Always, I return to the ditch.
I’ve never been there, but I’ve often imagined the Gary, Ind., gully where my brother Darrell died after two policemen’s bullets — one .357 magnum shot to his chest, another to his thigh — tore into him. Three decades later, it’s still easy to envision the ditch’s overhanging trees, its leafy isolation from houses across the suburban street, just a few miles from my childhood home.
What I still have trouble accepting is the picture painted of my older brother by the officers who shot him: Darrell barefoot with a cooking pot on his head, attacking them unprovoked with a plastic baseball, a pipe and a chain. And then him dying alone.
Nothing about that description makes sense. Not my peace-sign-
wearing brother attacking anyone — let alone a pair of armed, white cops — unprovoked. Not him gathering that odd collection of weapons with which to besiege them. And certainly not the cooking-pot-as-headgear, considering the autopsy that revealed Darrell, 26, had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Faced with so many unrecognizable images of my brother, I always think about something, anything, else. Like thousands of relatives of men and women whose suspicious deaths go unnoticed, I push away memories of the police department’s and the larger community’s collective shrug. Explanations for the images — that Darrell went briefly insane; that he was set up by his killers; that his slaying, corroborated by the public record, was somehow deserved — are excruciating. So I flee the ditch. Until the next time.
This past week, I joined millions in pondering images conjured by another official report, one that Trayvon Martin’s parents now wrestle with: their unarmed son, 17, followed by a stranger, turning to confront his stalker and attacking him fiercely enough to injure his nose and head before being shot to death.
What in that picture makes sense to them?
Official reports can bring welcome clarity to family members struggling with a loved one’s violent passing. Or they can create more questions, foster new doubts. As a survivor of a questionable killing — and as one of countless black family members burying a beloved body and grieving the life cut short — I suspect I’ll never bury the questions raised by my brother’s shooting. How can I accept that bizarre depiction of Darrell’s final moments when the only person who could refute it was killed by its authors?
Any slaying tears at a family, opening wounds that can take decades to heal. In cases like mine, an intimately known soul — whose stories, gifts and foibles are the stuff of family lore — is thrown into question. Suddenly, a different story is being told; a stranger is being described. Survivors realize that not only has a loved one’s future been truncated, but his past could be destroyed, too. They see it being rewritten by outsiders, media and police reports, and court rulings that assign blame or pronounce the killing “justifiable.” And they have to live with it.
Recently, I confessed to a friend that I was afraid for Trayvon Martin’s parents. The alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, had been too silent; the Sanford, Fla., police too much in retreat. Surely a less-flattering picture of their slain son would emerge. And boy, did it. A series of leaks has portrayed Trayvon as a kid punished for spraying graffiti, caught with women’s jewelry in his backpack, suspended from school for carrying a plastic bag containing marijuana remnants. Suddenly, the sweet-faced child of God, the schoolboy who’d “majored in cheerfulness,” fit the snarling stereotype that surely contributed to Zimmerman finding him “suspicious” and “up to no good.”
The unavoidable question — Which image is accurate? — is especially difficult when you’re discussing a malleable and evolving 17-year-old. Yet the follow-up question may be even more challenging: Does it matter?
For years, I was so beset by intolerable questions that I avoided thinking about the mysteries of the ditch where Darrell fell, clinging to what I was absolutely sure of: what Darrell was to me. An affirming presence, a thoughtful listener and my childhood hero; he was so affable, I can’t recall ever arguing with him. And he was so convulsively funny that no one questioned his goal of becoming a famous comic. That this popular, athletic kid somehow adored me suggested that another great guy might one day love me. He was perfect.
Yet the ditch was there to whisper otherwise.
For decades, I weighed whether my wonderful brother could have behaved as the police described. I hadn’t grown up mistrusting cops; I’d assumed them to be decent people sworn to protect my community. How did these two officers see Darrell as so dangerous and, apparently, so dispensable that they would shoot to kill him?
They had to have seen something other than the brother I knew. I felt certain they saw black.
But the racism that limits people’s vision — that targets individuals, stunts opportunities and even kills some — wounds millions more in less visible ways. Knowing that certain people would assume I was inferior because I’m black, I worked overtime to prove them wrong. This drive wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t made me doubt my worth and worry that my departed brother may not have held up his end of the bargain by being imperfect. By being human.
It was only recently, while writing a memoir about the hidden effects of Darrell’s death, that I understood what the ditch’s whispers had cost me. I’d pushed its contradictions, with countless other painful memories, so deep that I barely remembered the man at the center of my book — yet I was terrified of reaching out to his friends who could help me remember him. What, I wondered, was I afraid to learn? The answer broke my heart: something that could allow someone to believe he deserved to die.
But everything I’d clung to had been real — Darrell’s warmth, his humor, the empathy that led him to counsel addicts toward recovery and to teach his little sister that she was worthy of love. That man deserved to live. He had a right to be remembered as a child of God and as a complex man — just as every man, whatever his color, is entitled.
Trayvon’s parents seem smarter than I was when Darrell died. Asked about the police description that Trayvon confronted and beat the man who’d been following him, and that he uttered, “You got me,” after being shot, Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz: “It was bull. I said to myself, ‘No way.’ At that point, I knew there was something terribly wrong.”
His mother, Sybrina Fulton, had this to say about leaks that her son — who she said “used to smile all the time” and was excited about going to the prom — had been suspended from school three times: “Nobody is perfect, whether it’s an adult or a kid.” Nothing Trayvon had done, she pointed out, had merited arrest; he’d been caught “doing little things like writing on the walls, and being in an unauthorized area and being late for school. . . . He was a very loving person.”
These weary parents are blessed in a way I wasn’t: However alone their son must have felt, dying on that patch of grass, he didn’t perish in obscurity. Millions grieve his passing, acknowledge his humanity, demand justice for him. That matters.
In the decade after Darrell’s death, both of the officers who’d shot him were kicked off Gary’s police force — one for theft, the other for sexually assaulting his family’s 10-year-old babysitter. Today when I imagine visiting the ditch, I remember I what I’d tell anyone who would question my brother’s worth: The best place to see human beings’ complexity — our loveliness and loathsomeness, brilliance and foolishness — is in the mirror.
Donna Britt, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist, is the author of “Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”