Why Tarana Burke Brought Brené Brown Into a Project Examining the Black Experience

Activist Tarana Burke and scholar Brené Brown co-edited a book of essays about the black experience. In conversation with Burke, contributing writer Austin Channing Brown shares why the project was so meaningful to her.

Tarana Burke x Austin Channing Brown
Tarana Burke/Austin Channing Brown. Photo: courtesy Tarana Burke/courtesy Austin Channing Brown

Usually when Tarana Burke calls up her friend Brené Brown, the talk revolves around things like wallpaper and landscaping. "They're not these solemn conversations about shame and vulnerability," says Burke about Brown's known areas of expertise. But last summer, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the endless pain that followed, Burke wanted to figure out how best to apply Brown's insights to the Black community. She wanted to tap into Brown's perspective as a vulnerability expert to create a safe, nonjudgmental space where Black authors and artists could write openly about their lives and fully showcase their humanity.

That necessitated a different kind of discussion between Burke and Brown, one that addressed concerns that they didn't even realize they had with each other. (For Burke, it was hard to relate to some of Brown's works since they were presented through the white lens; for Brown it was about how best to serve as a co-editor of a book about the Black experience as a white woman.)

Fortunately, their partnership as friends and co-editors yielded an exceptional and revealing book of essays: You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience and the Black Experience, out on April 27. The compilation includes 13 original pieces by a diverse range of authors including Burke and her child, nonbinary activist Kaia Naadira, as well as Laverne Cox, poet Sonya Renee Taylor, activist Austin Channing Brown, and more.

In the following Q&A, Burke and Channing Brown discuss the genesis of the project, how everyone can do their part to uplift Black people, and why anti-racism work is so much more than just a trend.

Tarana Burke: Austin, it's nice to talk to you. I can't believe this is our first time meeting. Brené [Brown] and I got this idea [for You Are Your Best Thing], and it was like, "OK, who do we want?" And your name came up immediately.

Austin Channing Brown: I'm so excited. When Brené says, "Do you want to…?" the answer is yes. You don't even need to hear the rest. And when I found out you were involved, I was like, "I don't know how I got on this list, but you'd better believe I'm not crossing my name off." [laughs]

TB: I've loved Brené for a long time. When we met, we became instant friends. She talks about how she kissed me and felt bad about it. Afterward she said to her sister, "I just kissed the lady whose life revolves around consent. I didn't ask any permission."

ACB: OK! [laughs]

TB: One of the things that she touches upon in her work, which you reference in your essay, is this idea of "foreboding joy" — that joy won't last, and how racism affects it all. You write about it in the context of having a sweet moment with your toddler son, but then you can't help but think of Trayvon Martin.

ACB: I didn't want to write an essay that was going to be in a book about vulnerability without actually being vulnerable. That little boy wears me out. He is so physical, and he loves to wrestle. Even when he gives kisses, they're hard. My baby is rough all right, but I also see when he's shy, scared, or sad. I see all these other sides of him, and I am so aware that there will come a day when my son will not have a whole personality to people. He will just be that Black man walking down the street, and that could happen to him at 10. As much as I want to be able to say nothing will ever happen to him, I can't. If my worst fear comes true, will joy remain? And does that fear mean I can't delight in kisses that hurt? You know, the hardest part about Trayvon Martin for me was that it wasn't a police officer [who killed him]. It was just some random guy on the street. I still don't know where to put that.

TB: Yeah.

ACB: Dealing with that is a part of the tradition of who we are. We have also decided as a community, as a culture, that you can take a lot of physical things from us, but what you cannot take is our joy. I worked really hard to try to convey all of that in one essay and make you proud.

TB: It was beautiful, and I was very proud. This project came about because after George Floyd was murdered and we had all the uprisings, the question was: How are we having these discussions? Brené has these tools that she had written and spoken about that address shame and vulnerability. I thought they would be useful, but it's hard to introduce them into a conversation with Black people without having to talk about what vulnerability actually means for us. Also, her perspective [as a white woman] is not one that I can immediately connect to, but as soon as I expressed that, she understood. It had been something she was grappling with already.

ACB: I felt the same thing with Brené's work. When I read her book The Gifts of Imperfection, I was like, "Has this woman been following me?" [laughs] At that point in my life, I was in my early 20s and becoming an adult. She had a chapter in there about being playful and not having to be serious all the time. It resonated so deeply with me. Then my next thought was, "Where the hell am I going to be playful? What workplace is that happening in? In what public space am I going to be goofy and not have some repercussions come as a result?"

TB: Right. I may not see myself in them, but I saw how valuable these tools would be if applied to our community. That's why I trusted Brené with this project. But a few weeks into it, she sent me a message: "Do you really want me to do this? I'm not trying to back out. I will support you 100 percent. I just don't want to center myself." And here's the thing: I'm an expert in Black.

ACB: Hello, Ph.D., yes.

TB: I have a Ph.D. in Blackology, and she has a Ph.D. in all the rest. And I was like, "You and I are showing this work to the world. We are not writing the essays. We are curating writers to talk about the Black experience. She was definitely afraid of the backlash of, "Why is this white woman talking about or presenting the Black experience?" But she's not. It's from an authority on the topic.

ACB: The goal is that everybody who cares about Black people has a role. It's important to remember what that role is, to make sure that it's the right fit, and to be thoughtful about it. But it's not that white people should never have anything to do with uplifting the beauty of Blackness.

You Are Your Best Thing bookcover
courtesy Random House

TB: Not at all. And, quite frankly, we could do this book about the Asian experience, the Latinx experience, the disabled experience, the trans experience. You can mix it 100 different ways. We tried to bring a lot of identities into the book for that reason.

ACB: What I know for sure is that you love your community, you love Black women, you love yourself, and you don't do anything without thinking it all the way through. And it matters to me where I put my name. I want to be a part of the legacy. I want to be a part of the group of people who make it better. Being Black is already amazing, but how Black folks get treated is horrendous. If I can do anything to mitigate what is horrendous, then I want to be a part of that.

TB: This book is an offering to the Black community. It's a snapshot of who we are underneath all of this other stuff. Our fears, our worries, our joy even. I learned a lot about Black people by reading it. We don't all know each other; we don't all have the same experiences. I also wanted people to engage with Black humanity. I think it is the precursor to anti-racism work. Look it in the face and be uncomfortable, but engage. I hope people get that.

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience and the Black Experience (Random House) is out April 27.

For more stories like this, pick up the May 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Apr. 16th.

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