In “Brothers (& Me),” print and television journalist Donna Britt tells the bold and honest story of the tragedy at the center of her adult life. Britt’s brother Darrell, a 26-year-old African American man with no criminal record and no history of mental illness, was killed by the police, who alleged that he had jumped out of the bushes and threatened them while waving a chain and wearing an aluminum pot on his head.
Britt and her family were left to deal with this — to try to unravel the bizarre circumstances of his death and make some emotional sense of life in his absence, aware that no answers would ever be truly satisfactory. While there is a tragic timeliness in reading Britt’s memoir amid the outcry over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the ultimate tragedy may be the timelessness of this narrative — the sense that our national culture still codes black men as aggressive and suspicious, and that so often when that results in death, black male life is treated as disposable — as though premature death is ordinary, perhaps even inevitable, and not an occasion that requires explanation or change.
Martin’s death has given a temporary national spotlight to women like Britt, black mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who worry that in a world that seems to put little value on black life, violence might find the men they love. Although much in Britt’s world changes over the course of her memoir, her sense of the vulnerability of black men never dissipates, and it would be difficult to tell her that her fears for her sons — one of them named after her brother — are unfounded.
Darrell’s death and its implications became so central to Britt’s adult identity that when her son suggested that she might wish to go back in time and save him, Britt hesitated, noting that the incident “contributed so hugely to who I am that the thought of obliterating it is literally paralyzing.”
“Brothers (& Me)” is a bravely personal book, and Britt writes with the assured voice of an old friend. Its most poignant sections detail her family life — both her life in the family that raised her and her adult life in the family she has created. Her personal and professional journeys illuminate the ways in which structural realities become personal. From childhood in de facto segregated Gary, Ind., through Darrell’s death, to a professional life that often involves being the only black journalist in a newsroom, Britt is always aware of the implications of inhabiting an African American body. Throughout the memoir we see her become increasingly aware of what it means for that body to be female — to be subject to sexual assault, planned and unplanned pregnancy, the physical labors of motherhood, and the emotional labor of holding a family together in the face of many kinds of betrayal and forgiveness.
The book is at its best when it speaks to these realities through a sharp focus on Britt’s life and lets these details open up other conversations. The sections that make larger points and support them with only anecdotal data can feel a bit flimsier. At times, the book makes broad claims about the nature of being female and attributes these claims to biology without actually citing any. Britt periodically starts to draw conclusions about the impact that fear for the welfare of black men has on black women’s collective emotional and mental health. Although there’s almost certainly sociological evidence out there to support or refute some of these claims, she generally contents herself with loose speculation.
The book is a bit slippery on the question of how much these gendered experiences are distinctly racial experiences. Sometimes Britt asserts that black women’s experiences are unique; other times, often after setting out the specific and unique details of black women’s lives, she inserts an aside stating that white women’s relationships to men and family are essentially the same.
Though these answers to the question of what it means to be a black woman attuned to the particular vulnerabilities of black men may at times feel unsatisfactory, they get at the difficult question of balance at the center of the book. In an early chapter, Britt writes poignantly, “girlhood for me was a long, slow process of falling out of love with myself.” This falling out of love is not solely, or even primarily, caused by men, but it becomes clear to the reader, and ultimately to Britt herself, that a lot of that eroded self-love has been channeled into men instead.
Britt spends much of her life working toward a way to love, care for and forgive the black men in her life without sacrificing herself. In inviting the reader into that intimate journey, she gives us all a way to think about what it might mean to love ourselves without forgetting how to love those whom we feel obligated to protect, and without pretending that our desire to protect alone is enough to fend off all of the world’s waiting dangers.
BROTHERS (& ME)
A Memoir of Loving and Giving
By Donna Britt
Little Brown. 310 pp. $25.99