Brittany Barnett, A KNOCK AT MIDNIGHT

Brittany Barnett, A KNOCK AT MIDNIGHT

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Brittany. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Brittany K. Barnett: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I am embarrassed to say that I did not know about your book until it won the Amazon number-one book of the year. I don’t know how that’s possible. I must be under a rock. I try to be on top of all the great books. Until then, I hadn’t even heard about your book. I am so glad I did because it is so good. A Knock at Midnight, oh, my gosh, amazing. I have a bazillion questions for you. First, I just have to say I am so impressed by you, by not just your writing, but everything that happened in this book, your work ethic, your determination. You’re just amazing. You’re a total rockstar. I am delighted to talk to you today.

Brittany: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that, truly.

Zibby: For listeners who might not know what your book is about, would you mind telling them a little bit about the backstory and how it’s led to your becoming the advocate you are today for so many people?

Brittany: I grew up in rural East Texas, one of those doors unlocked, windows wide open pieces of rural Texas, and truly had a happy childhood. Unfortunately, during my childhood, my mom was also suffering with a drug addiction. Her addiction ultimately led to her going to prison. Having a mom in prison, it really brought me close and made me very conscious of this issue of mass incarceration that our country faces. During this time and being so close, I got really interested in the criminal legal system, began representing people who were fundamentally set to die in prison under these outdated federal drug laws. The book follows that journey. It follows my journey growing up in rural East Texas. It follows the events surrounding my mother’s incarceration and that experience of having a mom in prison. The book is truly a memoir that shows how I came to understand injustice in the courts, how I discovered genius behind bars, and how this journey caused my definition of freedom to evolve.

Zibby: Wow. How did you remember all of this, first of all? This is a such minor point, but the detail in your book is so great. Did you record everything as you went along? The way you wrote it, it was like we were literally standing on your shoulder watching everything you went through from the time you were little to when you then even show us into Sharanda’s family and her mother and the accident. Every detail is so vivid. In fact, when I went on your Instagram and saw a picture of your mom and then your Mama Lena, I was like, oh, yeah, totally. That’s totally what they look like because that’s exactly how you described them.

Brittany: It was a long journey for me to write that book. It took me over two years to write the book. I was just very intentional with every piece of it from every word to every punctuation mark. With each section, I became very intimate with it. I made sure that I went back into time in that way. That really helped. Once you’re there and present and conscious about a particular moment, it’s very surprising how much memory does come back.

Zibby: Did you have any — I know you didn’t, but I was going to ask if you had any idea about the injustices of all the drug laws because I definitely did not realize how unfair — and even the hundred-to-one sentencing for the difference between crack cocaine and cocaine and when you’re part of conspiracy versus if you’re not and how biased it was towards black people. It’s just insane. I couldn’t believe all the data that you discovered. As you show the reader, you seemed really surprised by a lot of it too. Tell me about that.

Brittany: Oh, yeah, I had no idea. I am in law school and truly wanting to be a corporate lawyer. I was going to follow my path for that. I had a job lined up after law school in corporate law. During this time, I took a critical race theory course. It’s a course that analyzes the intersection between race and the law. I was writing my paper about this disparity in sentencing you mentioned between powder cocaine and crack cocaine and how it was disproportionately impacting people of color, in particular, black people. I was shocked by what I learned. I was shocked at how little to no legislative history was there surrounding this law, which was the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. I was shocked at how arbitrary the disparity in sentencing was with this one hundred-to-one ratio, which means that you could have five hundred grams of powder cocaine, I could have only five grams of crack, and we would receive the same sentence in prison. It’s not lost on anyone then, especially now, that in the late eighties, more affluent white people were using powder cocaine. Crack cocaine was running rampant through communities of color, in particular, black communities. This caused such a wide disparity in sentencing to the extent that even today, over eighty percent of the people in federal prison for drug offenses are black and brown people. It was shocking to me as a law student to learn that, especially learning it based on just how unfounded these assumptions were that crack cocaine was more severe than powder. What was also shocking to me was after the law passed, the sentencing commission and members of congress and courts, they all began to see just how unjust these laws were. To see how the laws were put into place, to see this change of heart, if you will, surrounding the laws but to know that people are still in prison serving these draconian sentences, it was quite eye-opening for me.

