You may identify Tarana Burke as the thick Black woman with blooming lips, full nose and cornrows who—in 2017—was exalted by Black women from the streets of Twitter to reclaim her rightful post as founder of the ‘me too.’ Movement. The movement, which became integral to influencing a collective shift in the ways people navigate rape, sexual assault and violence, often to the detriment of Black women and girls. You probably point her out as the braveheart whose work is rooted in protecting and supporting, and creating safe space for survivors of sexual trauma, even as it places her in a long line of fire and fierce critique. Some of you may have even pegged her to be a rebel rouser, a disrupter, a disturber of the peace—a loud mouth who won’t let boys be boys, who won’t let shit just be—and you’re probably right because when it comes to advocating for the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized demographic, Tarana Burke is uncompromising as f-ck.
She created the revolutionary ‘me too.’ Movement, which has defied the hashtag that makes it static—opposed to the game changer it is. ‘me too.’ has evolved from its foundational roots, Tarana said, “into an organization that addresses the needs of human beings.” It involves the work of a “diversity of people and identities,” who continue the mission of “healing and action” while moving the dial forward, she added.
While all these associations are true and might even have you believing that you know a little something about the activist and author, don’t let her public service confuse you with familiarity. We tend to claim our martyrs as our own, particularly Black women, and while we place them on pedestals we only allow them to take up space in our minds in 2D. Be clear, our beloved ‘me too.’ mobilizer is quite multidimensional, proving we don’t know Tarana Janeen Burke at all—but it’s about time we do.
Tarana released her memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, in September — filling a void on bookshelves and libraries with a text that uncovers the struggles of Black women and Black girls who’ve also uttered the words, ‘me too.’ In the pages, she tells the shared narrative of rape, sexual assault and violence that far too many Black girls have experienced in their childhood.
Tarana spent years traversing the world as someone “ugly”—in her own words—because that’s what the world has shown her, that to exist in her own skin was offensive, corrupt, null and void. It is hard reality to digest for an observer, so what does that even mean for someone who lives it?
“I don’t walk through the world surrounded by people who love me,” Tarana told me. “I don’t walk through the world surrounded by people who affirm me. I have been less affirmed than I have been affirmed. And what’s been most affirmed since I was a little girl is that I’m ugly. That I’m not attractive. That I’m not worthy.”
This rejection of one’s self is both the connective tissue and gateway to abuse. The first few pages of Unbound expound on this idea fully but it also flips the conversation on beauty—or rather a lack thereof—on its head, as Tarana viscerally describes how her 10-year-old, teenage and adult self navigates the stinging reality of people’s vitriol. By doing so, she raises a literary mirror and forces society to confront its own ugliness and its audacity to snatch the innocence and softness from a child, leaving her disillusioned, hardened and guarded. I was curious how she was able to endure and eventually externalize such negative self reflection.
“What helped me more in the last four years is watching people grasp at straws to find ways to cover up their own stuff by attacking me,” she shared. “Unkindness is the easiest weapon for us to access. People have to find a weapon to defend themselves against this thing that’s coming, this righteous because it’s too much. People go to unkindness immediately.”
That unkindness toward Tarana pushed her from the home where she was settled into a high security apartment building in Harlem, a place she never got a chance to call home. Randoms and ‘me too.’ detractors had discovered where she and her family rested their heads, leaving packages, threats and a lingering sense of uncertainty even with her husband beside her.
Yes, Tarana is deeply in love—and she loves Black men despite the man-hating propaganda that follows her. The accusation that she deliberately hunts the heads of Black men is just not true. Her encounters with violent masculinity have not eclipsed the healthy relationships she’s had with men. She spoke proud and affectionately about her stepdad Mr. Wes, her brother, uncles, cousins, friends—and, now, her husband.
“I’ve known mostly good Black men in my life,” Tarana said. And every ain’t sh-t dude she’s had in her life can be “negated with the village of men” who were role models, have supported her and even helped with raising her child. Tarana’s partner is in that village. They’ve known each other for a solid 30 years. He is her protector. He is her soulmate. He is Sincere. I can tell by how her voice drops to a lower octave when she mentions his name along with his sensibilities.
