Cyntoia Brown’s clemency is a glimmer of hope for Black girls and the ones who protect them
Cyntoia Brown should have received treatment and care instead of a prison jumpsuit.
This essay contains discussion of sex trafficking, r/pe, and sexual violence against minors.
by Josie Pickens
This past week has been especially difficult for Black girls, as we’ve been made to recount and witness so much trauma while maneuvering through public conversations about our collective and personal experiences with sexual, physical, mental and emotional violence.
On January 3rd, Lifetime debuted the groundbreaking, six-part Surviving R. Kelly documentary that brought to the forefront for lesser informed audiences information many Black girls and women already knew. The series, expertly produced by cultural critic, filmmaker, and activist dream hampton—along with Tamara Simons, Joel Karlsburg, Jesse Davis, and Brie Miranda Bryant—pulled together over fifty conversations with R. Kelly’s victims, as well as Black-girl allies, journalists, and others who’ve been close to the singer.
Although none of the information uncovered in Surviving R. Kelly surprised me (I have in the past and continue to research, offer commentary on and protest R. Kelly.), watching so many Black girls and women chronicle such monstrous abuse—and particularly watching parents plead for the return of their daughters—left me feeling hopeless and anxious in ways that have been difficult to sift through.
I wanted to watch the documentary, offer a cultural critique, reclaim my time and joy, and move forward with my work. Instead—as a survivor of abuse, as the mother of a daughter around the age of Kelly’s early victims, and as a storyteller committed to singing Black girl songs—I’ve felt stuck.
I’m not alone. The organization Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reportedly saw an increase in phone calls to their hotline (which offers support to victims of sexual violence) by at least 20% after the documentary premiered. This is why the news that the currently incarcerated sex-trafficking victim and sexual abuse survivor Cyntoia Brown receiving clemency from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam brought me to tears.
I cried because Black girls suffer in such deep and unimaginably inhumane ways, and because very few people seem to give a fuck. Have you read the comment sections of pieces written about Surviving R. Kelly? Do you realize how many people, and especially how many Black women, are defending this sexual predator? The way our community rationalizes Black girl pain and suffering is appalling, and maddening and—frankly—disgusting. But I also cried because knowing that Brown (whose story of abandonment and abuse is all too common among Black girls and women) won’t spend the rest of her life in prison offered me a tiny glimmer of hope.
I refer to the hope provided by Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence being commuted as tiny, not because Brown’s clemency isn’t radical or important or celebratory, but because we all know she should never have been sentenced to life in prison as a child victim of sex-trafficking, or even jailed at all. Like many of the women interviewed and discussed in Surviving R. Kelly, almost every person and certainly every system failed Cyntoia Brown—her family, the foster care system, predators who call themselves pimps, grown men excited to rape children, and a justice system that refused to acknowledge Brown’s full humanity. We certainly should not be satisfied with the idea that a child was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison in the first place, or that her potential rapist is still being lauded as a good Samaritan.
We should continue to protest Cyntoia Brown spending almost half of her life in a women’s prison, that she will not be released until August of this year, and that she will be under supervision by the State of Tennessee for at least ten years. And we should certainly be sickened by the fact that, according to FBI reports, Black children compromise 57% of juvenile arrests for “prostitution” (We know that children cannot consent to sex, therefore they should never be referred to as “prostitutes” or sex workers in any capacity). In cities like Los Angeles, 92% of girls in the juvenile justice system that identify as sex trafficking victims also identify as Black.
Black girls are literally disappearing right before our eyes, and we are more interested in labeling them as “fast” than questioning why, or even noticing violence against them at all.
Both Surviving R. Kelly and Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, the documentary created to chronicle Cyntoia Brown’s quest for freedom, should serve as reminders to the power of storytelling as a means to both combat erasure and to create space for some semblance of justice to be served. Cyntoia will finally become a free woman, and because R. Kelly is now being criminally investigated in both Chicago and Atlanta, there may be a chance that his victims will finally see him be held accountable for all of the pain and trauma he’s caused.
This is an important moment to remind the world that the work to protect and to seek justice for Black girls is spearheaded almost entirely by Black women—whether we are working to take down R. Kelly or lift up Cyntoia Brown.
In Kiese Laymon’s newest memoir, Heavy, he speaks about how it is almost impossible for Black folks to win fully. Our hope, according to Laymon, is that we can at least “lose different,” because losing differently means upsetting every white supremacist, misogynist, oppressive system that is designed to eat us alive. We should not have had to wait more than two decades for people to stand with R. Kelly’s victims, but now because people are finally listening, we are seeing almost immediate action against him.
Although Cyntoia Brown should have received treatment and care instead of a prison jumpsuit after being pimped, drugged, and repeatedly raped, and although she should have received a full pardon rather than just clemency, her story has helped us to have more honest conversations about how so many Black girls end up being victims of sex trafficking and how we can stop these trends.
We are losing differently and imagining a future, through thought and deed, where we will one day win completely. The struggle towards winning is wretched, but Black girls and Black women are more than worth the fight.
Josie Pickens is a professor, cultural critic, writer and griot. Follow her on Twitter at @jonubian.