Cyntoia Brown: 15 Years On – Free At Last?

In 2006, Cyntoia Brown was convicted of shooting and killing Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had “bought her for sex” for $150. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison.

Earlier this month, Governor Haslam granted her clemency as one of his final acts in office. She has survived 15 years of her sentence already but will now be released to parole supervision in August this year.

Cyntoia Brown has received a lot of media attention due to the specifics of her case. She was only 16-years-old when sentenced yet she was tried as an adult. She argued against her sentence by citing a 2012 ruling which stated that to give a child a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional.

The case raised an enormous number of questions and issues – why was a young girl so scared for her life that she shot a man dead? Why was she tried as an adult when she was only 16? And most uncomfortable of all – would this sort of sentencing have happened to a 16-year-old white girl?

There is no point hiding from these questions anymore. Silence on these horrific issues allows for them to continue.

It could be argued that the high profile celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Ashely Judd who shared messages of support for Cyntoia Brown on social media brought her case into the public eye. Of course, this did help, but in reality there has been a huge amount of grassroots support and momentum – raised predominantly by women of colour.

Democrat Stacey Abrams tweeted: “Justice has finally been served … This victory belongs to Cyntoia Brown & to the Tennessee human trafficking activists, especially Black women, who refused to concede to injustice & instead organized to create change.”

Although this change took 15 years to push through, cases like Brown’s show the influence the general public can have when they refuse to be silent on an issue.

But what happens when people do stay silent on an uncomfortable issue, such as race? Black women and girls are not being kept safe, and not only that, their voices are not valued as highly as their white counterparts’.

To put this into perspective, the docuseries ‘Surviving R Kelly’ aired in the US this month, documenting the life and alleged abuses of the global megastar. (Another documentary, ‘R Kelly: Sexy, Girls & Videotapes’, was broadcast in the UK in 2018).

Why have this man’s actions been allowed to continue for so long? Is it merely because of his money and influence, or it is because his victims have all been young black women? Had R. Kelly been abusing and violating young white women, would this have been allowed to go on for so long, with the same ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude?

It’s vital, although massively depressing, to remember that Cyntoia’s story is not unique. Since 2007, a national hotline for sex trafficking operated by Polaris has received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.

The Washington Post describes research showing that “black girls accused of crimes find less leniency in the criminal justice system.” A study by Georgetown University found that prosecutors dismissed an average of three out of every 10 cases involving black girls, but seven of 10 cases involving white girls. 

Now a 30-year-old woman, Cyntoia Brown is still not ‘free’. She won’t be able to vote, or apply for many jobs. She will be on parole for the next 10 years, and she will have to live with the horrors of what has happened to her.

But, she is one module away from completing a bachelor’s degree, and plans to set up an organisation to help stop other young girls ending up in her situation. Essentially, Cyntoia Brown is freeing herself, and hopefully she will feel some of the love that is pouring her way from all over the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cyontia Brown’s case, there is a documentary called ‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’. If you want write to Cyntoia, you can send letters to “Miss Cyntoia Brown #410593, Tennessee Prison for Women, Unit 1 West, D- 49, 3881 Stewarts Lane Nashville, TN 37218.

Nia Wilson: Say Her Name

On Sunday 22 July, an 18-year-old woman was fatally stabbed on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station platform in Oakland, California.

Her name was Nia Wilson. 

The following day, John Cowell (27) was arrested for the attack, which killed Nia and seriously wounded her sister, Latifah. He has been charged with murder and attempted murder.

Credit: Nichelle Stephens

In the days since, thousands of people have gathered to mourn Nia’s death and honour her life, and tens of thousands of social media posts tagged #NiaWilson, #JusticeForNia and #SayHerName have swept the internet.

Although the BART Police Chief has reportedly said that there is currently no evidence to suggest that Cowell is part of any terrorist or white supremacist group, Nia’s murder – along with the subsequent police and media response – have reignited national and international debates on race.

Celebrities, artists and all those horrified by the brutal, unprovoked murder of a young woman have been speaking out against the racism, white supremacy and misogyny that – as writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted“is so deeply embedded within our culture that we marinate in it at every level.”

