Harvard Educational Review
  1. You Are Your Best Thing

    Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience Edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown

    Edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown

    New York: Random House, 2021. 226 pp. $17 (cloth).

    Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) warned that the danger of a single story is that it strips people of their humanity and reduces them to stereotypes. Headlines during the ongoing global health and racial pandemics have described disproportionately high rates of illness and death in Black communities. The hyperconnected world frequently broadcasts these stories on a loop, yet a deep well of untold Black experience narratives also exists, and they deserve to be shared widely. Our present times demand that we go beyond the highlight reel to understand people not through their statistics but through their stories. “What do you do when you are all too aware that Blackness makes you uniquely vulnerable in this world?” probes Austin Channing Brown (18). 

    You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience is a collection of essays edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, two friends whose areas of expertise intersect to illuminate the criticality of truth telling. Burke, a lifelong activist who coined the phrase “Me Too,” is known for her advocacy and leadership within a worldwide movement that exists in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and assault. Brown is a renowned researcher who has spent decades sharing insights into her studies on shame, vulnerability, and courage. You Are Your Best Thing derives its title from a scene in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved where the main character is assured that despite her harrowing past, she is her own gift to her brighter future. The collection pulls together contributors who are eager to expose their truth and tension in navigating America in Black skin and thereby creates a space to prompt readers to reflect on their own fight for self-love. 

    The editors introduce the volume with a collaborative origin story that models their intent to create something that is unapologetically intimate. Burke describes her experience as a Black woman frustrated with consuming overwhelming images of Black pain during the height of 2020’s social justice unrest. Self-doubt enters, and she hesitates to pitch her idea to elevate stories of Black humanity and disrupt the single-story narrative. Meanwhile, Brown grapples with feedback from Black audiences that her research feels inaccessible, which she attributes to her tendency to share examples through her lens as a white woman. The editors lead with their own vulnerabilities and together invite readers to explore their own interior worlds where shame resides.
    Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (44). One theme that flows through the essays is that shame is at the root of humanity’s suffering, and if unchecked it can grow wild enough to stifle risk-taking and infect relationships and will span decades. Another theme names the antidote to shame as self-love and compassion; belief in one’s inherent value requires exposing and confronting painful, private fears. Engaging with examples that reflect familiar cultural experiences is critical for communities of people who have not historically been afforded the ability to equate emotional or physical vulnerability with safety. The power and pull of You Are Your Best Thing lies in the simple truth that bearing witness to others’ stories of shame and resilience emboldens each of us to address our own. 

    The coeditors are very clear that this book is aimed at a Black audience who, like Burke, want to explore the multidimensionality that belies a projected collective Black experience. They elevate distinct stories from Black writers, organizers, academics, and cultural figures that complement and overlap with each other to honor Burke’s vision to “give our humanity breathing room” (xxi). Burke offers a challenge for readers to peel back the veneer of solidarity and enter into a space of activation when she writes, “I do not believe in your antiracist work if you have not engaged in Black humanity” (xviii). Those who profess to being aspiring antiracists or to work in allyship with Black communities, including education professionals grounded in the pursuit of equity, would greatly benefit from this book because it serves as a reminder that every person has deeply personal, untold stories that deserve and demand to be heard. 

    The twenty autobiographical essays evoke a confessional experience through their detailed anecdotes. They cover topics like the trauma of assault, depths of grief, negative self-talk stemming from feeling unloved, and consequence of being silenced by authority. The authors share unflinchingly honest accounts of how they navigate universal experiences while Black. Prentis Hemphill calls for brutal truth when she writes that it is time for all of us to finally acknowledge and address the existence of Black pain and trauma (47). Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts asks, “What does one do when the shame is wrapped in love?” as she describes the thread of protection in the knowing looks and hushed conversation from mothers who teach Black church girls to restrain their sexuality, repress their emotional pain, and save their tears for worship (37). Yolo Akili Robinson shares how hiding and lying are adopted as survival tactics of Black queer trans men who are taught early and often that their patterns of loving are not what their loved ones want (161). Multiple authors describe a daily ritual of donning “armor” to contain their true emotions, project an air of respectability, and dream of a societal reward in the form of psychosocial safety. They expose hypervigilance and lack of trust as generational self-protective measures that double as barriers to emotional connection. Through stories, these authors spotlight how the cultural obsession with survival and resiliency impedes the trajectory toward thriving and abundance. Each essay shows that a commitment to vulnerability requires a determination to unearth mistakes and the courage to fully display them for learning. 

    While ample space is given to acknowledging trauma, these stories are ultimately about hope and becoming. According to Brown, while no one wants to share their insecurities, talking about shame is the only way to diminish its power, because once you know that you’re not alone, shame loses its leverage. In one of the final essays, Aiko D. Bethea outlines practical tools of shame resilience. Some of the suggestions include tapping into one’s spirituality and purpose, intentionally forming community and connection, and learning the language of shame and white supremacy from social justice scholars. All of the authors in the volume provide gentle encouragement—love offerings—for readers to share stories, practice empathy, and deconstruct shame-inducing beliefs as essential steps toward healing. 

    You Are Your Best Thing gives credence to the data of lived experience. The well-curated stories detail the challenges and joys faced by these Black authors as they have confronted shame and its intersection with their identities as women, men, queer, disabled, immigrant, multiracial, and more. The beauty of these different narratives lies in how each author describes how they worked to free themselves from the shackles of shame. The cumulative effect is a diverse set of people insisting that the work of (un)learning and healing centers on the ability to see oneself as worthy. Educators will recognize that we need these narratives to counteract the danger of single-story statistics about Black children that permeate school at every level. Charts that document comparatively low academic rates and high discipline numbers are abundant, yet the field needs more models of love as an antidote. After gifting us multiple, dynamic narratives that do just this, Burke and Brown prime educators who work with Black youth and adults to reflect learning back into their own acts of courage, advocacy, and love. This is not a book to rush through; it’s a book to feel through. In a world where Blackness equates to vulnerability, giving in to feeling more opens us all to appreciate the fullness of Black humanity.

    mekka a. smith

    Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). The danger of a single story. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
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