I didn't feel worthy. I felt like I want to do anything to make these kids like me. You know? They said I should fight. I'm going to fight. They said that this is what you do. She messed with your - not even boyfriend, whatever he was. This is what the protocol is. And we fall - we just fall right into it. It's just so much performance that happens with young people.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and author of the new memoir "Unbound: My Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." Tonya Mosley is host of NPR's midday show Here & Now. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. For decades, she's worked with Black and brown girls who are survivors of sexual violence. Burke has a new memoir called "Unbound." She spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the NPR midday show Here & Now.
MOSLEY: OK. You had shed this duality of good girl, bad girl. But you were up against - you talk about high school being rough. You were up against this need, at the time, to be an around-the-way girl, as LL Cool J put it, because that's, like, what was happening in the late '80s and the '90s. You loved it. I mean, of course, this was the thing at the time. But your mom was not about to pay for you to have the around-the-way girl look.
BURKE: Not at all (laughter), not at all. And she couldn't. It wasn't even just because she wouldn't. She just couldn't. She couldn't afford it.
MOSLEY: Right. But she had this sort of veneer - this outward face. Like, I have a choice on whether or not you can be...
BURKE: That's right.
MOSLEY: ...That you can wear the designer stuff, and I'm making the choice versus her saying I can't do it.
BURKE: Yeah. And I think that's what a lot of parents do and Black mamas do. But my mother was like, I want you to stay the same little Catholic schoolgirl, so you're going to wear these long skirts and these high collars. And you're going to go to school in, like, 1987, when everybody looks like Salt-N-Pepa.
MOSLEY: The relationship, though, with you and your mom during this time when you were in high school, it had changed. I mean, before that, it was this loving mother-daughter kind of matching outfit-type relationship, to one that you describe as interrogation or delegation. What do you mean by that?
BURKE: That's sort of what it felt like. It boiled down to either she was interrogating me about something - some schoolwork, some extracurricular thing, some housework, something. It was just, did you do this? Did you do that? Why didn't you do this? You know? Or it was delegating, right? I had a - my little brother's 13 years younger than me, and so I was, you know, sort of a primary caretaker for him when my mother wasn't there. And there was always the house. You got to get things together in the house, or you have to go run errands. And just the kind of closeness we had where we just talked and discussed things like books and music and that kind of stuff, it just sort of went away.
MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, an example of this is when you got into college. I mean, it was a full ride to Alabama State University. She didn't express her excitement to you. She actually made you feel like you were burdening her by asking her for a plane ticket. I know that you all are close now, but have you reconciled the way she parented back then? And if so, how do you do that?
BURKE: You know, it's - I have reconciled it for the most part because what I realized once I became a parent and I - you know, my - I had my daughter at 24. My mother had me at 23. So, it was, you know, around the same time and very similar financial circumstances, right? I was - I didn't have a lot of money. I was trying to make ends meet. I was also alone. And I think that my mother made the best choices she knew how to make.
And that's why I write about capacity in the book because when you're a child, all you know is, I need, right? Whatever it is - whether it's your physical needs, your food, clothing and shelter or your emotional needs, right? I need a hug. I need a kiss. I need to feel whatever. Whatever the thing is, that's all we really understand is, I need. And we see our parents as the provider of those needs, and that's the fullness of our understanding of that relationship.
And so what I recognize now is that my mother was struggling to get her own needs met. And my mother's generation - my mother is born in 1950, right? That generation wasn't raised with Deepak Chopra and Iyanla and Oprah and, you know, like, the level of self-awareness that our generation has been privileged to have. They were raised, particularly Black women, you have your children, you take care of your children, you do the best you can. And all of this other self-help, self-awareness stuff, it just feels like there's no - who can afford that? Literally, like, who can financially afford that, but also who can mentally afford that, right?
And so I think that although she had limited capacity, what she recognized in her limitations, she tried to expand in me. So my mother didn't, for instance, didn't travel until recently, until I started taking her places. She didn't travel, but she sent me everywhere. If there was an opportunity for a free trip here or earn a trip there, she would send me places. So we've had a journey. She's not a person who's going to talk about it a lot, you know? We're not going to sit down and have a conversation like, oh, I'm healing and (laughter)...
