Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and community organizer spoke to a rapt audience May 2 about her lived experience before, during and after her founding the Me Too Movement.
Burke credits her understanding of race to her grandfather, a devout Garveyite and proud believer of instilling racial pride in his family. On Saturdays as a child, she and her grandfather would drive around listening to John Henrik Clarke lectures on tape. At her confirmation, her grandfather gave her They Came Before Columbus. Meanwhile, Burke’s feminist mother showered her with the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou.
Burke, like many others, is a victim of sexual assault. But she prefers the word survivor.
In my heart, the only thing I wanted to say was, ‘this happened to me too.’
Reading Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings opened Burke’s eyes to the possibility that victims of sexual assault could move forward. She felt especially empowered listening to Angelou’s recorded reading of Phenomenal Woman in high school.
“I felt like there were two of us. I was no longer an anomaly,” Burke said. “I know you’re carrying the same kind of trauma I’m carrying. How did you get there?” she asked Angelou. She soon learned of herself and others, “this body that is holding pain is also holding joy.”
Although Burke’s grandfather taught her how to recognize injustice, she admits, “he didn’t give me anything to do about it.” She further discovered the absence of adequate tools when a young camper shared a personal experience of sexual assault and Burke did not know how to help.
“In my heart, the only thing I wanted to say was, ‘this happened to me too.’”
Having promised to herself as a teenager that she would work in service to the community, Burke became a community organizer. Her activism eventually led her to begin the Me Too Movement, which focused on giving black women and girls the opportunity to heal.
Though Burke founded the movement in 2006, it went viral on social media in 2017 as #MeToo. In a 24-hour time period, 15 million users engaged on social media, 12 million of whom used Twitter. When asked if she is surprised that the hashtag went viral her answer is always the same: “I’m not surprised. I’m surprised that we’re still talking about it.”
Although Burke’s movement has surfaced on a national and international scale, she still searches for a cultural shift. She encourages students on campus to continue fighting for a space where there is respect, accountability, and prevention.
“You deserve safety and you deserve protection. If you’re not in the center of change, put yourself there.”
Burke spoke in The C. Christine Johnson Voices of Color Lecture Series, which aims to increase the community’s understanding of each other by recognizing the contributions of oppressed people. The Voices of Color series is named for Chris Johnson, Hamilton’s first Opportunity Programs director, for her 30 years of commitment to helping Hamilton students of color.