An interview with Brittany K. Barnett

Al Woodworth on September 08, 2020

An interview with Brittany K. Barnett

The Amazon Books editors named Brittany K. Barnett's memoir, A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom, the Featured Debut for the Best Books of the Month. And let me just say, I couldn't put this book down.

As a child of a parent who was thrown in jail for drug charges, Barnett intimately understands the effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. In her memoir, Barnett shares her own experiences as a child and as a lawyer representing those most impacted by the war on drugs and deftly shines a light on the institutionalized racism that permeates our justice system. 

Like her memoir, this interview with Barnett is candid, thoughtful, and hopeful. I hope you enjoy. And, I hope you read this book.

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: What made you decide to write this book?

Brittany K. Barnett: In part, I wrote this book to correct false narratives about those most impacted by the war on drugs and by the propaganda war that accompanied it—to set the record straight. I wanted to open a window for the world to know my clients—kind, generous, brilliant men and women—the way that I did. I want everybody to see that the victims of mass incarceration are not statistics but human beings, each with their own unique heartbeat.

Distorted depictions of Black lives in the media and our entertainment culture—including literature—pave the way for systemic injustice in policy and behavior. That’s certainly been the case for the war on drugs. The disastrous and racist drug policies that fueled mass incarceration are rooted in historical injustice and fueled by a media onslaught that played on age-old—and utterly false—stereotypes of Black depravity.

I knew from personal experience that white society’s stereotypes of the crack epidemic were mere fantasy, but when that’s the air you breathe, it’s hard to get away from it. They seep into your consciousness. That’s why it’s so important to tell our own stories. The crack epidemic was just as much of a public health crisis as the opioid epidemic, but instead crack users and dealers were demonized and locked up.

There’s another reason too. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a lawyer like Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. But by the time I was in high school, I had lost sight of my lawyer dreams—mostly because there were no lawyers in my rural East Texas community, let alone Black women lawyers, for me to look up to. And in the books I loved to read, there were no Black girls at all. Representation matters. When Beyoncé says at the beginning of her film Homecoming—“if my country ass can do it, they can do it”—that gave me chills. I want all the little Black southern girls with big lawyer dreams or whatever their big dream may be to read this book and see themselves in me. To know that they can do anything they put their minds and hearts to. Anything at all.

The truth is: we as a people can do ANYTHING. As long as we have hope and conviction, we can make the impossible possible. We can pick the lock to every single cage, physical and mental, that keeps us from our biggest dreams. We have to have hope. And we have to tell our own stories. History shows the dangers of leaving that task to anyone else.

Criminal justice reform has become a hot topic in the last few years, but it still amazes me how much we don’t really know about how the system works. I wanted to write this book to share what I’ve learned. And to share the stories of the extraordinary women and men who are the victims of the drug war. Who are serving life sentences today under yesterday’s draconian drug laws. We cannot leave them in our prisons to die. We have to act. I wrote this book in the hopes that meeting Sharanda, Chris, Corey, Donel, and others in its pages might impact readers the way meeting my clients in real life impacted me. I was forever changed. And I could not rest until freedom was won. I hope that none of us will.

Can you talk about the title of your book, A Knock at Midnightwhat does it mean to you and when did you decide to use Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words?

In one of the darkest hours of our freedom journey, my client and friend Corey Jacobs sent me the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon that contains the parable of a man who knocks on his neighbor’s door at midnight seeking loaves of bread. Corey was serving sixteen life sentences at the time for drug conspiracy charges—his first ever conviction felony or otherwise. He had already been in prison for sixteen years. Sixteen! And yet he reached out to lift me up. To give me strength and encouragement. He knew I was in pain and he sent me the sermon to ease my burden. So that parable means everything to me.

It’s about having hope and faith in the darkest hour. It’s about knowing dawn will come. And it’s about having friends and mentors like Corey Jacobs—one of the many people who came into my life as clients and remain as family.