Tarana adores her soon-to-be 24-year-old named Kaia. Motherhood has brought Tarana overwhelming delight, so much so, she gushes when the topic is brought up in discussion. She struggles to identify her favorite stage of mothering.
“Young Kia” she says “was a joy,” but she also gets a kick out of their adult relationship as Kaia reminds her of herself: smart, witty, sarcastic.
“Kaia is my whole heart. This lil’ person is so like me in demeanor that it takes me off guard sometimes … it’s humbling … I’m just trying to let an adult be an adult,” she chuckles.
While a sense of security has always existed among Tarana and her loved ones, the same couldn’t be said about her place of residence. At the top of 2020, Coronavirus ran through New York, claiming thousands of lives and infiltrated her household. Her husband contracted COVID-19.
“He got really sick,” Tarana said. “The walls started to close in around us and everything just got really small, really fast.” She began to ruminate on things she didn’t own in abundance: space, a backyard, peace, safety, rest. It wasn’t long before she left the bricks and found her sanctuary in the sticks. She had the desire but her motivation needed a push from a dear friend and a leap of faith because old feelings of unworthiness were at play.
“I struggled with that a little bit,” Tarana recalled. I never owned a house. It was a huge step. I thought it was too much. Then, I was like ‘yeah, I deserve it. Why not?’
The sunlight and warmth of her home are elements that hug Tarana. The light and quietness is nothing to sneeze at—neither is the “comfy-chic” aesthetic and design of her home. Not one to cut corners on her taste, she took her time and outfitted each room with the furniture and swank she wanted while maintaining usefulness.
“I created spaces that look good but also feel good, and are comfy and utilitarian.”
Tarana enjoys the softness and spoils of watching her hubby relax in their soaking tub while listening to music after a day of cutting grass, gardening, tending to houseplants, locking the house down and taking pride in the home, where they said “I do,” in late December, surrounded by family. When I asked her to describe the sensation that runs through her body she said, “It’s love. It has brought us even closer. This is where we’ll settle and spend the rest of our lives together.”
Along with finding each other, they have found peace, comfort, safety, rest. Together, they are survivors.
These days, hubby prepares the meals, but Tarana knows how to get busy in the kitchen. She’s mastered the art of smothering turkey wings and cooking collard greens. The pair is her best dish, but peach cobbler is her culinary encore. As she shares the ingredients of her prized desert, I become distracted by her jewelry. Silver bangles ride up and down Tarana’s right arm. The clinking sound they make as they stack on top of one another are all too familiar. It’s a throwback to a Black childhood where the mamas and aunties were a particular type of fly. Their drip included bell-bottom gabardines, fitted leather blazers, flowing dusters, afros, applejacks—those silver bangles.
Tarana, too, is a bona fide fly girl. In fact, She Slays. She’s the girl who you peep dressed in the airport; the one who throws on an outfit to run to the laundromat and the supermarket; the one who has a wardrobe closet so full it doesn’t close. When chilling around her home she wears an opulent housecoat made of silk. Her house dresses are custom made by Onion.
“I love shopping,” Tarana blushed.
She considered becoming a fashion editor at one point, but activism was a stronger calling. Hence, her iconic movement status. And as we recognize the four-year anniversary of the viral #MeToo moment which catapulted the powerful ‘me too.’ Movement which long predates it into the spotlight, we also know, unequivocally, the physical and emotional sacrifices Tarana has made as its founder. It’s clear who she is to the public eye, to the masses. I was interested in whether she finally knows the gravity of her being, if she knows who the f-ck she is. When I asked—the good Sis answered:
“I know who the f-ck I want to be. I hope that I’m showing up the way I want to be. I hope that when people see me they see somebody that loves Black people, who rides for Black women, who is just who the f-ck I am, someone who is thorough and keeps a hundred and is doing their best.”
More From Our October Special Issue: