44 pages 1 hour read

Brittany Barnett

A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Brittany K. Barnett’s A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom, was published in 2020. It is a work of nonfiction with elements from the autobiography, law, and social justice genres. Focusing on the War on Drugs and its aftermath, the book covers the 1980s through the early years of the Trump administration. A winner of a Christopher Award, which celebrates authors and others whose work affirms the highest values of the human spirit, the book was additionally a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, an NAACP Image Award Nominee, and one of Kirkus Reviews’s best nonfiction books of 2020.

Plot Summary

Barnett weaves the story of Sharanda Jones with her own experiences. Serving a life sentence for a minor role in the drug trade, Sharanda has a story that was typical in the Black community in the 1980s and 1990s. A mother of a young daughter, Sharanda had abandoned the drug trade and was running her own hair salon and restaurant. When federal officials raided the drug operators in her town, a former friend gave Sharanda’s name in exchange for a shorter sentence. That “friend” did more than that, begging Sharanda to find her another supplier while wearing a recording device. Sharanda’s evasive reply to get the woman off her back was enough to incriminate her.

Congress passed broad laws in the 1980s to combat drugs. These laws allowed individuals to be convicted for conspiracy even if there were never any drugs or money found in their possession. They simply had to voluntarily agree to traffic drugs with another person. To escape conviction, defendants often snitched on others and accepted plea deals. If they went to trial, as Sharanda did, they could be convicted on a conspiracy count on the basis of the unreliable statements of those testifying to shorten their sentences. Sharanda was convicted of conspiring to deal crack cocaine. The sentence was harsh because the quantities were calculated on the basis of this same unreliable testimony, and because the sentencing for crack was 100 times more severe than the sentencing for powder cocaine. Since Black people were more likely to use crack cocaine, this disparity resulted in Black individuals getting much longer sentences than their white counterparts.

Barnett discovered Sharanda during a law school class on critical race theory. Reminded of her own mother, who served two years in prison on drug charges, Barnett felt compelled to pursue justice for Sharanda. That motivation additionally came from Barnett’s own first-hand experience of the prevalence of crack cocaine in Black communities. Barnett knew that many people got ensnared in this trade just to make ends meet; these were not drug kingpins. The lack of economic opportunities for Black Americans at this time, the lingering segregation in the rural South, and the sentencing disparities for crack were all factors in the racism that entrapped Sharanda in a living nightmare.

It took Barnett years to win Sharanda’s freedom, but win it she did. Given the harshness of the law, Barnett had no alternative but to petition for executive clemency. Ultimately, President Barack Obama granted Sharanda clemency in December 2015. While Barnett led the legal effort to win Sharanda’s freedom, it was a community effort, greatly assisted by positive media coverage of the case. Barnett worked tirelessly on Sharanda’s behalf, accruing significant overtime with no pay while maintaining an intense, professional day job in corporate law.

Given the years it took to win Sharanda’s freedom, there were times of great despair. The waiting was torturous. After the death of her mother, Sharanda was deeply depressed and losing hope. Her despair became intolerable when she learned that her daughter Clenesha was going to have a baby. It is from that moment of utter despair that Barnett titled the book, referring to a sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that sermon King advised to keep knocking even at the darkest hour of midnight, as dawn will come for those who insist upon justice. In this case, it did come. Sharanda was scheduled to be released before the birth of her grandchild, allowing her to support her daughter.

Barnett represented several other incarcerated clients, all of whom were serving long sentences for fairly minor roles in the drug trade. The fact patterns in those cases were alarmingly similar to Sharanda’s. Able to win clemency or reduced sentences in some of these cases, Barnett was nonetheless overwhelmed with the numbers of people left behind. It became increasingly difficult for her to navigate such contrasting worlds—the glamorous and wealthy corporate world and the nightmarish reality endured by her clients in prison.

Deeming the mass incarceration of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders the most pressing civil rights issue of her time, Barnett left her corporate job and devoted herself to solving this problem on a full-time basis. In making this decision, she benefitted enormously from the wise counsel of her family and community. To address this problem, she and her former clients started the Buried Alive Project, which seeks to win freedom for those serving life sentences under outdated drug laws. While the release of Sharanda and a few others is cause for hope, Barnett emphasizes the enormous loss of human talent with so many people incarcerated unnecessarily. The Buried Alive Project aims to expose this injustice and tell the stories of those in prison.