BURKE: But she signals to me in different ways where the growth is happening. And one of the ways is what I describe in the book, like, when we have that moment. She just shows up for me in moments that I just don't even expect. And I say, wow, look at my mom. (Laughter) You know?
MOSLEY: What is that moment you're referring to?
BURKE: Oh, in the book, in the epilogue, I talk about when I was - maybe about 10 years ago. It was about 2010, I think. We were at - we were in - back in our old neighborhood for a reunion. They do a Father's Day get-together every year, and it serves as sort of a neighborhood reunion. And I hadn't gone in years. And my mother and I went, and one of the first people I ran into was my rapist. And - the first one. And...
MOSLEY: The one when you were 7.
BURKE: The one when I was 7. And it was such - and I had only told my mother. I didn't tell my mother about what happened to me until I was older. I was, like, 32. So this was only a few years after I had already, you know, told my mom. And so - yeah, we - I saw him. She wasn't with me when I saw him, but I saw him, and I was really just kind of frozen. And then I realized that he - I thought he was looking at me. I thought we were like - had this moment of, like, looking at each other and connecting eye to eye. But I realized in, like, a split second that he was actually looking past me, that he did not recognize me at all. I was standing no more than 25 feet from him, and he did not recognize me, didn't acknowledge me, anything. And something about that just - ooh, it - you talk about finding the anger? I had found it by then. So...
MOSLEY: Yeah, it was triggering.
BURKE: ...Something about that just sort of set me off. I was so angry, but I was also still kind of scared. And so I went - I walked away, and I ran right into my mother. And it's, like, a big, open, like, playground parking lot situation that we were in. Anyway, I ran right into her, and she could see on my face something was wrong. She like, what's going on? What's the matter? And that's my mother's - that's what I know of her. Once she knows something's happened, she swings into action. But at this point, she's 60-something, you know. And this has happened 30-something years ago. And she's also friends with his mother. So there was - this is, like, all these different layers.
Anyway, long story short, I just said, can we go? I just want to leave. And our family was out there. Our friends were out there. We hadn't been there that long. And she said, let's go. And so what I was waiting for, what I thought was going to happen was that it was going to be a debate of, like, Mommy, please, can I go? And, you know, like, I thought I was going to have to really...
MOSLEY: Pull her along, yeah.
BURKE: ...Go further to convince her. And I - all I said was, can we go? And she said, let's go. And we walked out of that park and got in a cab. And I just can't even express how much I needed her to show up that way in that moment. And when we got in the cab and - I was just going through my mind, like, why didn't he know me? I don't understand. Like, why wouldn't he - maybe it's just 'cause it's been a long time. And she said, no, it's not that. It's because you turned out to be this smart, beautiful, accomplished - you know, and she just went down this whole list - woman even though he tried to take that from you.
MOSLEY: Mama Burke.
BURKE: And, you know, it was just like, when you think they don't understand, you think they don't get it, she told me just in that one instance that she got it. She got all of it. She understood. She understood me. She understood what I was feeling, what I was going through.
And I just - that probably changed our - like, there's those little moments in your relationship that you - it sort of changes the trajectory. I will never, ever forget that. And I will never, ever - I couldn't even express how grateful I was. It was just me and her and nobody else - none of my girlfriends, none of her girlfriends, no other family members, just me and her in the cab. And yeah, that's my mom. That's how she shows up.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, about her new memoir, "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking to the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, about her new memoir "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." And a note to our listeners, as part of this conversation, we will be talking about rape and sexual assault.
You took part in something called the 21st Century program, and it was started by a group of civil rights leaders who wanted a program for young people to continue the civil rights work. Tell us a little bit about your place in this program. It was really essential in the forming of your identity as an activist and a leader.
BURKE: Yeah, 21st Century was life-changing from the moment I walked in the door and saw the young people dancing and singing freely to taking these sessions, going through these training sessions where I was literally learning to be an organizer, how to put together a campaign and these things at 14 and 15 years old. It really allowed me - and these were the first people to tell me, like, you're a leader now. And it allowed me to exercise this - sort of a different kind of freedom to speak up and to use my voice. And they said that my voice was valuable. And so it really just changed how I thought about myself. But also, it gave me, like, my vision of who I would be in the future.
