Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Givingby Donna Britt
· Donna Britt has always been surrounded by men-her father, three brothers, two husbands, three sons, countless friends. She learned to give to them at an early age. But after her beloved brother Darrell's senseless killing by police 30 years ago, she began giving more, unconsciously seeking to help other men the way she couldn't help Darrell. BROTHERS (AND… See more details below
· Donna Britt has always been surrounded by men-her father, three brothers, two husbands, three sons, countless friends. She learned to give to them at an early age. But after her beloved brother Darrell's senseless killing by police 30 years ago, she began giving more, unconsciously seeking to help other men the way she couldn't help Darrell. BROTHERS (AND ME) navigates Britt's life through her relationships with men-resulting in a tender, funny and heartbreaking exploration of universal issues of gender and race. It asks: Why, for so long, did Britt-like millions of seemingly self-aware women-rarely put herself first? With attuned storytelling and hard-wrought introspection, Britt finds that even the sharpest woman may need reminding that giving to others requires giving to oneself.
In this gutsy memoir, journalist Britt write engagingly about the men in her life, and how caring for them often robbed her of a sense of self-mission....Britt writes eloquently of a woman's sense of anguish and ambiguity in giving herself so completely."Publishers Weekly"
In her debut memoir, former Washington Post columnist Britt offers an introspective account of growing up in Gary, Indiana...A probing psychological exploration that delves to rarely tapped depths."Kirkus"
Moving."AARP The Magazine"
Achingly honest. An alternately raw and elegant memoir...A wrenching, introspective examination of a life through the prism of racism, sexism, and unconditional devotion. Donna Britt's insights into her roles as mother, wife, and sister to black men explores the gray and fuzzy complexity of human emotion when, for better or worse, imperfect people love other imperfect people."Boston Globe"
Few black women have written about black men more frankly with heartfelt eloquence than former Washington Post columnist Donna Britt."Louisville Courier-Journal
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Brothers (and Me)A Memoir of Loving and Giving
By Britt, Donna
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Britt, Donna
All right reserved.
The moment I saw him, I wanted him.
Lithe, black, and muscular, he was the handsomest fellow in the room. We hadn’t been introduced, but he walked right up to me and looked me in the eye—so boldly you would have thought he was alone rather than accompanied by a clearly enthralled companion. He wanted me, too.
Then his companion nudged him. Turning, he strolled away, not bothering to look back. His cockiness reminded me of a saying: “All men are dogs.”
If this one hadn’t been an actual cocker spaniel, I might have been crushed.
It started a few weeks earlier, when it became painfully obvious that our fourteen-year-old American Eskimo was dying. Particularly stricken was my youngest son, Skye, ten. Recalling the loss of my own childhood pet—a squat cocker beagle named Taffy—I contacted a local cocker spaniel rescue and learned that adoptable dogs were being shown that weekend at a nearby pet store.
Entering the shop, Skye and I instantly spotted Woofer, whose black fur shone like just-poured tar and who made a tail-wagging beeline for us. But an elderly man had him firmly leashed; clearly he meant to adopt him. So Skye and I checked out several females, among them Millie, a blond nine-year-old as blasé as an aging movie star, and Penny, a jet-colored cocker, who, like many black females, stood to lose a few pounds. But our eyes kept returning to Woofer. If the adoption doesn’t work out, I told staffers, let us know.
Woofer’s unavailability, I decided, was a sign: I didn’t need another black male—even a four-legged one—in my life. Finally, fate had said, “Enough.”
I’d grown up as the only daughter of a father whose specialties were bricklaying and simmering silences; I’d spent years commiserating and exchanging barbs with my three brothers. At eighteen, I left for college, where lunchtime at my historically black university found me the lone female at a table full of secret-sharing guys who reveled in the encouragement, neck rubs, and advice I was only too accustomed to offering. After years of dating, I went on to marry—twice—and looked to motherhood to redress my lifelong gender imbalance. Destined for daughters, I gave birth to three sons. If that weren’t enough, my second husband and I for years opened our home to the troubled male friend of one of our boys.
Even our soon-to-be euthanized dog was an alpha male.
For decades, I’d been surrounded by men. Unable to recall a time when I wasn’t outnumbered, outgunned, and certainly outmanned, I craved female energy, if only from a pet. I needed a bitch.
Guess what I got.
Woofer’s would-be master took the pooch home, where his pet cat hissed and spat its disapproval. Another unjustly persecuted black male, Woofer became ours, the latest penis-bearer in a house overrun with them.
Know what’s really funny? I should have been as wary of Woofer—another male demanding my time and energy—as that snooty cat had been. Yet I adored him, just like all the others.
