When I was looking for content for today, I found a photo of Brenda at the Audio & Radio Industry Awards in England, looking smashing. I am not familiar with her but I wanted to spotlight the gown, so I Googled, and holy cats. She is fascinating. Brenda did two and a half years in prison when she was 21 years old, and came out of that driven to advocate for prisoners both inside and outside of jail, and has built a career as a broadcaster (she has a program on National Prison Radio), a mentor, an advocate, and a poet, and she just curated an exhibit for HOME — an arts collective in Manchester — that I believe is all art created from inside prison (and which opened about 10 days ago if you’re in the area). Read this and weep:
I want to tell the story of what it takes to be creative in prison, in a facility where your freedom has been taken away. What it takes to be artistic in those places. I had to show everything. You can see the pain, the reflection, that somebody in jail goes through to put this piece of artwork out. It’s pain, it’s anger, it’s reliving scars, reopening wounds and finally finding that healing where you can share this.
Every single piece of artwork, if I could have put it in there, I would have. Because I’ve been to jail and I know how much it takes to put your name on. I know that this is a piece of your heart that you’ve given to some random person who doesn’t even know you. I had to approach it like creating a piece of poetry. What parts go together? What parts flow really well together and tell the story I need it to tell? […] It starts with Self-reflection. In that closed space, you’re thinking, ‘How did I get here? What am I going to do?’ It’s the bars, the darkness. In jail there’s all these gates and you have no keys, but you’re still trying to manoeuvre through it. It’s like being in a jungle or running through a forest, only you don’t know where you’re going. The animals speak of trying to figure out who you are. Am I bird? Will I fly free? Or am I a lion? Am I going to fight through to the end of this sentence?
When we started thinking about themes, I definitely want to do something dedicated to Black people. Black History Month is like saying that we’re only allowed as Black people one month to celebrate ourselves. So, let’s call it ‘Black History Dedication’, because I am Black every single day.
I figured that if I didn’t have Black History Dedication in talking about the prison or criminal justice system, I’d be lying, because the prison system is made up so many Black people. I think for me when I was in jail, there were a lot of people I looked up to, like Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. There were moments when I thought, ‘Whoa, Nelson Mandela went to jail and he became President. I have to do better’. Maybe there’s somebody in jail that is still confused, and they just need to be reminded of the Black people that have overcome some of these things.
The rest of that interview, done with the people at HOME, is really wonderful, and I encourage reading this 2018 piece she did for Refinery29 as well. She’s really remarkable; the way she is able to see outside of herself, and turn her trauma into a support structure for other women, is genuinely moving and inspiring. AND her dress here is gorgeous, so it’s a double delight for your Thursday afternoon.