I had never seen anything like it, experienced anything like it, and I just wanted to be a part of it. 21st Century, the organization, was founded in Selma, Ala. And the founders were veterans of all of, you know, the civil rights movement, Black Power movement, labor movement, co-op movement. like, all of these various movements that came out at the '60s and '70s, these social justice movements.
And so you're no different than the young leaders in SNCC in the 1960s. They were teenagers, too. And they told us stories of movement - children, young people who made a difference. They gave us leadership development, taught us organizing skills, and sent us off into the world. And I was just - I was like, I have found my calling (laughter). This is it.
MOSLEY: You found your people, too. Right. Right.
BURKE: Oh, yeah, that was my tribe.
MOSLEY: Well, in the summer of '96, you led your first camp for the 21st Century program. I'm about to bring up Heaven for you, Tarana. You met a girl named Heaven. She was a firecracker, and you worked pretty hard to win her over during the course of the camp. And she actually started to soften to you. She trusted you. You made her feel seen. Tell us a little bit more about her.
BURKE: Little Heaven - so she was a little doll baby face, you know, this little brown, round face. And she was independent. A lot of our young people come to our camps in chapters, a part of chapters. And so she sort of came with the kids from Selma but not really from that group. And it's like you said, she took to me. I made her take to me, really. I saw she was getting ready to be hell on wheels (laughter) as soon as she hopped off the bus. And I was like, OK.
And this is the method that I had seen my elders use - right? - the elders, when we were - some of the elders, when we were unruly or they - we had all of the New York attitudes, they just loved up on us. And it was an experience that was really affirming for me because prior to that, any discipline problem I had had always been met with, you know, anger from adults or zero tolerance from adults. But these adults in 21st Century met our disruptive behavior or whatever it was with even more love. And I wanted to give that to her. And we got close really quickly.
And then we had the occasion to end 21st Century, which was probably not healthy at the time. But we had these sessions, these sister sessions where the girls would get together and just talk about stuff. And they always - we knew this would happen. They always turn to something about sexual violence, right? The girls would talk about - or just deeply personal. But a lot of times, it was sexual violence.
And I had never shared when I was younger in camp. I never, no matter how many testimonies and sessions we had, I never told people what happened to me when I was younger. And I just used to, you know, hold space for people, but not my own story. And Heaven was in that session, and it was written all over her face. It was all in her body that she had a story to tell. And- I don't know. I don't even know how to describe what it made me feel like, but probably fear was the first feeling I had, like, oh boy.
MOSLEY: Because you were seeing yourself in her.
BURKE: Absolutely, because she did what I did at the camps, right? She got really quiet. She folded in herself. And she just listened to the other girls. She didn't raise her hand. She didn't offer a story. She just sat there trying to be invisible, and I could see it.
MOSLEY: Yeah. But then there was this point where she did confide to you after that gathering of all the girls. And she told you that she had been raped back home.
BURKE: Yeah. It was after. I think she just needed to be away from the other children and, you know, feel safe because I had made her feel safe. And she came to me. She confided in me. I was 23 about at the time, 22, 23, and I was just starting to deal with and unpack my own stuff. And I just - I literally just couldn't handle it. And I think - I'm even - now, because I've talked about the story so much and I've written about it, I actually think it was also just - I really loved this little girl. And I didn't know what to do. And I didn't want to break her more. And so I feel like it just made me freeze. But either way, whatever the reason, I did not respond well to her when she told me.
I sent her away, and it just - it was just one of the hardest things I've ever done. It was something I was very ashamed of for a long time. And because of that shame, though, it - like, that last look on her face, no matter how many times I think about this story, I always flashback. This woman is probably 35 now, somewhere in that age range. Oh my gosh, it would be a little older. But either way, I think about that, and I can see that little brown face and that disappointment. And it just is like a, oh, it's like a piercing thing in your heart to disappoint a child.
BURKE: And so I made a decision that day, like, you can't have it both ways. You can't hold this secret inside your body and then think you're going to work with these children who also are trying to deal with this and unpack it. You're trying to pack it away. They're trying to unpack it, you know. You can't have it both ways. And that was the start of me taking my journey seriously, you know, really trying to do more work on myself and unpack my stuff around my own rape and molestation.
MOSLEY: It is definitely one of the more vulnerable parts of this book. I mean, you dedicate, among other people, this book to Heaven. Did you ever find out what happened to her? Have you been able to find her?