Why wouldn’t I? The Divine Prankster who plopped me down at birth in Blackmanland had invested me with a compulsive desire to help anyone in need within a ten-foot radius, and an unquestioned, though hardly unquestioning, love of brothers: Brothers in the familial sense, as in my siblings. Brothers in the cultural sense, as in my African-American male friends, kin, lovers, and guys I’ve never met. Brothers as in a lifetime’s worth of men and boys whose desires and demands often eclipsed whatever I wanted.
I’m hardly unusual in offering the men in my life whatever they need. Women are the world’s most reliable, and underappreciated, givers. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh and a mother of five, wrote achingly about the tendency more than a half century ago in her brilliant 1955 classic, Gift from the Sea: “All her instinct as a woman—the eternal nourisher of children, of men, of society—demands that she give. Her time, her energy, her creativeness drain out into these channels if there is any chance, any leak. Traditionally we are taught, and instinctively we long, to give where it is needed—and immediately.”
Yes, some men are geniuses at generosity. Just as surely, some women are stingy and unaccommodating. But women are much more likely to deplete themselves by noticing—and then offering—what’s needed by those whom they love. Long ago, I decided that the desire—make that the need—to nurture is as much a part of women’s essential makeup as our DNA, as the uterus, ovaries, and other uniquely female organs that allow us, not men, to give birth.
Why wouldn’t a brilliant God provide us with this survival insurance? Though men, too, give hugely to their children, sad statistics prove how much more often they turn away from giving.
No wonder my black male cocker became a metaphor for black men to whom I’d given. Instantly drawn to Woofer, I wasn’t supposed to have him—yet he can daily be found begging for belly rubs and demanding a portion of whatever I’m eating.
The inevitable way Woofer came to me—and that I didn’t run screaming when I learned he was available—symbolizes the countless times I’ve longed to flee black men but never could.
Over the years, I’ve fantasized about escaping: from black men’s chilling complexity, from the gripping grace that ever pulls me in. Frustrated by brothers’ troubled relationship with a world enamored of and repelled by them, I’ve responded by fiercely defending them, while occasionally agreeing with society’s harshest judgments. Over and over, some black man’s behavior—public or private, that of an intimate or an imperfect stranger—has made me want to scream. Hide. Conjure some way to make him, no, every freaking one of them, disappear long enough for me to catch my breath.
And still they can saunter right up to me, corral my heart.
White women—and brown and yellow and red ones, too—also give abundantly to men who may not appreciate it or even notice. Nobody makes us bestow so much upon the men in our lives, but we do it—even as we kick ourselves for it, even as we kick them for it, responding to a need greater than we or the men whom we both nurture and push away can articulate.
In one way, it’s worse for black women. In a nation in which black men die younger and more often than any other group of men, black women fear for the brothers in their lives, and for themselves at the prospect of losing them. Our fear is often as unthinking as our love. But certain terrors are earned the hard way.
In 1977, when grad school was my life and being a wife and a mother were faraway dreams, my beloved brother Darrell was killed. He was twenty-six. Did I fear for black men before I lost him? Was I anywhere near as driven to give to them? I wish I could be sure.
But I do know this: Too many black women have loved and lost—to violence or drugs or prison or any of a dozen other horrors that especially haunt blackfolk—someone like Darrell. Someone who taught them that loving black men is particularly risky in a world in which love itself seems perilous. Yet still we offer our hearts to brothers—as if we had no other choice, as if a black woman today didn’t have a Crayola-box array of men from which to choose.
Over and over, we choose them: The good ones, the bad ones, the conflicted ones, the ones who are clearly up to no good. Even the ones who are, well, dogs.
It’s a woman thing, really. Over and over, whether we’re black or white or brown or yellow, whether we’re Friedan-fed feminists or Betty Crocker conservatives, women forgive, support, and prop up the men in their lives. Over and over, we choose them. Even—unless my experience is unique, and I know damn well it isn’t—over ourselves.
Missing in Action
From my seat in the fundraiser audience, I couldn’t help admiring the woman before me. With her serene smile and hands carefully folded in her lap, this stylish woman, whom I was told is a lawyer, looked oddly familiar as she stared adoringly at her candidate husband during his stump speech. It occurred to me that this liberal Democrat was gazing as beatifically at her man as Nancy Reagan ever did at hers. So I was stunned after the speech when—upon learning I was writing a book about how women’s giving often goes unnoticed by men—the lawyer’s pleasant features morphed into an infuriated mask. “Will you explain why men like him”—she nodded bitterly toward the man she’d just beamed at—“can’t see how much we do for them and our kids?” As I wondered, How can one calm-looking woman feel so much love mixed with resentment?, I realized why she looked familiar. I’d seen her everywhere.
Especially in the mirror.