I always knew I wanted to include that moment in the book. But when I was writing the scene, I listened to the sermon again. And again. And I realized that the parable of the stranger seeking three loaves, which King refers to as hope, faith, and love—it was the perfect backbone for our freedom journey. King delivered that sermon at a very difficult moment in the Civil Rights Movement, when it seemed that white America would never, ever allow Black people even a taste of equality. In the sermon, he urges us to have faith. He reminds us that "the stranger at midnight who seeks three loaves is really seeking the dawn." Nothing could be truer. And no matter what, we have to keep seeking it. There is nothing more urgent.

What was the breaking point for you in understanding that the justice system is flawed?

By that time I had interned for two federal judges, and I’d seen Black men sentenced over and over again for decades of their lives for drug charges. I knew something was horribly wrong. But when I really connected my legal experience with my lived experience, that’s what did it for me. My high school friend Keyon Mitchell was handed a life sentence for a drug conspiracy charge at the young age of 24, even though there was no physical evidence, nothing to connect him to drug dealing but the words of others who received lesser sentences in exchange for their testimony. I knew Keyon personally. I couldn’t believe the charges. And when I started investigating his case as a second-year law student, I couldn’t believe what I found—especially the far reach of federal drug conspiracy laws.

At that moment, I realized that the law and the courts were flawed. And for my family, friends, and clients—that was no abstract knowledge that I studied in books and then left behind. The drug war and its aftermath, its bloody collateral damage—it shaped our very lives. And for so many of us, it made the different between a life lived in freedom and a living death behind bars. It still does.

And then when I met Sharanda Jones, she was just so familiar. Like my mom, like me, Sharanda grew up in a small town in East Texas. She was just a regular person—as familiar to me as my own reflection in the mirror. She had dreams, goals, and ambitions—and while they were shaped by her social circumstances, she still made her way. She was a single mother, just like my own mom, pursuing her dreams regardless. And then she made a mistake—a mistake not so different from one I made when I was a teenager. She connected two dealers, drove drugs up the interstate. For which she very nearly paid for with her entire life.

Her case was another example, like Keyon’s, of the relentless reach of federal drug conspiracy law. But Sharanda got more time than the leaders of international drug cartels. She was serving the same amount of time as the Unabomber and the Golden State Killer with, to put it mildly, stark differences in the crimes. It was just unbelievable to me. In the end, I fought for Sharanda’s life as if it was my own, because it was.

Your mother was incarcerated and addicted to drugs, yet she was also a role model. Can you talk about how your family inspired you?

My family is my greatest source of inspiration to this day. They mean everything to me. I open the book with an excerpt from the Nikki Giovanni poem "Nikki-rosa," in which she writes the line, "Black love is Black wealth." That’s how it has always been in my family—even during our most challenging times. My parents, my sisters, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—they are my heart and my backbone. I am because they are.

Just as I was finishing the first draft of the manuscript, my beloved grandmother, Mama Lena, passed away. That loss really brought me to my knees. Hers was the purest love I have ever known, and I somehow thought she would be here forever. I dedicated the book to her, but in truth, everything I do is for her. And it’s the same for my clients. When people do time, their whole family does time with them. I learned that when my mother was incarcerated. My clients are parents, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins. Their survivorship is inspired by their families in the same way my family inspires me. We’re all connected now, because what Nikki wrote is true. Black love is Black wealth.

Can you talk more about what it was like to represent people who thought they would be in prison for life? What was it like to return to their stories and to your story?

When Sharanda was enduring the daily horrors of her life sentence, she used to say she was walking in the valley of the shadow of death. She’d say that’s exactly what a life sentence felt like. And yet she was one of the most positive, compassionate, light-filled souls I had ever encountered. She lifted me up—encouraging me, caring for me—through it all.

All of my clients have taken care of me. They are always thanking me for the work I’ve done on behalf of their freedom, but the truth is, they’ve freed me, too. So even though this work is hard, and extremely challenging at times—the weight of a life sentence, of any prison sentence, is carried not just by the person behind bars but also by all who love them—it has also been a tremendous gift. My clients have become my friends, my mentors, my teachers. My family. Their lives are forever bound with mine. And their freedom, and their imprisonment, is something I feel with every fiber in my being.