Zibby: Even as the laws started to change and you would get so excited, then you would realize that a lot of them weren’t retroactive. I feel like you were wringing your hands a lot of the time. How could you change it? Then finally, you were able to figure out your path.

Brittany: Absolutely. It was totally just the way it reads in the book, trial and error, for sure. Even learning that, I’m getting so excited because I see how minds are evolving and this country’s evolving as it relates to crack cocaine. I’m seeing the laws change. Then I’m like, oh, it’s not retroactive. Another law changed. Oh, it’s not retroactive either. It was just unconscionable to me that we have people serving life sentences today under these outdated federal drug laws. To me, and I would think to any reasonable person, if the law is wrong today, it was wrong yesterday.

Zibby: Right. Now, of course, you’ve started all these different nonprofits to help people escape from these sentences and overturn what had been going on before. Your Buried Alive Project, on the website it said something like there was still three or four thousand people, 3,400 maybe — I don’t know. I can’t remember. Something awful, all these people. The laws have changed. They shouldn’t have been in there. They shouldn’t be serving life sentences. Yet there they are. What can we do about it? Tell me about the nonprofit that you’ve built up around it and how those people can get out.

Brittany: I cofounded the Buried Alive Project with two of my clients, Sharanda Jones and Corey Jacobs. They were both sentenced to life for federal drug cases. Both had never had any convictions before, felony or otherwise. We were able to secure clemency for them from President Barack Obama. Once they were freed, they felt a survivor’s remorse, if you will, because they knew they had left so many people behind who were just as deserving of freedom as they were. I linked arms with my clients, and we cofounded the Buried Alive Project to provide legal representation, pro bono, for people serving life for federal drug offenses. To date, we’ve helped free dozens of men and women who were set to die in prison who are now living their life after life, as we like to call it. Still, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more. We’re doing what we can to build a super team of lawyers to help litigate cases through the courts and also working on clemencies and working through congress, quite frankly, to ensure that we have laws that are changed.

Zibby: What was that like? What’s the feeling like when you’ve literally been able through your hard work and dedication, given someone their entire life back? Tell me about that moment.

Brittany: It never gets old. It is a feeling that words can’t even begin to touch. It’s such a joy and elation. People have to understand and remember that life without parole is the second-most severe penalty permitted by law in America other than the death penalty. This sentence, it screams a person is beyond hope. It screams a person is beyond redemption. It truly suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. To know that my clients, people like Sharanda Jones and Corey Jacobs and Chris Young who you read about in the book, are set to die in prison, they’re literally serving the same amount of time as the Unabomber. It’s heartbreaking for me. To be able to tell them that we’ve given that life sentence back, as we like to say, and they are free, I get chills just thinking about it.

Zibby: You are an angel, truly, that this has become your life’s work and that you’re so smart and dedicated that you can do it. It’s amazing. It’s just amazing. It’s amazing to watch from the outside and to have read about it. Even when your name was in my inbox, I was like, oh, my gosh. You’re just such a hero. It’s truly amazing. I feel like it would be so great if other people would follow in your footsteps, other people who have your brains and your potential who could work towards helping people get their lives back. I know in the beginning you wanted to be like Clair Huxtable and be a big corporate lawyer, and you were and everything. Wow, the value you’ve added to society by having all these people come back in people’s lives and even reducing the sentence for your one family friend. You were like, I got him from life to something like thirty-two years. How they were all celebrating, it’s just a huge deal. This sounds so obvious. I’m just heaping praise.

Brittany: Thank you. I appreciate it. I appreciated it so much. It’s an honor and a true privilege for me to do this work. I am grateful to my clients for trusting me with their lives, literally trusting me with their lives. It’s a task that I don’t take lightly. I always say I fight for my clients’ lives as if it were my own because it is. We are all one. What impacts one directly impacts us all indirectly. There is so much untapped genius in this population of people, people who are incarcerated, who were formerly incarcerated. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s true ingenuity our nation needs to thrive. The human potential there keeps me going. My clients’ prayers and strength and empowerment keeps me going. I agree with you. I truly hope that more people join us to help push and drive for impactful change.