It’s a typical late summer Monday morning, so I’m a breathless blur as I dash around in the room where I so often find myself: the kitchen. Rinsing grapes and arranging sliced turkey on wheat for Skye’s chess camp lunch, I flit about as the boy himself chews a scrambled egg while contemplating the relative benefits of different superpowers.
“Mom,” he says, his ten-year-old voice heartbreaking in its boyish-but-how-long-can-it-last sweetness. “Which superpower would you want?”
Smiling, I duck my head in the fridge for juice.
“Would you like to be able to eat anything you want without gaining weight?” he asks. With vats of vanilla Häagen-Dazs dancing in my head, I think, Buddy, you can stop right there. But Skye isn’t finished.
“Or, would you like to be able to do things at lightning speed?” Pouring his orange juice, I envision how efficient it would be—frying his egg, fixing coffee, walking Woofer, starting a load of laundry, getting dressed, and yelling “Hurry up!” to Skye eight times—in two minutes, not twenty-five.
“Sounds cool,” I admit, shoving grapes into his lunchbox and thinking, No wonder this kid’s doing so well at chess camp.
“Or,” Skye says, winding up for his big finish, “would you like to travel through time?”
When I stop moving, he knows he’s got me.
“You could save your brother!” he adds triumphantly. And though there are a dozen other things to do before I take him to camp, I’m glued to the dingy kitchen floor. Silently wondering why the words “Sure, I’d go back and change every bad thing that happened” won’t come.
It’s a fantasy, I scold myself. Just tell him you’d travel back in time and save Darrell, and by extension, yourself.
But I can’t. As agonizing as my brother’s death was, it contributed so hugely to who I am that the thought of obliterating it is literally paralyzing.
If a button existed that could undo Darrell’s death, I’d instantaneously mash it. But Skye’s supposition is a game. Games involve risk. So I’m allowed to risk wondering:
Was there an invisible reason for Darrell’s leaving that I’d be wrong to undo?
No life is just one life. Each is an amalgam, a wildly textured bolt of cloth woven unconsciously by a weaver whose creation minute by minute intertwines with, seeps into, or is ripped apart by other lives.
But mine is a woman’s life, a perpetual-motion cartoon with countless hours passed in kitchens like the one where Skye has immobilized me. If a woman stopped moving long enough, she might notice her life is like a challenging recipe. Each day, she’s frustrated: by her limited preparation time, the unpredictability of her equipment, her ingredients’ maddening inconsistency. At times, her creation looks and smells wonderful, hints at perfection. Until without warning, it dissolves into disaster.
Somehow she salvages the mess. Again she works it; again she dares to think it might turn out nicely. Again it’s a mess.
At some point, the cook realizes: She has dedicated herself to the one dish that never “turns out.” Her unstable ingredients, the preparation’s highs and lows, the recipe’s uncertain outcome, aren’t problems. They’re the point. What matters is that she’s tasting everything, discovering new ingredients in her cupboard, incorporating whatever tumbles unexpectedly into the mix.
By dying, Darrell overturned the bowl. It took years, but I cleaned up the mess, scraped up what could be salvaged, found exciting new elements to add. Most days, the resulting dish looks impressive—at least on the surface.
What would it look like if Darrell had never left?
Standing motionless in the kitchen, I got a glimpse. A life constructed without Darrell’s death would look more like me—a truer, more authentic me. Who, I wondered, would that be? My brother, I realized, wasn’t the only one who’d vanished. I was missing in action in my own life.
The questions sparked by Skye’s game had actually begun weeks earlier. Days after my fiftieth birthday, I realized that virtually every time I see, hear of, or suspect a need in one of the men in my life, a thought so hushed and fleeting as to barely register flits through me. For decades, I had no awareness of it—until the morning its message became clear during a routine meditation: You must do whatever’s needed for the men in your life. You must.
Someone could die if you don’t. And you’ll regret it forever.
I’m reasonably self-aware. I understood Darrell had died at a juncture at which we’d drifted apart in ways that siblings in their twenties inevitably do. Yet it took thirty years for me to realize part of me still believed that if I’d stayed closer to him, had been more supportive with my time and attention, he’d still be alive.
The thought makes no rational sense. But the evidence that I believed it was played out every day.
I had given and given and given. To my sons, my husbands, my brothers, to the notion of black men as bruised, threatened, and worth sacrificing for—not always as a demonstration of my love for them, but for love of a man long lost to me, and out of terror of what could yet be snatched away. No wonder I’d dreamed of escaping from black men. Facing what my giving had cost me—not just in opportunities but in resentment and regret—was tough, but no tougher than my next questions:
How could I stop giving, an act as natural and unpremeditated to me as a sneeze? Should I rein in a behavior that was helpful, felt good, and was an essential spiritual imperative? Had it taken decades for me to notice my over-giving because so many other women with backgrounds quite different from mine behaved similarly?