Writing this memoir was more painful than I anticipated. It was hard. Reliving some of the traumatic experiences in order to represent them on the page—it took a toll on me. Sometimes I found it hard to go on. And I felt an additional weight, a responsibility. The lives of incarcerated people have been so denigrated, so dismissed and vilified by society, that I felt this great responsibility to honor each client.

I was hyper aware of how anything I wrote, any individual word I chose, could be twisted in the brutal American imagination to feed that false anti-Black narrative about the people who populate our prisons. My friends, my family, my clients. My own mama. But as always, my family and my clients were there for me. They encouraged me every step of the way. They trusted me to tell their stories. And with a support system like that? Well, there’s no way I’m not going to rise to the challenge.

What you would like readers to get out of this book?

I want people to know the truth. The truth about racial inequality in this country and how the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color. And the truth about the human beings locked in America’s cages. The human element is often ignored but is critical to drive impactful change.

My journey so far has completely transformed my understanding of freedom. We continue to pick locks to human cages, sure, but the heist doesn’t end there. We can’t keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to the same poverty that led them there in the first place. How do we create sustainable liberation? That is the question that weighs heavy on my mind these days.

As a social entrepreneur, it’s critical for me to find ways to invest in the genius and ingenuity trapped in (or formerly trapped in) America’s cages. We have to find ways to help people thrive, not merely survive. I hope that readers will see that the true loss of mass incarceration is not only the lives stolen by injustice, but the beauty and brilliance each incarcerated individual might have contributed to our world if their lives had not been stolen. We have to find a way to end this brutal cycle. Our collective future depends on it.

What a moment for your memoir. What has it been like to see the Black Lives Matter movement rise up as your book enters the public discourse?

Honestly, it gives me so much hope—and hope is the fuel I run on. Horrific traumas sparked this phase of the movement, but we are not the sum total of our pain. We are a joyful people, and this in part is a joyful movement as we bear witness to the power of the people. And as much as the injustices I write about in this book are painful, traumatic, this book too is fueled by hope, and by joy.

Black joy is a form of resistance. Joy for my clients, whose spirits never wavered. Who never failed to believe they would one day be free. This book is a love letter for them, in the way that all movements for freedom are really fueled not by injustice, but by faith and by love. A deep, profound faith in and love for humanity.

I hope this book contributes in some small way to that river of struggle. Every single Black life matters—including the millions of Black lives locked away right now inside America’s shameful jails and prisons. I hope my clients’ beautiful, precious lives inspire more of us to take a stand for justice.

Are there other books you would recommend on this subject?

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy are both incredible books which played a huge role in my own understanding of the racist legacy of the criminal legal system. Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr. is essential to understanding the role of the prosecutor and parts of the Black community in fueling the "law and order" mentality that aided mass incarceration.

Jesmyn Ward’s stunning Men We Reaped inspired me so much; in the way it brings the South to life, and gives a name, face and humanizes the brothers and cousins and friends we lose to this system of oppression. I admire her work so much. It is critical for us to center the voices of directly impacted people as well. My friend Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison and my client and friend Alice Marie Johnson’s After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom are both compelling and insightful reads.

What gives you inspiration today?

The weight of our collective pain as a result of centuries of systemic injustice is great. These past months have not been easy. But every single one of my clients continues to lift me up with their survivorship. I also think of the Black women warriors who paved the way for my work in this world—Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and the list goes on and on. And I think of the Black women who stand shoulder to shoulder with me today, bearing that weight in ways big and small and forging new futures for our people with their own unique gifts: Sharanda Jones. MiAngel Cody. My mama, Evelyn Fulbright.

I think of the millions who took to the streets in the past six months in defense of Black lives—23 million people, the New York Times reported, of all ages and races and creeds. And I find joy in that. Enough hope and joy to see me through those darkest moments.

The movement inspires me and reminds me of a simple truth: In the streets and in the boardrooms, in the mighty halls of justice and from the concrete walls of America’s prisons, Black people and our allies will go on fighting and we will win. There is nothing in this world more urgent than freedom. And like Assata said, we have nothing to lose but our chains. We free us.

Photo credit: Cyndi Brown

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