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Tarana Burke on the Birth of #MeToo, Letting Black Girls ‘Just Be,’ and Leaning on Her Faith

We know that in the United States, that one in five women has experienced an attempted or actual rape, and that’s probably an underestimate. More have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes, but many don’t ever talk about it and may couch it in terms like “misunderstanding,” “something weird that happened” or a “bad night.” Why was the word “rape” hard to say for you?

Once you say the word, all of the things that come with it become real. There’s something about it that says the shame is mine, there’s something about it that says I’m one of Them. Obviously, I’m in a completely different place now. But I remember that feeling, even hearing other people say it and wanting to say, “Don’t say that.”

Where do you see yourself in the scope of history? There will be a time when the #MeToo hashtag and movement may not feel so present.

I love the study of [social justice] movement, and I see movement as a continuum. One of the saddest things to me in this moment is that people have broken up the continuum. I grew up as an organizer, and a lot of young people know about the ’60s kind of abstractly because they learned a little bit in school. They know Dr. King or Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, these big, looming names. I’ve heard more than my fair share of young people talk about the ’60s and then talk about Ferguson and skip over the rich history that happened in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I was very much informed by [organizing in those times]. And I see myself building on the work of Rosa Parks as an anti-rape activist [who, a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott, led an NAACP investigation about the sexual assault of Recy Taylor, a young Black woman gang-raped by white men in Abbeville, Alabama].

I have to ask you a somewhat silly question: What’s your superpower?

My superpower is being rational.

So how does that work when dealing with a public that doesn’t believe things that are actually indisputable? I don’t necessarily think of rationality when I think of the American public.

When things happen and people are frantic, my mind immediately goes to: “Does this make sense? This doesn’t make sense. We need to calm down, y’all, because this probably is not what’s happening. What you think has happened is probably not happening.” And people get irritated. But I’m a Virgo.

I knew bits and pieces of your story, but I was intrigued by your youthful flirtation with Catholicism. And then there are the points in the book where you talk about hearing a voice or having a conviction that is in your head, but it’s not originating totally in you. That voice tells you to do things, that you’re going to leave Selma, for example.

Did you pause and think twice about adding those things to the book? In our society, many people are discouraged from hearing those voices—or talking about hearing them. I don’t hear a lot of talk about faith and spirituality in #MeToo.

Yeah. I gave a lot of pause to that because there’s just so much judgment about religion, spirituality, and about Christianity, quite frankly. I don’t speak openly about my faith mostly because we’re up and down, most people, personally [in relationship to organized religion]. I’m like, “Oh, I haven’t been in church in forever.”

But the truth of the matter is when I sat down to write my story, it was so much God in it. And there was so much that was led by my faith that I could not leave it out. Sometimes in movement spaces, there’s a lot of judgment about being Christian. There’s so many people on the Right who use Christianity to justify their hatred and bigotry. That’s not the God I serve, and that’s not the way I think about being Christian. It’s funny you brought that up. Nobody’s asked me that question at all.

God has made us big enough that we can take in joy and we can take in pain. We can manage both of those things and not let one overwhelm the other. And, in fact, they sort of mitigate each other, right? I’ve had enough joy in my life that it serves as a resource for me when I have pain in my life. I have evidence that it’s not always going to be that way because I remember the joy.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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