The author of Brothers (& Me) discusses death and loss and explains what led her to write a memoir about the violent death of her brother.
Journalist Donna Britt
Tavis: Donna Britt is a former Pulitzer-nominated writer for “The Washington Post” who was nominated for writing’s top prize for a piece she wrote about the death of her older brother.
Her first book is a look at her upbringing in segregated Gary, Indiana. It’s called “Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.” She joins us tonight from Washington. Donna, good to have you on the program.
Donna Britt: It’s great to be here.
Tavis: Yeah, I was surprised, as long as I’ve known you and known your work and your family, I did not realize that this is your very first book.
Britt: Yeah, it’s taken me a while.
Britt: I waited until I had something to say.
Tavis: Yeah, I was just about to ask, why so long. But I hear your answer – you waited till you had something to say. Top-line for me – I’ll get into the specificity here in a moment – but top-line for me what it is that you felt you wanted to say or needed to say at this particular moment.
Britt: The book is about two different things. It’s about how the death of my brother affected me in ways that I had no idea, and I think it’s interesting for everyone who experiences a loss. We know how horrific that is and how difficult it is to get through, and that it affects us, but most of us really don’t want to go that deep into pain because it’s painful to do.
So writing the memoir forced me to go deeper and to understand what his death meant. The other part of it is about women and giving, which is something I’ve wondered about and thought about, about myself and about my friends and other women I knew. Women I know give so much, and I was just talking to the woman who did my makeup, and she was saying, we were saying together that this is sort of a secret that women have, that we do so much and we give so much and we offer so much, especially to the men in our lives.
Those two things are actually, in my case, joined together. So my brother’s death exacerbated and increased and deepened my giving. And I don’t know that I’m that special.
Tavis: Yeah. To your point about not – well, I think you’re pretty special, but to your point about not being that special, is there something special that was going on or happening in your life around this time that made you finally want to go wrestle with this?
Because I take your point that people don’t want to deal with these kinds of tragedies, these kinds of horrific incidents. So what happened at this point in your life that made you say, you know what? Whether one writes a book or not, I’m going to deal with this. The way I deal with it is by writing a book, but I’m going to deal with this now.
Britt: What happened with me was I was meditating and when you go into meditation you get really still. My son, Darrell, who’s named after my brother that was killed, had asked me to do something that I had absolutely no time to do, and of course he’d asked me at the last minute.
In meditation I had this thought that astounded me. I actually thought if I don’t do this for my son, he will die. It makes no sense, it’s not rational. My head went back and I said, “What?” and no one was there to hear me. But I realized that for 30 years I had felt responsible in some way that didn’t make any sense but that had informed my life from the moment that my brother died.
His death was at the hands of police, it was senseless. To this day I don’t understand what happened. The way that he was described as behaving wasn’t like him. There were no drugs in his system. It was – it made no sense. So what I did was – and I think a lot of women do this – I took some responsibility for not having been taking care of him.
I wasn’t checking – we were young adults so I wasn’t checking in with him, I wasn’t calling him, I wasn’t protecting him, I wasn’t doing for him. So I felt like I had to take care of all the men in my life, and this came as a complete surprise to me that I had done this.
I’m somebody who in a column, you’ve read my column, you know how personal it is and how deep I go. Yet I had so little knowledge of myself.
Tavis: How is it, Donna, to your point now, that you in fact make sense out of something that doesn’t make any sense? I hear your point – to this day you don’t really know what happened. So how, even when the book is completed, have you come to making sense out of something, again, that doesn’t make any sense?
Britt: One of the things that happens in the book is my youngest son, he’s like superheroes, and he asked me early in the book if you could have any super power, Mommy, what would you have? He’s 10 years old, and he says, “Do you want to move at super speed?” and I’m thinking of all the stuff I could do.
I said, “No.” He says, “Do you want to eat as much as you possibly can and not gain any weight?” and I’m like, “Ding, ding, ding.” (Laughter) Then he says, “Or would you like to go back in time? You could save your brother,” and I was paralyzed in my spot, I couldn’t move.
I had to think about it, because Darrell’s death shaped me so much that in some ways I wouldn’t know who I was. So being able to go back and look at it, I can’t make sense of his passing in such a violent and unexpected and unnecessary way. What I can do is try to make sense of its effect.
It actually feels wonderful to have this book, so that I can maybe help other people, and other women especially, study losses in their lives and see what the effects of them are, and this giving thing, it’s not just for me and it’s not just about me, it’s about so many women.
When I was writing this book, I would describe it to other women, and inevitably, it didn’t matter how powerful they are, their jobs, some of them ran their own companies, they told me these amazing stories of giving, and usually to men in their lives – their husbands, their boyfriends, their sons, and stories that they would whisper because there’s sort of a sense of embarrassment because we’re supposed to be so independent and so autonomous, and we’re so proud of what we’ve gained from the women’s movement. Yet this giving thing is something that so many of us have.
Tavis: I wonder if this giving thing you’re talking about is a Black woman thing, a white woman thing, and I ask that because you well know the old adage or the old saying that Black women, Black mothers love their sons. They raise their daughters but they love their sons.
In this conversation, in just the first few minutes, you’ve referenced already all three of your boys, two of them by name, two of them in various stories.
