A Note on "Dear Cyntoia Brown"

francine j. harris

In 2004, at the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown was charged with first-degree murder, and subsequently convicted for the murder of 43-year-old Johnny Allen in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown has explained that she felt threatened by Allen, who made a point to show her all his guns, and who had solicited her for sex and brought her to his home. In the moment of the shooting, Brown has explained that she thought Allen was reaching for a gun under his bed and shot him in self-defense. Prior to that moment, Cyntoia Brown had been in and out of DCS custody and eventually ran away before meeting a man who trafficked her for sex—thus the abusive relationship that led her to Allen’s house that night. The details of her case are widely publicized. Cyntoia Brown was the subject of a 2011 documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. This documentary is where I first learned her story. I’ve never been able to forget it. 

There are sixteen poems in this suite, simply called “Dear Cyntoia Brown”, that Gulf Coast has generously accepted for publication. I don’t think of them as “one for each year” of Cyntoia Brown’s life before incarceration, though I guess it could be interpreted that way. Moreso, I think of the suite as a meditation on the number. Sixteen. It feels small. Precious. Not a book. Not even quite a chapbook. 

At sixteen, life is supposed to be safe. Things are supposed to be beginning. We are supposed to be weaning from the care and guidance of people who have raised us. We are supposed to be on the brink of our adult lives. We should be taking the reins and figuring out how to care for ourselves, and we should have our most basic needs met so that we can care for others. It’s a volatile, dizzying, restless age. It is not always sweet. As an adult, I think a lot about the number of people I was vulnerable to as a teenager: authority figures, other kids, the older boys and girls. The men. 

In reading some of the online comments around Cyntoia Brown’s case, it’s clear to me there are far too many people who don’t think of children as children. They hold them to the same moral and intellectual decision-making standards as adults—particularly girls, particularly black and brown girls. If you track the logic of people who think Brown deserved the life sentence she received, one has to wonder if they think sex trafficking is even possible at all. Or if they understand manipulation. Or vulnerability. Or poverty and how it works to disenfranchise young girls. Or the effect all that has on children’s psyche, on their fight-or-flight impulses. Or if they understand that self-defense looks different for someone who has been sexually traumatized. Somehow, the focus is on how it is the girl’s fault and about blame. Even in such cases as this, when the man who was killed was soliciting sex from a minor. Not about the root issue of how we care for our children and what happens when we don’t.

Just this year, a judge in Kansas reduced the sentencing of a 67-year old man found guilty of soliciting sex from minors, (13-year and 14-year old girls in this case) claiming they were partly responsible. In his sentencing, Judge Michael Gibbens said, “I do find that the victims in this case, in particular, were more an aggressor than a participant in the criminal conduct …They were certainly selling things monetarily that it’s against the law for even an adult to sell.” He did not sentence the convicted criminal, Raymond Soden to the 13-year recommended sentence, but rather 5 years and 8 months, even though Soden has a criminal history of sexual battery. 

I am grateful that in the public discussion, there is more education about consent, about sex-trafficking (accounting for abduction and transporting victims, but also what would have formerly been only thought of as “child prostitution”). But it is our obsession with victim-blaming that brought me to these poems. Which is all I really want to say about the poems themselves. I wrote the drafts a few years ago, actually. For most of that time, I felt very tentative about putting them into the world. They are personal. Intimate. In an interview, Cyntoia Brown once said that the thing all the men who have taken advantage of her had in common was that they were all “selfish.” I think of much of my poetry through this lens. No matter what the aim, sometimes they still just feel selfish. I don’t always mind that. Part of this art, I think, is just figuring out how to commune from the self. But it’s different when there’s a real person involved: someone you care about and have never even met before. 

But when I heard that Cyntoia’s life sentence was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court, I reached out to an editor at Gulf Coast about the series. When Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted her clemency, it made sense to me that Cyntoia would still need support after she is released in August of this year. 

Many are aware of Cyntoia Brown’s case. But they may or may not know the extent to which she has pursued her education since she has been incarcerated. She finished her GED, got an associate degree and is one course away from a bachelor’s degree in Professional Studies. 

Cyntoia Brown will not return to the life she lived before she was incarcerated. She will undoubtedly be in something of a spotlight. She will still have a felony on her record because clemency is not pardon. There are many other young people, especially young black and brown women, who are still facing and navigating circumstances like Cyntoia’s, and worse. I hope we continue to find ways to support them and advocate for them. And that we don’t forget about them when they are released and have to make new lives for themselves.

I am eternally grateful to Carolann Caviglia Madden for coordinating the publication of this series. She is a great editor and advocate and put a lot of work, remotely, into making this happen. The only footnote to these poems I would like to include (which for whatever reason I didn’t think belonged in the poem itself) is for Letter #12, which mentions the songstress Jeanne Lee. The italicized lines in that poem are from “Blasé,” which she performed on Archie Shepp’s album of the same name. 

The proceeds from these poems from Gulf Coast will go toward Cyntoia Brown’s “Second Chance” post-clemency fund. If you would also like to donate, you may do so through GoFundMe.

 —francine j. harris