Zibby: Tell me about GEM and Milena Reign and XVI Cap. How are you running four different nonprofits at the same time? This is insane. How are you sleeping? When are you doing everything?

Brittany: Only two of them are nonprofits.

Zibby: Okay, sorry. Businesses.

Brittany: I totally believe we can’t nonprofit ourselves to a better and just society. I do have two nonprofits, Buried Alive Project and Girls Embracing Mothers. Girls Embracing Mothers is a nonprofit that empowers young girls with mothers in prison. We partner with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and every single month, take a group of girls to visit their moms in prison. We’re truly working to break the cycle and build a bond. That organization is so near and dear to my heart. It stems solely from my own experience of having a mother in prison. We’ve been operating for seven years now. I have amazing teams. That’s one of the reasons I’m able to carry it all. At our program, Girls Embracing Mothers, our program director, Angelica, she was formerly incarcerated. In fact, her and her daughter were in our program just a few years ago. That’s so important to me that directly impacted people are centered, they’re amplified, and they’re leading the way on any movement and any work surrounding them. Linking arms with Sharanda and Corey with the Buried Alive Project and having Angelica lead Girls Embracing Mothers, it’s truly my life’s work, to ensure that they are at the table, for sure. Milena Reign is a company named after my Grandma Lena. There, I just want to cultivate talent from the South, help writers from the South showcase their talents, break through to get opportunity.

XVI Capital Partners is similar. I’m working with that company to bridge the gap, to provide resources and capital to formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs. One thing I realize doing the work — writing the book really helped me reflect on this. We have to change the laws. We have to continue our work to get people out of prison. I realize, also, that we can’t keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to poverty. I’m holding this vision of creating sustainable liberation which includes economic liberation. It includes equity. It includes ensuring that directly impacted people have access to resources and capital not just so they can survive, but so they can thrive and flourish. That’s why I’m working with XVI Capital Partners. We’ve invested in a couple of companies so far that are ran by formerly incarcerated people including Sharanda Jones who is recently in the process of opening a food truck. She’ll hire directly impacted people to work in her food truck. It’s about paying it forward and realizing, too, that systemic change doesn’t always have to come from Capitol Hill. We need the laws to change for sure, but the people that we are freeing, they’re pushing forward a movement of such power and dignity that they’re going to create systemic change. They’re going to have a positive impact on anyone that they encounter in the future. It all just keeps me so hopeful.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How has your life changed, if at all, since this book came out and your story became a much more widely known phenomenon?

Brittany: It’s been amazing. I’m truly grateful at just the public’s reception of the book. I’m so thankful to Amazon editors for choosing my book as the best book of 2020. Never in a million years did this small-town country girl think that this would be the case. It’s been great. It’s really helped to elevate what’s important for me, and that’s this issue of mass incarceration, and help raise awareness for causes I’m very passionate about. That’s always a win.

Zibby: Do you find any time for yourself where you’re not working? Do you have any time when you’re not emailing or doing stuff or fighting? Even when you would talk about going to work and then you’d come home and then you’d have these buckets of cases and files and transcripts, I’m like, did she get dinner? What is this girl eating?

Brittany: I would eat and work. I do. It is something that I’m working to center, this self-care practice, and self-care taking it back to its radical roots, not self-care as this form of escapism, but self-care in order to rest so that I can be fully restored to continue the work. The amazing poet Audre Lorde says self-care isn’t an act of self-indulgence. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s a radical act. That’s what I try to practice. I’m practicing, which means I’m getting better. I’m not all the way there yet, but I definitely try to work to take that time to focus on me.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? Has this been optioned? It must have been.

Brittany: We’re in a lot of talks. Hopefully, there’s some news I can share soon.

Zibby: I bet. I can’t wait to watch it. I feel like I watched it because I read it. It’s so cinematic, the whole thing. You’re such a visual writer. Everything is just so clear. I want to follow up on all the characters. What’s up with your sister? How’s she doing? Is she good?

Brittany: My sister, Jazz, she’s doing amazing. She’s actually in law enforcement now. She’s doing really well. I’m so proud of her.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me a little bit about what is next. You have so many projects, so many good deeds you’re doing. Do you want to write any more? Do you want to just solider on with all of your mission-driven activities? What does your next five years look like for you?