Historically, martyrs have been appreciated in war zones and medieval villages. In daily twenty-first century life, self-sacrificers are a bore; my revelations could emit an ugly whiff of self-pity. That didn’t change certain facts: I was naturally generous; it was a trait of which I was proud. Yet there was nothing admirable about the lengths to which I—like millions of other women—sometimes took my must-give impulse. Darrell’s death was tragic enough. I’d multiplied its awfulness by letting it coax me to offer out of fear rather than love. It gave me unconscious permission to stay boxed inside my terror: of risking failure, of letting “my” men and boys be fully responsible for themselves.
Over the years, I’d puzzled myself by clinging to failed relationships and a spectacularly bad marriage, by being reluctant to speak up for my needs when challenged by insistent brothers, by rejecting lucrative job opportunities because I “knew” the men in my life needed me more. That such behavior could partly be traced to a whispered voice born of a decades-ago death seemed absurd.
If only that had kept it from being true.
Giving too much isn’t limited to black women. My automatic behavior wasn’t that different from women’s of every color, nationality, education level, and income. Women want to give their time, their passion, their bodies, their wide-open hearts, to men. (We give to other women, too, but they’re more likely to give back in kind.) We enjoy bestowing our stuff on the guys in our lives.
The problem is when our offerings aren’t appreciated, rewarded, or even noticed. When we discover few men harbor the same impulse. When we don’t get back nearly what we put out. When it pisses us off.
White, Latina, and Asian women, being women, also have issues with over-giving. Yet there’s a special dynamic among black females. My friend Wendi Kovar, a Washington-based life coach, told me that several of her female clients’ experiences suggest that women with serious weight problems have a hidden need to protect themselves. Her favorite example: A client whose son, fourteen, died tragically. Virtually overnight, this slim woman became obese. For a decade, she fought to lose weight, even visiting a spa whose Spartan cuisine guaranteed it. Her scale didn’t budge. She finally told Kovar her extra pounds were “protective armor” that she’d never lose before making peace with her son’s death.
Kovar’s client was white. But the notion of excess weight as a form of protection seems particularly relevant to black women, the nation’s heaviest group. African-American women grapple with the terrifying knowledge that their fathers, brothers, sons, lovers, husbands, and friends tend to die earlier than other men, and are more likely to be lost to incarceration, addiction, and alienation. Yet the popular image of African-American women is one of toughness, independence, and rage toward black men.
So why is it that among all American women, sisters are the least likely to seek lovers outside their race? Why wouldn’t it devastate us to hear black men’s rap-video and real-life bluster about black “bitches” and “hos” when we know almost every brother has had a mother, lover, and/or grandmother who gave her all for him? Why wouldn’t we look for comfort in food—or in anything that looks or smells the least bit like love?
Now, in the kitchen, I’m equally clueless. Cemented to the floor, I feel Skye’s curious eyes on me. Finally I say, “I think I would choose to travel through time, but I’m not sure what I would change.”
Nodding, Skye says, “I knew it.” He’s satisfied.
I’m anything but.
I know I should explore the questions raised by Skye’s game and my revelation about my brother. I’m just as certain I have little desire to probe tender, bruised places I’ve hidden for good reason. I’m wary of examining how the woman I’ve become intersects with her past, her men, her forgotten selves. But how else can I learn why I give so much and am so confused by the giving?
Traveling through time—Skye, you do know your mommy—I could examine when the girl whose life was all about her books, her brothers, and herself became so much about everyone else. Was my transformation the result of Darrell’s death? Or were other factors—including growing up as a woman, my blackness and the vulnerability it bequeathed—as important?
Prying open doors sealed shut a quarter of a century ago would be excruciating. But I had to try.
Even without superpowers.
Over and over after he left, I asked myself: Are the dead really dead? Could those who’ve “passed on” move so freely, speak so clearly, occupy so much pulsing space within us if they were indeed gone? Magnified to its subatomic essence, the pebble I unthinkingly kick away becomes a seething universe. Maybe all of life is a matter of level—the level on which any being or object vibrates. If a stone can whisper its truth, what might the dead be saying to us? What does my life, as rote as the kick that sends the pebble flying, tell the lingering departed?
If he’s dead, why am I still trying so hard to save him?
Nothing in the world is more elusive than memory.
As someone who misremembers details of conversations I had yesterday, I harbored few illusions about precisely recalling the distant past about anything. Why trust memory when I’m unsure why certain events linger and others drop away until a phrase or a snatch of song rivets me in a moment long lost to me?
To this day, I have no idea why I lost my stalagmites.