BURKE: I've never been able to find out. I am - I'm sort of, you know, have a battery on my back now on a new quest to see if I can figure it out. I had started a few years ago because I've contacted some people. You know, I still have lots of friends there. And we kind of narrowed it down to who she might be related to. And so I kind of want to do it again. I'm so fearful. I have a friend who says all the time, you know, you're being kind of arrogant. That girl may never thought of you again, right? She - maybe - you think you've impacted her life in one way. I don't know. But I would love to just see her and just tell her that although I really made a misstep that day, I worked really, really hard, and I've worked really, really hard in the years since then to not make that kind of misstep again. I've made others, but not that kind.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. Her memoir is called "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking to the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, about her new memoir, "Unbound: The Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement."
I want to talk a little bit more about 21st Century with you. You became, as we were talking about, An activist and a leader in Alabama. And the people there were your chosen family until you realized that they were protecting an abuser instead of protecting the girls, the children. And it was this realization that sexual violence, the attacking of Black and brown girls, seemed a lesser trauma when measured against racism and police violence. Can you say more about this?
BURKE: Yeah. And I think it's still a reality in our communities. You know, I was in this, again, very close-knit community of movement people, of organizers. And our - we were sort of first responders, if you will, to social justice issues in our community. And so if there was everything from police violence to gun violence in the community, if there was political unrest, if there was just anything amiss that was going to adversely affect the community, this was the group of people that responded to it.
We were the ones who staged protests in front of city hall. We were the ones who stopped traffic. We were the ones who organized people in communities, whether it was to vote or to - you know, to fight back against something. That's what I knew. My elders had said to me over and over again in one way or another, community problems deserve a community response.
And when I started doing this work in the schools, in community - I work around sexual violence, like, specifically to work with Black girls, but the work around #MeToo. They were nonresponsive. People did not - were not moved. I mean, you know, they would congratulate you. Oh, that's good. That's great that you're doing that. But they were not trying to get involved in any real, tangible way.
MOSLEY: Your then mentor, - you refer to as Mrs. Sanders, her reaction to all of this - I mean, it speaks to what - the larger thing you're saying. It shows the insidiousness of abuse at the hands of men. You say, essentially, we are their victims and their protectors. And we're talking specifically, like, in the Black community. This really got me thinking about something that Jim DeRogatis, the writer, said more than a decade ago when he was covering R. Kelly and his alleged victims.
BURKE: I know the quote you're going to say, I bet.
MOSLEY: He said, covering - you know what I'm going to say. He said, covering this case made him realize that nobody matters less in our society than Black girls. Do you ever get frustrated by that reality, that in a way, I mean, your efforts only became important on an international scale because white women brought it to light in reference to their experiences?
BURKE: It's incredibly frustrating. It is incredibly frustrating. And I feel that way about Black girls. I feel that way about Indigenous girls - women and girls. I just - we are - I say this in the book that we are socialized to respond to the vulnerability of white women. And it's a truth that is hard for some people to look in their face, and they feel uncomfortable when I say things like that. But it is true. It's the reason why two articles about Harvey Weinstein brought him to his knees and made his crimes of over however many decades come to light finally.
After - I don't know - a decade of Jim DeRogatis and others writing about R. Kelly, of Black women screaming at the top of their lungs about R. Kelly, of international hashtag, of his survivors coming forward, breaking NDAs, it took all of that and the #MeToo movement taking place and the Lifetime documentary for people to finally say, huh, we should take a closer look at R. Kelly. Maybe we shouldn't be supporting him. And it's just that stark difference in what it takes to get attention around Black women and girls and our issues generally, but certainly when it comes to sexual violence.
MOSLEY: Tarana Burke, thank you so much for joining us.
BURKE: Thank you. Thank you for having me. You're so easy to talk to.
GROSS: Tarana Burke spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley. Tarana Burke's new memoir is called "Unbound: My Story Of Liberation And The Birth Of The Me Too Movement." Tonya Mosley is host of the NPR mid-day show Here And Now.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what the treatment of Haitian migrants massed at the Mexican border says about Biden administration asylum policy. And we'll consider the long history of how race has colored immigration policy. Our guest will be Caitlin Dickerson. She covers immigration for The Atlantic. She writes, America never wanted the tired, poor, huddled masses. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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