Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!

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