I was about four when I noticed that whenever I closed my eyes for more than a few seconds, God gave me a gift: a mesmerizing and uplifting light show.
On my eyelids.
Sliding into bed, I’d shut my eyes and there they’d be: massive, free-floating forms in shades of smoke, tar, and midnight. Like jagged mountaintops that had broken free from some new-formed earth, they were humongous, yet floated weightlessly in slow motion across my mind. Night after night, I felt comforted by the constellations’ presence, dazzled by their gleaming, prismed surfaces.
Sometimes I wondered: Do other people see such things? Suspecting they didn’t, I told no one—not even Darrell—about my private panorama. If no one else had such visions, if watching these nightly sojourns made me weird, I didn’t want to know. It was too wonderful, feeling like a small satellite to their immenseness, being the spaciousness through which they drifted.
It wasn’t until third grade that I read about stalagmites and stalactites. Formations that occur in limestone caves, they’re created when acidic water dissolves the limestone, dripping tiny fragments toward the cave’s floor. When the water evaporates, the limestone solidifies, forming an icicle-like stalactite. Continued dripping creates a second structure—a stalagmite—beneath the original. As decades pass, the floor-bound and the suspended sections draw closer together. Decade after decade, each half reaches for the other—until finally, they meet, forming a column.
Something about the pale green shapes in my textbook felt instantly familiar. Their spikiness, slow growth, and presence in sheltering havens were like my nightly visitors’. The color was off and they were much too thin, yet I knew: my free-floating formations were stalagmites and stalactites, searching for their other halves.
Of course, I’d already found mine. The one who was separate, but part of me. Who always reached for me, to whom I unfailingly reached back.
When someone you love shifts from the firmness of flesh to the squishiness of memory, even powerful remembrances may be lost to you. Yet some stuff you never lose—like the memory of staring at a newspaper headline viewed a dozen times before, and feeling like you’re seeing it for the first time:
Gary Man Shot by Police.
I was twenty-three. Sitting at the table in my mother’s kitchen, I’d been called home to Gary, Indiana, from grad school by an event that could not have happened. The headline in the Gary Post-Tribune was supposed to make it real, so I read it over and over, repeating the words in my mind. Gary Man Shot by Police. I’d read them too often in my hometown newspaper not to know what they signified: a no-thought headline announcing the shooting of an anonymous thug. Such a headline couldn’t possibly refer to my brother Darrell. Important people’s violent passing warranted outrage, regret, astonishment—and nobody in the world was more important than the brother who loved me. Gary Man Shot by Police? It hit me: To most of the world, my life’s most shattering event was no big deal. Because Darrell had been mistaken for ordinary.
Not the average Joe–ordinary that nearly every white guy is assumed to be. Even in Gary, the former murder capital of the United States, the shooting of the most undistinguished white man usually warranted more than a newsprint shrug. But Darrell was black ordinary, which meant his life didn’t matter much: Not to the police who shot him. Not to the reporter who wrote the terse, six-paragraph report of yet another brother getting himself killed. Certainly not to the copy editor who took all of three seconds to compose “Gary Man Shot by Police.”
Well, in some ways he was. Darrell wasn’t short and he wasn’t tall; he was neither linebacker-thick nor tap-dancer wiry. His eyes were warm and dark and kind—but no more so than millions of other young men’s eyes. At five ten he was exactly the average height for an American male. He was quietly good-looking, as tender, volatile, and doomed young men often are.
He was just Darrell. And all that he was not—striking, brilliant, wildly successful—hardly mattered to those who couldn’t imagine life without him. A regular man, he was, like regular men everywhere, loved by his little sister with unremarkable completeness. My parents produced four smart, lively children—but only Darrell seemed likely to lead a typical and uneventful life, productive in the usual, unexciting ways: a stable marriage, a couple of kids, a decent job with a modest pension.
Is it surprising that he died what increasingly has become a typical black-guy’s death?
Growing up, I hadn’t the slightest sense that black males—my brothers, my schoolmates, my father—were more vulnerable than other boys or men. Daddy had been too formidable to be afraid for; the most dangerous thing I envisioned my brothers facing was a schoolyard beat-down.
Staring at the headline in Mom’s kitchen, I examined the “facts”—Mom’s torrential tears, the ashen corpse at a local funeral parlor, a familiar phone number now belonging to no one—of what surely had to be fiction. Darrell was dead. Like the headline, two Gary cops had mistaken him for something he’d never been. They’d received a call that a black man was trying to steal a truck in his lakeside neighborhood. Investigating, they’d found Darrell crouched in a ditch. They claimed he’d attacked them. That they had to shoot him. Darrell? Whom I’d never known to steal anything? Who was among the kindest people I knew?
