Brittany K. Barnett tells a series of moving and disturbing stories in her new memoir, A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. If you read social justice books like The New Jim Crow or Locking Up Our Own, you must get your hands on a copy of this book! Its publication date is Tuesday, September 8, 2020.
The reason to read this is primarily the emotions it stirs. My heart pinged back and forth between anger, sadness, elation, and deep admiration. Barnett and her subjects are real-life American heroes.
Barnett begins with her own life as a girl growing up in rural East Texas. Her mom falls into addiction, and Barnett and her sister shuffle between Mom’s, Dad’s, and grandparent’s homes. They struggle in every possible way. And the bottom drops out when her mom is caught up in a drug arrest and sent to jail. Barnett and her family are devastated emotionally. The story and memoir could have stopped here and been affecting.
Instead, Barnett goes on to tell her story of graduating high school, college, graduate, and law school. She’s on a path and aiming to do more than just help support her family. She moves to Dallas and starts working in high-powered corporate law.
Social Justice and the Legal System
But she also takes a course in law school about the correlation between race and the law. Here’s where her passions and experiences take a side-step. And as Barnett explains her own learning process, we see the human side of America’s War on Drugs and mass incarceration. It’s not that she wasn’t familiar with drugs, dealing, and the decisions everyday Americans make. But connecting this direct knowledge to the legal system, especially mandatory sentencing guidelines, was life changing.
As a result, Barnett begins to work on a pro bono basis with an incarcerated woman named Sharanda Jones. The portrait she paints of Sharanda hit me in the heart, as it did Barnett. And for this young lawyer, the similarities and differences to her mother’s experience meant even more. So, Barnett starts to look for legal ways to help Jones and maybe even get her out of prison.
From here the book is more about Jones and various other clients. Each story is told with no sugar coating. Barnett aims to show all sides of the story—to be honest and complete. But most of all, she wants her readers to understand the human toll that each of these folks’ experiences. Also, each family has a story, and Barnett lets us into those as well.
There are lots of legal details, including Presidential clemency options under both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. What seem like endless time passes while Barnett works on each person’s case. The options are limited, but she’s a creative legal mind who also learns to access great mentors.
Friends, just please read this book. I plowed through it in just a few days, because of both the stories themselves and Barnett’s storytelling abilities.
Barnett takes us underneath the statistics and the 30-second news spots. She opens her own heart and connects with her clients’ hearts. She is talented and driven, offering us all a glimpse of what it takes to buck the complex system of racism and oppression.
It’s important to know that the author also started two non-profits around these issues and communities. I hope the success of this book offers both the opportunity to grow and provide more help to incarcerated people and their families.
From a writing perspective, Barnett hits a tone somewhere between frustration and outright anger at the system. And she balances that with her obvious caring for her clients and their families. Plus, she lets us see the toll her work takes on her own life. The structure of this memoir worked for me because it integrates so many stories and aspects of the issue. Finding a way to keep the intensity high without being overwhelming couldn’t have been easy for a new writer. But Barnett hits it out of the park.
I recommend this to everyone who wants to explore the deeper personal, familial, and legal issues of the war on drugs, concepts of law and order, and mass incarceration. I predict this will become a classic text in the social justice movement.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Crown Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.