‘Poster Child’ shines bright light on harsh realities of justice system


(Courtesy of IBJ Book Publishing)
(Courtesy of IBJ Book Publishing)

Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story by Kemba Smith and Monique W. Morris (IBJ Book Publishing) recounts the tragic dilemma of a naïve and impressionable girl so busy trying to be grown up she almost ends up spending her adult life behind penitentiary bars for crimes committed by her murderous, drug-dealing boyfriend whom authorities are determined to prosecute — and quite willing to unreasonably sacrifice her future in order to do it.  In a cruel irony, he’s killed before they can arrest him, but, the prosecutor and judge still insist on securing a pound of flesh. Kemba Smith’s.

When the account surfaced in 1996, most notably in Emerge magazine, a few aspects immediately were clear.  For one thing, Smith had been dealt with extremely harshly for a first time non-violent offender.  She was, at worst, nothing more than a reluctant accomplice to the actions of a vicious thug who, when it came down it, didn’t give a damn about her or their baby she was carrying.

She entered federal prison in 1994, at age 24 and wound up serving six and a half years of a 25-year sentence, upon which President Bill Clinton commuted.  For another, were this a young White woman it’s unlikely the hammer of justice would’ve fallen so heavily — if at all — on her neck. Thanks in no small part to an obsession with punishing crack (i.e. Black) traffickers more stringently than other cocaine criminals.

Morris’ writing style flows well in a smooth narrative, rendering Poster Child an easy, in fact engaging read — even if the protagonist sometimes gets on your nerves. Smith has a difficult time with accountability and is in denial about her own culpability, which, of course, doesn’t make her a bad person.  It simply renders her less sympathetic than one would like.

At one point, it’s something of a reflex to be impatient with her for clinging to a thug who has no compunction at all about going upside her head — until you remind yourself that it’s not always as easy as it is simple for a woman, particularly one who’s young, to extricate herself from an abusive relationship.  Smith is by no means the first female — nor will she be the last — to throw herself away on a bum. And such individuals abound in the drug-dealing world, where hostility, be it with guns or fists, holds sway.

Still, there are several moments in which she has trouble telling the difference between love and stupidity.  For instance, packing her bags to go from a Richmond, Virginia suburb clear to New Orleans and visit a man whose criminal activity is jeopardizing her freedom and who just might decide the best way to keep her from cooperating with authorities against  him is to simply murder her. And there is stock and virtually cliché, brain-dead syndrome of knowing full well he’s cheating on her with other women, yet bending over backward to turn a blind eye.

Ultimately, this book is important because the issue is important, the issue of lopsided so-called justice.  It is — no two ways about it — a welcome, practically miraculous turn of fate that President Clinton came to Kemba Smith’s rescue.

Making it an all the sadder fact of life is that Smith is the exception to the rule by which girls in her position languish in the nation’s prisons to this day and will do so for years.  On the face of it, Clinton did a wonderfully noble deed in pardoning Kemba Smith. After all, she wasn’t a hardened, career criminal but a misguided young woman who’d made a disastrous mistake.  There was every reason to believe she would benefit from his largesse, get her life together and go on to salvage a productive future.

The question looms, though, what has he, Obama or any other president done on behalf of females who didn’t come from a privileged social class —  as a Hampton University student from a prosperous family, yet are no less the victim of someone else’s crime?  More to the point, what is anyone — from presidents down to prosecutors — going to do in the interest of actual justice?  Poster Child states point blank, “My humanity, along with the humanity of thousands of others of non-violent offenders, was ignored for the sake of supporting white privilege.  Being a pawn in the game of lucrative prison construction deals and billions of federal dollars handed over in largely white communities that warehouse mostly black and brown people, was infuriating.  And it still is.”

For more information on Kemba Smith and her story, visit www.kembasmith.com.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.