If such an absurd mistake could be made about him, it could be made about any black man. The policemen’s claims and my brother’s dead body proved that the value and the safety of the people I loved most were in question. I wasn’t sure I could live with that.
Perhaps it was then, as I sat dumbfounded at Mom’s dinette, staring blankly at her kitchen’s cheery yellow walls, that I began pushing Darrell into my mind’s dimmest corner. I did it so well that today it’s easier to remember what my favorite brother wasn’t than what he was. He wasn’t, like my sibling Steven, older than me by five years, so taken with his own giftedness that he couldn’t see my drawing, hear my singing, ponder my opinions as if they mattered. He wasn’t four years younger like Bruce, whose age deficit meant I could take his admiration for granted. Sandwiched with me between them, Darrell didn’t stroke or scream at people like Steve did to get his way, or seem malleable while doing exactly as he pleased like Bruce. He was something else entirely.
Remembering what he was means stepping into a bleak, little-used room inside me. Flipping the light switch, I squint and discover that my eyes don’t quite focus. Feeling my way around, I bump into unresolved emotions, slip on scattered memories, prick myself on sharp-edged regrets.
I don’t go in there often. As the years have passed, the light inside has grown dimmer and dimmer.
Most of my memories of Darrell take place in my childhood home, a streamlined redbrick ranch built in 1963 by my mason father. A Michelangelo when it came to laying stone and brick, Daddy designed our house’s curved driveway and the balcony that hovered over my brothers’ favorite hangout: the cement patio and basketball court.
The Gary, Indiana, in which we lived was strikingly different from the impoverished city whose disintegrating buildings and weed-covered vacant lots recently caused my visiting husband to marvel, “This is the bleakest city I’ve ever seen.” When I was a kid, Gary—founded on Lake Michigan in 1906 as the site of a massive new steel production facility—was a vibrant city of 135,000 souls so connected to Big Steel that the question “Where does your dad work?” almost always elicited the same answer: “The mill.”
Daddy’s work was seasonal and mill-related, so the family income ebbed and flowed with the mills’ fortunes. Yet we kids never felt hungry or lacking. Our parents griped about money, but if they were deeply worried, we never saw it. Daddy and Mommy, an insurance saleswoman, worked hard. Yet every once in a while, they got dolled up to go out with friends: millworkers, carpenters, and teachers transformed into glamorous sophisticates in tailored suits and peplumed dresses.
Such dazzle was on display the first time I noticed—and felt betrayed by—my giving. I was six the Saturday that my mother enlisted us kids into dusting and vacuuming for a party she and Daddy were hosting. Transforming our messy living room into the swank site of a grown-up gathering was thrilling, even before Mommy made up her face and poured herself into a slim sheath she called a “cot-tail” dress. Her metamorphosis from mom to sexpot matched Daddy’s, whose sharkskin jacket made her bricklayer husband look like a guy who’d left the Rat Pack because Sinatra was insufficiently cool to hang with him. Who knew my parents were so beautiful? Proud of them and our magically transformed home, I could barely breathe.
Banished to the back of the house, Steve, Darrell, Bruce, and I put on our pajamas, whispering so we could hear clinking glasses and Dinah Washington warbling from the room where we often fought with plastic swords and watched Candid Camera. By the party’s end, I’d figured out how I could be helpful to my parents while inserting myself into the hipster action: bringing guests their coats. The plan worked; I reveled in guests’ hugs and effusive thank-yous as I retrieved their wraps. Then I made the mistake of handing a fedora to an uncle who, unbeknownst to me, had recently made a big deal out of swearing off hats. When the grown-ups cracked up, I felt exposed: a silly kid in pj’s who had no business at a classy cot-tail party. Retreating into a closet, I pressed my face into a coat as my throat caught fire.
Darrell found me. Soothed me. Told me I’d done nothing wrong. “Go to bed,” he said. “We’ll play Life in the morning.” I went to bed. Grateful he was always there, making things better.
My awareness that I liked doing things for others evolved around the time I became aware of something else that brought both pleasure and pain: I was a “Negro.” It was the early 1960s. Gary, I realized, was unashamedly segregated, and all my friends, my family’s friends, and most of our community’s doctors, teachers, and service providers were “colored.” Some might think our lack of white neighbors, colleagues, and pals lessened our lives. In fact, life couldn’t have felt fuller.
My parents’ generation of working-and middle-class blackfolk was determined to live the exemplary lives of which white people thought them incapable. Having done all they could to escape the oppression that had tormented their ancestors, few looked back. None of the families in our orbit suffered in any obvious way from the ills assumed inevitable in black America: harsh poverty, criminality, imprisonment, drug abuse, unmarried parenthood (folks hid it or got married). Before the civil rights movement, I rarely heard adults bristle at their lot. Life was too bursting-at-the-seams full for folks to stop living it long enough to complain—at least around us kids.
