Illustration for article titled Free Cyntoia: It Was Her Faith That Made It So, Long Before She Left Prison
Photo: AP

It is most appropriate that we open on this Sunday morning—it’s Wednesday afternoon, you say? Oh. Excuse me, er, that we open on today, in the Christian tradition, with this quote from the King James Version of the Bible: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed…nothing shall be impossible unto you.

As Jesus noted above, faith is a powerful thing, and it has been mighty powerful for black people in this country under years of oppressive conditions. It is that which has “gotten us through.” And so it is with faith that we end Kwanzaa, the seven-day African-American cultural tradition started more than 50 years ago.

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Imani, or faith, in Kwanzaan lore, is defined as believing with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. Last year, the person who exemplified faith was Stacey Abrams; in 2017 it was the black women of Alabama.

Let me tell you a story: in August 2019, a young woman named Cyntoia Brown walked through a Tennessee prison’s gates a free woman after being exonerated for killing a 43-year-old white man when she was 16 years old.

Cyntoia was sex trafficked by said man and said she feared for her life when she took his. She shot him and was convicted of murder, her sentence ensuring that she would never again see a day outside of a jail’s walls.

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Yet, it was Brown’s faith, detailed in her memoir, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, that kept her sane, kept her grounded, and kept her knowing in her heart of hearts that she would be free. She also spoke of freedom in spiritual terms shortly after her release.

“I just want to let you know before I was physically in prison, I was bound up in prisons in shame, prisons in anger, prisons in feeling like I had to do things to be accepted by other people. God saved me from that,” said Brown. “There is freedom in Jesus. When I live for him and to be accepted by him, I have to do absolutely nothing. Just be myself.”

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So whatever your spiritual practice—even if you don’t subscribe to one—let us bring our faith into 2020, our belief in ourselves and the forces of good to get us through. This year is going to be a doozy, and we can learn from Cyntoia Brown and others like her that it’s about emancipating our minds and hearts first and foremostand having the courage to continue to believe in the might of right in the face of all that is formed against us.

Amen, Asé, and hells yeah.

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Deputy Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.

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