Brittany: I won’t rule out writing another book. I definitely won’t rule that out. I’m definitely going to keep moving forward with what I’m calling this liberation heist, getting people out of prison, making sure we’re serving women and girls who are directly impacted as well. Then I’m going to continue the work to ensure that resources and capital are allocated to formerly incarcerated people and injustice-impacted people, for sure.

Zibby: Do you have any ambition to run for office?

Brittany: I don’t.

Zibby: You say it in a — it’s no failure. I’m just asking.

Brittany: No, I don’t. It’s not my thing.

Zibby: I get it. I totally get it. Back to the writing for two seconds, you said it took two years which you said was a long time, which, PS, is not a long time for a book from all the things I’ve heard. Where and when did you write this? When did you fit this into life? Then do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Brittany: I’ll first start with my advice to aspiring authors. That’s to do it. Share your story. The world needs your story. No one can tell your story or any fictional story you’re dreaming up better than you. The world needs it. That is motivation that I received from people. I want to definitely pass that along. I found time in between the work, honestly. I had hoped to set aside a period of time to just focus solely on the book, but freedom calls. As my shirt says, there’s nothing more urgent than freedom. I was still able to set aside blocks of time to write and blocks of time to work. For me, it was a process that was, in a way, therapeutic as I talked so much about my childhood experiences and having a mother who was incarcerated. I had to really be gentle with myself during the writing of that. Also, ensuring that whatever time I set aside that I was solely focused on the work, especially related to my clients’ stories. I was so intentional there. I wanted to really show their heartbeats on the page in hopes that their lives and stories could impact the reader on the page the way it impacted me in real life. I knew because we were dealing with such a vulnerable population and mass incarceration still has all these stigmas and stereotypes that if I chose one wrong word, it could help perpetuate these stigmas and biases. I was really intentional with my clients’ stories. I really held them close to heart. I’m so hopeful that people see their brilliance and genius and just truly how amazing, amazing they are. I say all the time, many, many people in prison, they’re not bad people. They just made bad choices. We all make bad choices every day. Really having a chance at redemption is something truly powerful.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. We didn’t even get to the abuse. There’s so much in this book. I see all these books behind you by all these amazing authors, so I’m guessing you love to read as well.

Brittany: I love to read.

Zibby: Behind your shoulder, I’m seeing both Obama books. There we go. You just read everything? What’s your favorite kind of book to read?

Brittany: I read everything. I really am hooked on reading books by black authors from the South, as you see; Jesmyn Ward behind me; Kiese Laymon behind me with Heavy; Sarah Broom, The Yellow House. I recently read Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half. She’s from the South as well.

Zibby: That was so good.

Brittany: It is so good.

Zibby: I had her on this podcast. You should listen.

Brittany: Really? I would love to meet her one day. I had been reading so many memoirs and nonfiction. To dive into her book that’s fiction, oh, my god. It was so good. Then I mix it with other books. I’m reading a book on the business of venture capital right now as I’m trying to break into that space to create access for directly impacted people. It’s all a mix. I’ve definitely been finding myself drawn more to fiction lately.

Zibby: That’s a great example of amazing fiction. I feel like your book and her book were two of the best of this whole year. If you ever need a moderator, I’m happy to moderate that conversation.

Brittany: Thank you. That would be amazing to do that.

Zibby: If this were real life, I’d invite you over and have a salon.

Brittany: That would be beautiful.

Zibby: Also, I have a book club called Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. If you have any interest, I would love to have my whole book club read your book. Then you come talk and do some Q&A for half an hour. I don’t know if you’d be interested.

Brittany: I would love to. Let’s do it.

Zibby: Let’s do it. Great. I’m going to email you about times in the new year. Awesome. Brittany, thank you. Thank you so much for all that you do for people in the world and all you do to uplift others and open everybody’s eyes to the injustices that are there and do it in such a classy way. It’s just really awesome.

Brittany: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me today. It’s been a pleasure to start my day off. You are a true gem. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Stay in touch. Book club coming up. Bye.

Brittany: Bye.

Brittany Barnett, A KNOCK AT MIDNIGHT