So my early years don’t qualify me to write one of those anguished black narratives whose narrators had sex as preteens, were raped by family members, or were forced to join gangs. I wasn’t beaten by my boyfriends or encouraged to use or sell drugs. The only liquor I ingested was the rare cupful of Boone’s Farm apple wine–spiked punch at a blue-lights-in-the-basement party.
For years, I didn’t even resent the white people whose lives somehow mattered more than ours. I knew none to resent. I had exactly one white teacher; my family’s encounters with white people consisted of exchanges with downtown salesclerks and workers fixing appliances or delivering milk. As for housing, Negroes in Gary respected the invisible boundaries that determined where whites lived and blacks knew better than to look.
Yet my family “knew” hundreds of white people, thanks to TV, books, and other media. White folks’ habits, culture, and slang; their lives—or the lives they presented for public consumption—were familiar to us. Certainly, they were more familiar than our lives were to them. Our parents and grandparents had been intimate with whites in up-close-and-personal ways; many had worked in white people’s homes, seen them unguarded. We kids breathed in white lives long-distance.
Sometimes, we got closer. On special Saturdays, my parents, brothers, and I piled into Daddy’s coral and cream Plymouth, drove to a nearby suburb like Miller or Merrillville, and gawked at sprawling homes with precision-clipped grounds. We rarely saw white people. These homeowners eschewed the strolling, porch sitting, and car washing typical in our neighborhood. As Daddy drove slowly enough for us to see each manse, the kid who first noted a particularly cool house screamed, “I got that one!” adding the home to his or her imaginary portfolio. Spectacular homes inspired fierce squabbles over who’d hollered first.
Fighting over these houses gave us some purchase on their mysterious owners. What were they up to behind their drawn curtains? Were their homes so gorgeous inside they felt no need to venture out? Who were these unseen, distant-though-close strangers?
The best way to learn was through TV, which we loved despite no one on it looking like us. Our lone twelve-inch black and white had the power to gather entire families for annual events: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, The Wizard of Oz, Mary Martin “flying” via visible cables as Peter Pan, Lesley Ann Warren’s saucer-eyed Cinderella. Black folks were so rarely on the magic box that neighbors threw open their doors and rushed onto their porches to shout the news when “colored” stars appeared. “Hey, Sammy Davis Jr.’s on Ed Sullivan!” The streets emptied.
By 1965, Darrell, fourteen—the official family clown, with Bruce running a close second—was quietly toying with the notion of a show business career. That September, NBC debuted an adventure-comedy show named I Spy, starring an urbane, handsome, clever, and—this part we barely believed—black comic. His name: Bill Cosby.
Cosby, swear to God, looked like a grown-up Darrell.
Cosby the spy was debonair and smart. Cosby the comic convulsed us with his tales of how complex life was for kids. The man was perfect. That the hippest black entertainer alive resembled my sidesplitting brother was a portent of Darrell’s amazing future. We idolized Cosby, never imagining that decades later, the entertainer’s only son, Ennis—mistaken by a racist ne’er-do-well as just another expendable brother—would be shot dead for no good reason.
Just like Darrell.
Once upon a time, such an occurrence was unthinkable. Darrell’s presence was as warm and assured as the sun’s. My family’s love and constancy provided a sense of safety so deep and unthinking, I seldom questioned it. Darrell was like Mommy and Daddy and Steve and Bruce and my dolls and my friends and my welcoming bed, whose sheets were always cool and whose offer of a safe slumber was certain. At seven, you know these necessities will always be there. You know.
I don’t remember when my stalagmites disappeared. As I grew older, images of life outside my eyelids—friends, boys, TV and movie stars—crowded the spaciousness they’d floated through.
By the time I lost Darrell, they were gone, too.
Few would question a working-class black girl always having her face in a book. But these books? Printed in the 1930s with detailed illustrations, my favorite was written by a nineteenth-century New England spinster and handed down to me by my mother. By the time I was eight, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was my bible, and its Civil War–era heroines cherished kin: stubborn Jo, selfless Meg, calculating Amy, and saintly Beth, whose death from a fever-weakened heart devastated me each time I read it. A few years later, my undisputed favorite was Gone With the Wind, that love poem to the Confederacy whose servile black characters—Prissy, Big Sam, Mammy—mortified me. My earliest literary influences ignored me, were contemptuous of me, or had no clue that black girls like me even existed. And still I gave myself over completely to them.
In some ways, girlhood for me was a long, slow period of falling out of love with myself. Three things helped mightily in the process: beauty, buddies, and my blackness.
