The first time Tarana Burke presented a wellness program for middle school girls in Selma, Alabama, in 2005, she distributed sticky notes to each child. Then she asked the girls to write one of two thoughts: things they learned from that day’s session or “me too,” indicating that they had experienced sexual violence.
“Me and my home girl went back to our room, dumped the sticky notes, and there were all these ‘me toos.’ Seventy-five percent of these girls wrote ‘me too.’ We just cried. We were ill-equipped,” Burke told Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, at a recent event at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts,
Those were the early days of the original me too movement—and a dozen years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase in response to a friend’s Facebook post suggesting that women who’d experienced sexual abuse or harassment post the words to show the magnitude of the problem.
When Burke discovered how rampant sexual assault was among middle school Black girls in Selma, she struggled to figure out how to respond, even though she’d been working in community organizing for nearly a decade at the time.
“Then I realized what had helped me,” Burke told Cohen during the conversation in March. “The women who wrapped their arms around me, literally and figuratively, and just improvised, just showed me deep amounts of grace and empathy, made me feel so safe and made me feel like I was OK, like I was a person, like what happened to me mattered.”
Burke has become a prominent activist for racial, economic and gender equality. Her acclaimed memoir, “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement” (2021 Flatiron Books), in which she recounts her personal story of sexual assault, is a New York Times bestseller.
Finding her way
Burke and Cohen covered an array of issues related to the topic of sexual violence—from Burke’s own experience to Milano’s co-opting of me too, from the importance of discussing sexual violence in the Black community to a more productive way to fight.
“I did not identify as a survivor,” Burke said of her sexual assault, which occurred when she was 7 and from ages 9-12. “For all those years as a child, I felt complicit in my abuse. The men who molested me, in my mind, were not wrong or bad. I was a bad girl who had done a bad thing.”
To compensate, Burke tried to be “the perfect little girl” for many years. She ran track, was on the school honor roll, participated on the debate team. She regularly attended confession at her Catholic school, fabricating modest sins because of her shame, then doubling the penance the priest recommended.
When she got to high school, “my religion became Black power,” she told Cohen. “I just decided to embrace anger as a new form of power.”