In the past, when #SayHerName has been used to shine a light on murders of black women, I am ashamed to say that I have stayed silent. I’ve worried that it was not my time to speak, not my space to occupy – worried that I’d say the wrong thing. But I see now that those worries are privileges in themselves, and that the choice to remain silent is one that many women do not share with me when violence and fear remain threads woven tightly through the fabric of their daily lives.

As a white young woman, I cannot call myself a feminist if I don’t express the sorrow and disgust I feel about what happened to Nia with the same outrage, and at the same volume, as I would if a white 18-year-old was murdered where I live. Feminism that is not intersectional is irrelevant, and in this instance, silence is compliance.

What can I do? What can you do?

Firstly, you can donate to the Wilson family’s ‘Justice for Nia’ page. Then…

– Ask yourself what you are doing to disrupt systemic racism, answer honestly.

– Challenge yourself to acknowledge the ways you have personally benefited, and will continue to benefit in the future, from that racism.

– Think about how, as a white person, you can use your words and actions and networks and finances to help make the world a safer place for black people.

– Call out people around you who demonstrate hateful or oppressive behaviour. Stop ignoring racist comments or laughing at racist jokes.

– Read and learn and be willing to change. Listen to people when they tell you about their experiences, while remembering that asking black people to explain racism, or for guidance on how you can help, is asking those already doing the majority of the emotional work to dismantle white supremacy to work even harder and carry an even heavier burden. Do your own work, challenge yourself and those around you.

– Notice when the media uses language to vilify black people, or to excuse white people.

– Educate yourself on the intricacies of white supremacy. Admit to yourself if you find it uncomfortable and difficult then carry on anyway.

– Remember that good intentions are not enough.

We have to do better. We have to stand with black women. Please share any other suggestions you have! None of us are free until all of us are free. 

Nia was 18. She deserved a full and long and safe and joyful life. Say her name.

Raising Black Girls: an interview with Vanessa Stair

New York native Vanessa Stair’s experience as a woman of color, raising a child of color, in a non-traditional family is one not documented in the largely white, heterosexual context of the mommy blogger sphere. So she created her own space – www.ChocoLACTmilk.com is a testimony to the roses and thorns of colored parenting, being a feminist mother of a young girl, and raising our girls right.

Grace Wong: What inspired you to start chocoLACTmilk?

Vanessa Stair: My senior year I was pregnant with Peyton and wrote my senior thesis on breastfeeding in the black community. Since I was invested in the topic and was myself breastfeeding Peyton, I started inviting a small group of moms to come over once or twice a month to talk about their experiences of being black and breastfeeding. It naturally evolved to talking about other issues: how we felt as moms, some of us young mothers, our blackness, how we navigated our race and care for our children.

Life got in the way and some moms went back to work or moved, but I really held onto that space where women of color could talk about the intersectionality of being a mother of color to a child of color, and creating a space where we can talk about issues that uniquely affect us.

GW: You just mentioned that mothers of color face unique issues, what are some of the most challenging aspects of colored parenting?

VS:  I want to be unapologetic in my parenting. I want to live true to myself. But certain times navigating that space and respecting that can be very, very hard. I want Peyton to be a carefree black girl: do the things she wants, act the way she wants, and find her own voice, but often I find myself hesitant to do certain things because of the perceptions around children of color.

There are different life lessons that come with being a girl of color. I have to be very intentional about the kind of things I bring into her space so she sees positive representations of herself in various forms – not always the civil rights leader but a superhero or an astronaut. 

GW: You have been able to convey quite complex lessons like consent to Peyton. I feel like my peers, and even those older than me, don’t understand all of the nuances of consent. How have you been able to teach that to a five-year-old?

VS: To a three- or four-year-old consent can be taught very simply: no means no. When you say no I don’t currently want to be touched, that means no.

What has been more difficult for my partner and I is navigating Peyton’s ownership over her own body while also having the task of keeping her safe. For example, one thing we struggle with is crossing the street. Sometimes she does not want to hold our hand, and we have to say to her, “I understand that, but in this instance because there is a safety concern we need to hold your hand, and when we finish crossing the street and you don’t want to hold my hand anymore that is fine.”

