Tarana Burke woke up on a Sunday morning in 2017 with a wicked hangover to discover that her life’s work had been turned into a hashtag on Twitter. In a matter of hours, #MeToo had gone from Burke’s personal “work and purpose” to a nationwide phenomenon, without any acknowledgment that Burke had been using the phrase in her organizing work since 2005. The term had been part of Burke’s mission to bring “empathy into the fight against sexual violence” in her own community. But when #MeToo came onto the scene, she wrote, it was “jarring,” adding, “Other than these women [on Twitter] being survivors of sexual violence, none of what was happening in Hollywood felt related to the work I had been entrenched in within my own community for so many years.”
Burke’s memoir, Unbound, is an unwavering, unapologetic claim of ownership of two small yet powerful words that played a crucial role in Burke’s life and, ultimately, in the lives of the women and girls she guided before and after #MeToo became a phrase that bound together thousands of survivors across the internet. In her book, Burke has the first and final say on what it truly means to live and say “me too.” “The story of how empathy works for others—without which the work of ‘me too’ doesn’t exist—starts with empathy for that dark place of shame where we keep our stories and where I kept mine,” she writes.
Burke’s work as an organizer began when she was introduced to a group called 21st Century in high school. “They trained us to strategize and organize, to recognize and fight against injustice and think of ourselves as leaders at any age,” she writes. But the seed of “me too” was planted earlier, when Burke read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and realized that she was not alone in having been sexually abused as a girl.
The birth of the original Me Too movement was gradual and exceedingly painful. When Burke was in her early 20s, she started working full time for 21st Century, taking high school-age students to college campuses for mentoring and sleepaway camps. They did an activity called Sister to Sister sessions, where counselors like Burke would have an open dialogue with the students. There were also Brother to Brother sessions for young boys to speak openly with adult men. “Years and years of spilling their innermost truths about their experiences, and 21C never employed a trained professional to oversee these sessions. Numbers of girls, and some boys, gave us clear indications that they may not have been safe at home, and we sent them back anyway,” Burke writes, reflecting on her time as a counselor. She knew there needed to be more done for young victims in the Black community.
For Burke, “me too” was never a single organization or a single strategy—it was years of grassroots work in schools and community gathering spaces where she could speak to young people who didn’t have access to professional counseling. Instead, they had Burke and others like her, who went above and beyond to secure resources and find safe emotional outlets for victims of sexual violence who couldn’t even tell their families what had been done to them.
None of our work specifically addressed sexual abuse, assult, or exploitation, but among the three programs we were dealing with it. We were dealing with two middle school girls who were gang-raped—one of whom tried to commit suicide as a result and another who got pregnant at fourteen and was made to keep the baby as punishment for ‘opening her legs.’ We were dealing with a girl who was in the Children’s Home, the local foster care program, with the baby she’s had by her mom’s boyfriend and pregnant with the child of another abuser.
Burke, who speaks about her religious upbringing and how she still sometimes clung to Christian ideology, was standing in the gap, as some pastors call it, for these girls when not a single soul cared what happened to them.
The only word that comes close to describing Burke’s memoir is powerful, and even that seems to fall short of capturing the experience of reading this book. Its power is twofold, first in Burke’s claim on #MeToo, especially in the current cultural environment where creators of color frequently have their ideas repurposed and repackaged for a profit they never see. Burke pulls no punches, clearly stating Me Too is hers and not the brainchild of white actors. But while she lays claim to the creation of the phrase, when she saw how many people online had used the hashtag to speak their truths, she recognized that the movement as a whole belonged to every single survivor and not just the ones who held the most social power. “It was clear that all the folks who were using the #MeToo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actors who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed—space to be seen and heard,” Burke writes in the prologue. It was this realization that gave Burke the conviction to announce to the world that Me Too was hers and she was ready to open it to a wider world that needed her and needed that space.
Reading the first-hand account of a Black woman refusing to step aside for women with more clout is a much-needed reminder for organizers and creators of color who face a similar landscape. Burke was acutely aware of the erasure that can happen when white people discover and become involved with ideas and works which have had their foundations laid by Black and brown people. “Ya’ll know if these white women start using this hashtag, and it gets popular, they will never believe that a Black woman in her forties from the Bronx has been building a movement for the same purposes, using those exact words, for years now. It will be over,” Burke writes, recalling a conversation she had with her friends when Me Too first went viral.
Unbound is relatively short, coming in at a little over 200 pages before the acknowledgments section, which might be considered a quick read. But to get to that final page, one must traverse through Burke’s youth and her descriptions of growing up in the Bronx, where she was first raped at the age of seven, and the shame she carried with her throughout much of her life. “Though I was not yet facing the reality of my abuse, I was still actively dealing with the side effects. Standing and fighting against the diminishment and destruction of Black bodies had become a proxy for the diminishment and destruction of my own Black body,” Burke writes of her time as a young activist in high school during the case of the now exonerated Central Park five.
Obviously, there are happier memories that dot the memoir—the first time Burke understood she was a natural leader, gaining a better understanding of her relationship with her mother, the birth of her child. But to borrow a biblical line, it’s a long night before joy cometh in the morning. Getting through Burke’s stories of sexual and emotional abuse requires a degree of mental fortitude that I struggled to muster. Burke is not simply sharing the details of her life, but also inviting the reader to feel just a shred of what she felt in those moments and after, as she processed them. The most poignant description comes during Burke’s childhood after she had been raped a second time. She was washing dishes one day and lifted the dishrag to her mouth to taste the soap in a thoughtless moment. Her mother caught her and berated her asking, “Is that what you are? A dirty, nasty, used-up dishrag?” That is exactly what Burke thought she truly was.
To be invited into a lived experience in such a vivid and visceral way is to surrender up a piece of yourself, of your peace of mind, in exchange for understanding this woman and the movement she created. There are some books that you can’t put down because they’re so appealing; with Unbound, you must put it down frequently to remind yourself to breathe.
Unbound is written specifically for survivors and young Black women who, like Burke, have been disbelieved, discarded, and left behind in the various movements meant to include all women and survivors. It is for the unloved and those still suffering in silence who need to know that there is something on the other side of hurt. The only person who can accurately sum it up is Burke herself, who closes the book by writing:
“I am the woman who organized and fought and taught, the woman who despite all odds and in the face of trauma, kept traveling until she found her healing and her worth. I am her. She is me. And we are free.”