Cyntoia Brown’s Release & Contemplating a “Free” yet Forgetful Culture

This week, countless media outlets celebrated what they called Cyntoia Brown’s freedom. The term “free” was probably always privy to a violent banality, but it’s use seems particularly violent with regards to Brown’s case. 

Cyntoia Brown was just a teenager when she was sentenced to life in prison. A pigtailed Brown made the news, but her image did nothing to alter her fate. A girl that looked as young as Brown sexually pursued by a man more than three times her age, revealed that though someone died, this someone was not the victim. However, upon seeing Brown, all the jury saw was a murderer. 

The details of the case, paired with the overturned outcome, only festers my ambivalence. It is a unique feeling to envision a once imprisoned person beyond an orange jumpsuit and shackles, yet doing so only evokes the Emancipation Proclamation, a document which marked transition not resolution.

Brown’s release promises something similar–a physical transition complicated by a psychological stagnancy aided by her release. By this, I mean that Brown’s release is not for her, or us, it’s for them. Brown’s release reflects a violent tokenism that enables the masses to focus on an individual and look away from a collective issue.

The collective issue is freedom.

Brown’s physical freedom, a state thoroughly compromised by the reality that her body was not her own prior to or following her incarceration, will likely reveal a psychological damage not reversed by the turn of a cell key. Brown is now to start her life from a place she should have never inhabited. Just like her ancestors, Brown’s life is marked by a disruption she is now to resolve under her oppressor’s searing gaze.

Yet, while Brown’s case illustrates the detriment of the dark race, it delineates that crime still has a color. 

Specifically, Brown’s case and it’s traction among popular recording artists and socialites, illustrates a pervasive preference for fairer-skinned women. Brown’s case illustrates that fairer-skinned women, while black enough for conviction, remain eligible for redemption. Globally, fairer-skin, or the presumed presence of white ancestry, functions as a redeeming trait.

My intentions are not to demonize Brown for what exists to her benefit but remains beyond her control. My contention remains with a systemized perception of black people that mirrors the dynamics put forth in the Willie Lynch letter. The Willie Lynch letter, where slave owner Willie Lynch broke down black enslavement to a divisive science which divided black people by white-induced distractions like skin color and gender. The sensationalized Cyntoia Brown case mirrors Lynch’s white supremacist methodology, as it functions to imply a changing, or different, America while distracting the black collective from a larger truth.  

The truth is that for every Cyntoia there is a darker-skinned woman that cannot maintain her innocence because of her skin color. Consider, for example, Assata Shakur, who remains on America’s most wanted list decades after her conviction. Shakur is female, but she is not fair-skinned or fine featured, so she was not only guilty, she was guilty and beyond the means of rehabilitation. Shakur took a freedom she actualized in her ideology. This type of “freedom” is the only kind of freedom there is, for all things given are never truly owned by the recipient.

As I write this piece, forty-five year old Ronald Sanford sits in a six by nine Indiana Jail Cell. He’s been incarcerated since the age of 13, meaning that he has been in jail longer than most millennials been alive. For over three decades, he’s been caged twenty three hours a day. Unlike Brown, Sanford is not a light-skinned woman, yet like Brown, his upbringing reflects a collective disenfranchisement designed to clip his wings. 

Yet, the white world uses cases like Brown and Sanford  as a discourse on choices, despite the too-often ignored reality that those born black do not choose the circumstances that placed them in a systemic chokehold. To be clear, my assertions do not function to victimize black people but to assert that we are not a collective plagued by villainy.

Collaboratively, Brown and Sanford illustrate that justice is not just at all.  Similarly, they illustrate that the penitentiary system is not a rehabilitation source for black people, it is cage used to control population, destroy black families, and injure the collective black psyche. To incarcerate an individuals is to wound a collective; we will never be free in a world where a teenager is to serve life in prison, but not given a life to live.

The physical and psychological sacrifice that becomes of our black children, black fathers, black mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, friends, protectors, and griots, marks a global effort to ensure that the black collective remains shattered. I want to encourage those of the diaspora to write to those of us incarcerated, or even volunteer to teach, if you can, but more so, I’d like to humbly request something far more simple, in theory anyway.

My request is that you don’t forget about people like Ronald Sanford. Sanford will probably never get clemency, as his story delineates that to be black is to be criminal, to be forgotten, to be the “darkness” cast out by lightened sentences and the lighter-skinned. To remember Mr. Sanford in lieu of Cyntoia Brown, Alice Johnson, and all the cultural distractions to follow, is to remember that “darkness” to black people remains anchored in what functions as “the light.”

It is refusing to forget this truth, that we take the necessary strides toward freedom.

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