Tavis: You couldn’t even help but just talk about your boys in this conversation. So when you say this giving thing that women tend to have that sometimes may be giving too much, is that a Black woman thing, is it a white woman thing, is it a woman thing?
Britt: It’s a woman thing. Most of the women that I described the book to were white women, because I was at a – I did this at a spa, I did this in various professional settings, and I talked to every kind of woman about it.
What I discovered when I discovered my own – the way that my giving was tied up in my brother’s was it really made sense to me though about Black women, because I used to write articles where I would wonder about why Black women would be waving placards and signs in defense of guys who had done things that I would feel were indefensible.
So whether it was killing their blonde ex-wife and her friend or you remember pubic hairs on a Coke can or sleeping with boys at their fairytale ranch (unintelligible) set me up.
I think about all these instances where Black men’s behavior, to me I didn’t feel any compunction to defend these guys, and yet there were all these women, all these sisters out there feeling that they deserved that benefit of the doubt and trying to make sure that they got a fair shake.
What I realized was that Darrell’s death made me understand those women, and in some ways it makes me like them. I was middle class, and I grew up with college-educated parents and a college degree myself, graduate school, a professional career, all these things, so I was supposed to have been protected in ways that so many Black women are not, and they know how vulnerable their men are – their sons and their brothers and their husbands.
So having that happen to me made me realize and understand so much better these women’s almost reflexive impulse to protect Black men, and I think that you see that in the way that people deal with their kids.
Tavis: Protecting Black men is one thing; spoiling them is another. My mother is watching this program right now in Kokomo, Indiana, (laughter) where she watches every night, and I know she’s laughing on the inside. Maybe not laughing; maybe giving me a stern look right about now, because I happen to have seven younger brothers. Part of the problem with a couple of them –
Britt: Oh, my gosh. Oh.
Tavis: Part of the problem with a couple of my seven younger brothers is that my mother has spoiled them to death. She wants to blame it on all of us spoiling them –
Britt: Not you.
Tavis: Not me, no.
Britt: Not you.
Tavis: Mostly my mother, and others have spoiled my seven younger brothers. I raise that to say that it’s one thing to want to protect Black boys, Black men; it’s another thing to overprotect them, to spoil them. I say all that to ask how your brother’s death, Darrell’s death, has impacted how you raise, how you love your boys.
Britt: It’s made me be very clear with them, number one, how to behave with police who can target and maim and hurt and kill Black men, not necessarily in proportion to what they’re doing. There’s a suspicion, and I want them to be very careful, but more than that, I really want my boys to be appreciative of everything that’s given to them.
Not just by me, but I know my sons hear me talking about appreciating the women in their lives, what they do, what they offer, and wanting them to be good brothers. I felt so blessed to grow up with three smart and creative and independent and wonderful Black men, and they taught me early on to love Black men.
You probably remember I wrote the “Valentine for Black Men,” which is the most popular piece I ever wrote, expressing appreciation for all the good brothers that are out there doing the right thing and who don’t get any kind of press or props for that, and wanting my sons to be among them, and they are. I’m incredibly proud of that.
Tavis: Jonathan, put the cover of this book back up on the screen for me right quick. I’m asking Jonathan, Donna, to put the cover on the screen because before I even got into the book I had some expectation because of the way the title is laid out.
So obviously you had something to do with this, and your editors did a wonderful job with the graphic design.
Britt: I did. (Laughter)
Tavis: I could tell you were involved in this, because when I got through the story –
Britt: Oh, yes.
Tavis: – it was confirmed. But the way the title is laid out, “Brothers” in a boldface type, “(& Me)” underneath it –
Tavis: – in parentheses.
Britt: In parentheses.
Tavis: Yeah. So I raise that to ask whether or not you have gotten over that, have you changed your perception about your relationship to the men in your life, or does this cover still reflect where Donna Britt is? Does that make sense?
Britt: It does make sense. I think most people would say that I’m pretty self-sufficient and independent and that I don’t have much of a problem speaking up for myself. It’s much more subtle than that. It’s my own impulse to do for the guys in my life, and that’s why it’s small letters in parentheses, because sometimes I make that choice myself.
No one forces that on me. I think so many women, we give because we want to and we feel actually a need to do that. I think it’s actually part of our DNA, and if you think about it, a brilliant creator would ensure the survival of the race by having one sex be the one that nurtures and supports and props up and does the scut work that’s not so interesting but that’s required for life.
So one thing that I would like to happen with women reading the book is that they can own their giving and not be so ashamed of it, and to understand that this is a beautiful thing and that this is a gift. It’s a spiritual gift to give, and if you can understand it and own it, maybe you can control it a little better.
That’s what’s happening with me, is looking at it and understanding it has helped me to pull back and to maybe give a little bit less, and to begin to take those parentheses away when that’s my temptation is to sort of step back and let them have the floor, when I should take it more myself.
Tavis: It takes a great deal of courage, I think, to write a book like this. That’s why, respectfully, I disagreed with you earlier.
Britt: Thank you.
Tavis: Respectfully and lovingly disagreed earlier when you said you weren’t that special. I think you are pretty special, to put all this –
Britt: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: – on the pages of a text. The new book from Donna Britt is called “Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.” Donna, honored to have you on the program, thanks for coming on.
Britt: Thanks for having me.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.