First, she was a survivor: #MeToo’s Burke tells her story | archives, culture and arts, events

“Maybe it’s not going to spread.”

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

It was a phrase she had coined over years of working with survivors of sexual violence. And she feared it would be scavenged or misused, turned into a simple hashtag for a brief moment of social media frenzy and ruining the hard work she had done.

It turned out that it took. Actress Alyssa Milano had asked victims of sexual assault or harassment to share their stories or just say #MeToo, and hundreds of thousands had done so from day one. But Burke’s fears did not materialize and her movement took off that she had never dreamed of.

“I wasn’t even dreaming that big,” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I thought I had big and noble goals and I wasn’t dreaming big enough.”

Now, as the #MeToo movement – the social computation that began in 2017 – nears its fourth birthday, Burke, 48, has released a very personal and often crude memoir of his childhood in the Bronx in New York City, his journey in activism and the early days of #MeToo. She also provides a vivid account of how she was raped herself when she was just seven – an event that deeply shaped her future. She spoke to AP ahead of the book’s release this week. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

AP: Why was it time for this memoir?

BURKE: People will think this is a book about, you know, going to the Golden Globes and meeting a bunch of celebrities and a bunch of powerful men whose lives have been touched by #MeToo. I want to tell a different story. My story is ordinary and also extraordinary: It’s so many other stories of little black girls, so many stories of young women. We don’t pay attention to the nuances of what survival looks like or what sexual violence looks like and how it affects our lives. So it seemed important. It’s a story that has grown in me for over 40 years. It was time to give it a home outside of my body.

AP: What message do you hope to convey to other women and girls who, like you, have been the victims of rape or sexual assault?

BURKE: That their experiences are not unique and that they are not alone. It seems really isolating, especially if you are dealing with sexual violence. I really want to send the message that you are not alone. YOU are normal and things that have happened to you are NOT normal. It doesn’t do anything wrong with you.

AP: You write about how you felt both guilty and ashamed of what happened to you.

BURKE: Shame is insidious. It is devouring. It can get into every nook and cranny and cracks and crevices in your life. There aren’t enough posts that say, “It’s not your shame to bear. It is not your burden to carry.

AP: A key issue for the future is the intersection of #MeToo and race. Have we made any progress as a society in this regard?

BURKE: We haven’t moved enough. This became even more evident during the racial calculation that the country found itself in the last year or so. People cannot connect the two. Really, it’s about advancing humanity. It’s all about liberation. And so the lives of black people must count. Women, people, must have bodily autonomy. We have to live in a world that thinks about the environment and the real space in which we live. All of these things have to do with how we coexist as human beings. And we need to recognize that these systems of oppression we all live under affect us differently. I am black and I am a woman and I am a survivor. And all of these things exist at the same time.

AP: A very raw part of this book explores how when you were young you felt ugly. You had to deal with those feelings. Did this experience help you parent your own child?

BURKE: I was very worried about Kaia’s self-esteem. But then Kaia turned out to be this beautiful child, a beautiful child physically. And still in college, she came to me and said, “I want Hannah Montana’s nose,” and things like kids bothered them because they thought they were ugly. And I was just like, wow, it doesn’t matter what you look like physically. People will find ways to bring you down. If they see the vulnerability and the parts of you that shine, they will take the lowest fruit and try to take it from you.

AP: You describe how, when #MeToo exploded in 2017, you were so afraid that your movement, the work you had done, would be co-opted. How did you overcome this worry?

BURKE: Over time, it has become clear to me that whatever I’m supposed to do, whatever assignment I’ve been given is clearly a mission for ME. And so if you take away the way the world or the media describes #MeToo, what I’ve built hasn’t really changed. I say this in the book: Selma’s little black girls and Hollywood white women really need the same things. And I realized that no one could take it away from me. I just got really comfortable. It may never look like it’s October 2017. But that’s okay, because what happened in October 2017 was a phenomenal moment that we shouldn’t try to duplicate. We should try to take advantage of that and do other things. So I don’t have that fear anymore. And it has been an incredible learning journey.


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