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.

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.

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Calls for Solidarity of ALL Women

The Twittersphere has recently undergone a feminist backlash against former “male feminist” and Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer after his hour-long Twitter meltdown approximately one week ago. While Schwyzer’s uncensored tweets have inevitably ruined his reputation as a male advocate for women’s empowerment, his bluntness has more importantly initiated a renewed conversation centered on the feminist movement and its tendencies to alienate women of color.

While Feministe blogger Jill Filipovic sympathized with Schwyzer, blogger Mikki Kendall fiercly tweeted in response:

“I feel a moment coming on. Because this has been a banner damned month for white feminists. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen”.

The #SolidaryIsForWhiteWomen hashtag has since been used as a means of “tweeting catharsis” for many. Frustration over double standards held against women of color have been cited by many impassioned tweeters. Many of whom have recalled past and present instances of feminism’s inability to recognize and acknowledge its ignorance and exclusivity of people of color.

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According to The Washington Post’s “She the People” news platform, the battle of gender versus race has been rampant throughout the feminist movement since its beginnings from “the early days of the suffrage movement through the civil rights movement and, most recently, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, which pitted Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama.”

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen has allowed me to contemplate what labeling myself as a “feminist” actually entails. More importantly, the hashtag conversation has made me think of what others perceive to be my values as a self-proclaimed “feminist”.

I have realized two things about the complexity of labeling myself as a feminist:

  1. I am part of a movement that inextricably intersects with other social movements.

  2. I am part of a movement that must be inclusive of all in its discussion in order for its goals to succeed.

As a feminist, I recognize that the empowerment of women cannot be achieved on the same grounds for all. I realize the complexity of how gender impacts lived experiences, but also, that it cannot be seen as separate from race.  The separation of the two is, however, the way history has delineated it for us and how society today perceives it as a result. The history of oppression and discrimination of black women is much different from that of white women, yet both are forms of discrimination nonetheless. In order for all women to succeed, different histories must be acknowledged to comprehend the status of how each is perceived in the present. From this understanding, we will then realize that the path towards “empowerment” is different for all women depending on our personal circumstances. The unique path to a woman’s empowerment is dependent on the solidarity of ALL women.

“Women’s issues” are not merely issues that solely affect women. For example, while domestic violence affects 1 in 4 women in her lifetime, I acknowledge the inarguable reality that domestic violence occurs to men as well. I am a hypocrite if I fail to acknowledge the broader implications of “women’s issues”. Why? Because the feminist movement itself evolved from society’s failure to recognize the broader inclusion of women; therefore, I must do what society has not done for me. Feminism must focus not only on personal gains for women, but on the broader positive impacts for society as a whole.

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen has made its message loud and clear: Empowerment for women isn’t as simple as it may seem because we all come from varying circumstances and histories that forcefully restrict us differently. While a one-size-fits-all solution is never clear, the first step is realizing the complexity of feminism in spite of a past and present that wrongly views it simply.