I felt my heart sink when Kalief Browder’s name suddenly began trending on Twitter in June of last year. Just a couple years older than I am, Browder ended his life after suffering through three years of being beaten and held in solitary confinement in a Rikers Island prison for a crime he did not commit.
The resulting trauma left him tormented.
Like so many others, the criminal justice system had failed him beyond repair. Stories like Browder’s confirm what many of us have already known: justice, particularly as it relates to African-American men, is not colorblind. Those new to this reality need only to watch Ava DuVernay’s The 13th or read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to broaden their understanding of the issue.
But I felt the wind knocked out of me upon hearing of Venida Browder’s death, a death caused by a ‘broken heart.’ She was a mother to seven, and Kalief was her youngest. Any decent profile of Kalief’s short life had at least some mention of her role as his support system during his traumatic stint on Rikers. The New Yorker reports Ms. Browder visiting him weekly and bringing freshly-washed clothes and money for commissary along with her, all while working to obtain some type of justice for her son.
And yet, her experience was not unique; it is, in fact, the same role thousands of Black women, be they mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers, or wives, have played since the very start of the phenomenon known as ‘mass incarceration.’ It is a role that I’ve witnessed firsthand through my mother and aunts, but it also one that is notably missing from the public discourse on the effects of tough-on-crime laws.
Over the years, gendered understandings of the over-representation of Black Americans in the criminal justice system (most for non-violent, substance-related crimes) have refused to acknowledge both the swelling number of incarcerated women of color as well as the crushing toll of providing financial and emotional support for incarcerated loved ones while also taking care of a household.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that, on average, families spend over $13,000 in legal fees for incarcerated loved ones. Add to that the outrageous rates for placing phone calls to and from the prison, money for commissary and basic goods not provided by the prison, transportation costs when traveling to prisons tucked far away from metropolitan areas and that number swells.
Since the majority of incarcerated individuals are Black, and the majority of African-American households are single-parent and female-led, the weight of those expenses comes crushing down on Black women.
And then there’s the emotional burden.
The burden of having to find a way to balance it all.
The burden of seeing someone you love behind bars.
The burden of fearing for their safety amidst other inmates and prison guards.
The burden that became too much for Venida Browder to bear.
She continued to do right by her son even after his death, giving interview after interview to make sure that his story, what was done to him, wouldn’t fade away from our hearts and minds.
Ms. Browder, and the countless number of Black women who hold down their loved ones, even as they are extracted from their lives like unwanted seeds, epitomize undying devotion.
If no one else in the world sees you, I do.
Image via Youtube