Beauty first. At age seven, I felt good about the girl in the mirror. I liked my looks, found school exciting, and was a talented-enough artist for kids to fight over my drawings. Life was so agreeable, I thought anything I worked at—my appearance, my studies, my artwork—would pay off. Wedded to perfection, I was ripe for a lesson in the impossibility of maintaining it. My teacher: Easter shoes.
Easter was a big deal at Saint Timothy’s Community Church, the creamy brick edifice where Mom, my brothers, and I were fixtures. A block from our house, Saint Timothy’s was the domain of the Reverend Robert Lowery, a lion of a pastor whose pomaded mane glistened as he prowled the pulpit, roaring his sermon. Easter at Saint Tim’s was exciting—the lilies! the eggs! the hats!—yet the holiday confused me. I’d seen King of Kings so I knew Jesus had piercing blue eyes and had died on the cross for my sins. But my Sunday school teacher insisted Christ’s huge sacrifice did nothing to cancel out my everyday sinfulness in yelling at my brothers and coveting my friends’ record players. More frustrating was my teacher’s response to a nagging question: Where did this hard-to-please God come from? “He didn’t come from anywhere,” she offered, sounding somehow unconvinced. “God was always there.”
“But everyone comes from someone!” I countered, stunned that she couldn’t see the obviousness of it. “I came from my Mom, Jesus came from Mary.” The more my teacher explained God’s omnipresence—insisting that “God existed before time began”—the crazier she sounded. When I added her ravings to my nightly prayer’s hair-raising suggestion that I could “die before I wake,” religion became a very tough nut. Maybe only grown-ups got it.
So Easter was all about the outfit. It was the one time a year I was guaranteed a whole new ensemble, and in 1961 mine was perfect: a daisy-colored dress, matching jacket and hat, and—this part snatched my breath away—yellow patent leather Mary Janes. The shoes’ beauty made them like jewels or a rare painting. Reverently, I removed them from the box to marvel at them. But they were works of art for my feet—feet that jumped rope, ran from boys, and walked on sidewalks bent on scuffing unwary footwear.
So on Easter, I slid on my new shoes last. Walking normally would invite creases, so I lumbered flat-footed toward church. When Mom asked, “Why are you walking like that?” I said, “I don’t want my shoes to bend!” Uselessly, Mom said, “All shoes get creases!” Not mine. A canary-colored mummy, I walked locked-legged to church, where I modeled my glass-smooth shoes for friends.
Back home, I was horrified to find my treasures marred by several inexplicable scuffs. After a few more black marks, I downgraded my magical shoes to mere footwear. Yet I never forgot how futilely I contorted myself to preserve their perfection.
I’d had a master role model. From the moment my mother, Philadelphia-area native Geraldine King, said “I do” to Thomas Elwood Britt, a lanky sailor turned bricklayer whom she barely knew, she’d toiled to keep agonizing childhood memories from marring her shiny, new life. The new Mrs. Britt moved briefly with her husband to Berkeley, California, where Daddy, a former high school basketball star, played semipro hoops for the Oakland Bittners. A year later, she gave birth to a honey-skinned baby boy, Steven Elwood. Returning with her husband to Gary, my mother bore a second son, Darrell, and three years later, a girl: me. I was four when Mom gave birth again. My much-anticipated younger sibling turned out to be the last thing I needed: another boy.
It took me all of two seconds to fall in love with my baby brother, Bruce. Besides, in one way, his gender hardly mattered because it soon became clear that no two Britt kids were remotely alike. I was the brainy people-pleaser, which repulsed the rebellious Steve, who responded by teasing me nonstop and telling me grisly tales of “The Green Man,” a local ghoul that snatched little girls off the street. Once Steve was jokingly waving a kitchen knife at me when he inadvertently jabbed my knuckle. The resultant gush of blood brought such horror to Steve’s face that I forgot my pain in my astonishment that he might actually care about me.
Calm, funny Darrell and I were each other’s instant favorites. I loved being privy to his secret joys and fears; his trust contributed hugely to my healthy self-regard. I gave him a respite from Steve’s mischief and egotism; he offered me a break from keeping a close maternal eye on Bruce. While pregnant with my youngest brother, Mom had hoped to avoid sibling rivalry by telling me, “This baby will belong to you.”
I believed her. But my adorable baby brother belonged to no one. At fourteen months he was a diapered freedom fighter, running back and forth across the length of his wooden playpen, banging his head in painful protest at being caged. I’ll never forget accompanying Bruce and Mom to the doctor’s office so he could be immunized before kindergarten. Instructed to drop his drawers, Bruce obliged—until he saw a spectral figure in white holding a long, sharp needle moving silently toward his rear.
Excerpted from Brothers (and Me) by Britt, Donna Copyright © 2011 by Britt, Donna. Excerpted by permission.
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