As a four-year-old, Peyton has more awareness of her body than most kids and great at saying no to people. Peyton has an afro, and a lot of times people just want to touch it, and for us we say, every part of your body is your own – that includes your hair, your shoulders, your fingers – that is your body and the moment you feel uncomfortable you have right to say “no thank you.

Recently, we are walking down the street and this older woman puts her hand on Peyton’s hair and I am just about to go off at her and Peyton just goes, “Do not touch my hair” and the woman goes “Oh but I just wanted touch it,” and Peyton replies, “You wouldn’t touch my vagina, so don’t touch my hair.” This woman was mortified, but for me I was proud that Peyton recognized that every part of her body she has ownership. I think another part of the struggle is that it applies to everyone.

What is your hope for the chocoLACTmilk?

VS: Reaching a larger audience and creating a space where I can cathartically journal my experiences and create an outlet for other parents, with similar experiences, to have a dialogue. The dialogue is already out there so it is about harnessing that and bringing it to another, larger space, and creating community and support.

We need to talk about Black Women NOW

Precilla* was raped by her cousin when she was nine and later by an uncle. She never spoke about it. Why? Her father and other men in her family were always talking about protecting her. But instead of protecting her, they were raping her. Confused, she chose to remain silent. The reality for many black women is silence and the reasons why they choose this are complex.

For many black women silence means survival.

As Feminista Jones says, the bodies of black women have been used for labour and exploited to serve the needs of others while our needs are swept under the carpet. We are ‘othered’ – taught to be silent about the problems we face, reminded that racism is the bigger issue, not sexism or violence. Black girls are taught that you do not talk about problems. As a black woman, you deal with it. Loyalty to the “community” reigns supreme, even when the community (brothers, fathers and sons) are often responsible for violence and abuse.  As a result, many women and girls remain silent about injustice that occurs.  We do not trust the police; after all, our fathers and sons have been terrorized by the state. The police also rape and abuse us too – why should we trust them? If you dare to speak out, you are selfish. The community posits that we are making them look bad in front of white people.

Black women’s experiences of violence are a different ball game altogether. I am not saying that the experiences of white women do not matter, but we must recognize other discriminations can affect your experiences. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the theory of “intersectionality” in 1986 which can be explained as how the different types of discrimination interact.

It is not black lives that matter, but black boys.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states 1.3 million American women experience domestic or intimate partner violence every year.  However black women are almost three times more likely to die as a result of domestic or intimate partner violence. Black women only make up 8% of America’s population, yet 22% of all the homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to them. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death for black women aged 15 to 35. 60% of black girls will be victims of sexual assault by the time they are 18. The average life expectancy for a black transgender woman is 35 years. When a white woman experiences street harassment, it rarely leads to death. Black women are being killed, increasingly, when they do not pay attention to street harassment.

In the United States, our silence on this issue contributes to the further abuse and suffering of women. We often ignore the median wage for black women in America is $602 for those in full time employment compared to $738 for white women. And black women, especially mothers, are forced to stay in bad relationships where financial needs are imperative. In a society where manhood is defined by your ability to provide for your family, when black men fail in employment, they assert their power in the household with the women taking the blows. Take one second to think about how many women of colour have died – and realize that we do not even have enough accurate data or research. The invisibility of black women has carried on for too long. We have been ignored, told to shut up, or killed when we speak up.

This culture of silence we have within communities is stripping black women of their humanity and dignity.

The hardest thing to accept is in our society we do not see black girls to be valuable and important. It is not black lives that matter, but black boys. We silence our daughters because of race solidarity, forgetting that race solidarity does not mean one is quiet about abuse and violence. We want freedom for our sons but we neglect the freedom of our daughters. We expect our daughters to fulfill the strong black woman stereotype that is detrimental and has caused us more harm than good. This so-called strength that we demand of black women, to carry on without breaking from the code of loyalty is becoming our downfall. We must stop the shaming and the blaming. We must start talking properly about black girls. As Janine Jackson said, “what we don’t count, we don’t care about.” We must start caring about black girls and women – and the men in our lives must join this fight too.

Learn more by following #HerDreamDeferred on Twitter.

 *name changed to protect identity 

** I do not claim to speak for all black women in this post.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons