According to the police report, the patrolmen who peered into the ravine that morning saw a man who was black, barefoot and wearing an aluminum cooking pot on his head. A witness who’d been observing the man said that he was crouched “like a native hunter” while chanting something unintelligible. Then the man stood and said to no one in particular, “Take me higher.”

Police had been called to this wooded, sparsely populated section of Gary, Indiana, on Sept. 29, 1977, because the man reportedly had tried to slip his hand into the window of a stranger’s truck. The truck’s owner had confronted him and asked what he was doing. “I’ve got to get home,” the man said, trembling. “Will you take me home?”

He never made it. Convinced that the man was on drugs, the truck owner told him to wait while he called the police to take him home. He then phoned the cops, telling them he was “holding” someone who was trying to steal his truck.

The two white patrolmen who responded, Officers Jerry Cyprian and Daniel Mattox, said they found the man in the nearby gully, a tire clutched in one hand, a broken bottle top in the other. Minutes later the policemen pumped one .357 magnum bullet into the man’s chest and another into his left thigh when, the report says, he shouted, “I’m going to kill you,” and charged at one of them with a chain, a brick, a plastic baseball and a three-foot length of pipe. Within minutes, he was dead.

Twelve years after my brother Darrell died in that ditch, I couldn’t recall the headline of the story describing his killing. Then an editor friend at The Gary Post Tribune sent me a clipping.

Unidentified man shot by Gary policemen.

Even back then, part of me -- detached from the tunnel of pain that roared through me after I heard the news -- was struck by the headline’s impersonal tone. Unidentified man shot by Gary policemen. What hit me was that the event it announced -- the halt of another anonymous Gary man’s life by local police -- seemed an event of only minor surprise, hardly “news” at all. I realized that if this particular death had not been Darrell’s, I might easily have flipped by it on my way to something I could relate to -- the women’s pages, maybe, or the comics.

My family will never know what happened on that September morning. Darrell, who had attended Indiana University and was working as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel, had no history of mental problems. The autopsy found no alcohol or narcotics in his blood. An inquest investigating the shooting exonerated the two policemen. But they were hardly “Gary’s finest.” Both later left the police force in disgrace -- Cyprian in 1979 after his conviction for child molestation; Mattox in 1987 following a burglary conviction.

Darrell was 26 when he died. That I am now older than my beloved big brother seems an error of cosmic proportion. Somehow, I have traveled beyond the man whose advanced age -- three mighty years older than I -- and mysterious “older-man” experiences -- high school, dating -- made him seem exotically mature. Since he died, a marriage and its breakup, childbirth and an evolving career have deepened and defined me. How could I have grown so without him?

Some things haven’t changed. In the years since Darrell’s death, I’ve seen hundreds of headlines announcing the violent end of a life. After grad school, I took a newspaper job in Detroit, the pre-District murder capital, and sometimes reported on the carnage.

Ten years and two jobs later, I moved here from Los Angeles, where muggings and gang-related shootings are so common that one local woman bought a pit bull for her preteen son and told him never to leave home without it. I found I’d landed in a place where the skyrocketing murder rate prompted the mayor to proclaim to reporters, “This is not Dodge City.” A place where in January, the month I arrived, 50 men, women and children were murdered. Fifty.

Fifty is exactly the number of bodies that can comfortably sit on a large District bus; twice what many experts feel is an acceptable number of students in an elementary school classroom; more than seven times the number who perished when space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In Washington, D.C., 50 people who assumed they’d see Valentine’s Day were murdered before midnight Jan. 31.

Forty-seven of them were black.

We know black life is tenuous. We know that Americans whose skins are dark have much higher odds than their pale neighbors of one day smiling from the pages of their local newspapers as statistics. We read that more black men aged 18 to 25 are murdered than are killed by accidents or disease; that in 1987, 61 percent of the 15- to 19-year-old boys murdered in the United States were black, despite the fact that blacks constitute only 12 percent of the population.

I suspect that most people confronted by these numbers, even while they cluck their tongues over their morning coffee, secretly don’t care overmuch. They think, “What can you do about druggies and dope dealers and low-lifes who insist on blowing each other away?” They feel, in hidden places few of them are willing to acknowledge or excavate, that anyone who has the bad luck to be born black in America takes his chances. Much the way I -- an African American woman who considered herself profoundly sensitive to African American lives -- wouldn’t have cared much about that body in the ditch if it hadn’t been my brother’s.

The issue, it seems, can be reduced to a question: What is the value of a black life?

Why was more than four times as much space in this newspaper devoted to the murder and funeral of an 83-year-old white Arlington stamp dealer beaten to death in his downtown Washington office than to the strangulation of a 93-year-old black woman in her Southeast apartment two weeks earlier? Why did all of the U.S. media mobilize to report the New York beating death of a 6-year-old girl by her affluent adoptive father when first-graders with less impressive addresses die anonymously from abuse every month?

Of course, black lives become more significant when they’re lost or threatened in close proximity to white lives. Witness the media hoopla over the shooting of four black teens outside Wilson High School, smack in a mostly white Northwest neighborhood. Everyone knows the shooting of school kids anywhere is freakishly tragic. But why was less attention paid when two youngsters were shot across the street from Spingarn High in predominantly black Northeast five weeks before?

These things, we think, aren’t supposed to happen in certain affluent sections of Northwest, or to the Lisa Steinbergs of the world. So who are they supposed to happen to?

Certainly not to Darrell. When he died, I listened to a reporter friend’s vague promise to look into the bizarre circumstances of his shooting and my brother Mellick’s suggestion that we push the police to provide explanations, reparation. Other family members were wary -- they felt the police already had demonstrated they were animals -- what revenge would they take if we were too persistent? I -- commonly considered the pushiest Britt around -- just sat, mute in my assumption that the universally apparent wrongness of Darrell’s killing would be recognized and dealt with. Even little kids cry foul when two gang up on one.

Part of me knew better. Because the bottom line was clear: Another black man who’d apparently been caught doing something he shouldn’t have was dead. No big deal.

Life went on. The day after his bullet punctured Darrell’s thigh, Officer Mattox hit and kicked a handcuffed Hispanic suspect before shooting up the man’s car; he was sentenced to three years’ probation for violating the man’s civil rights. On Nov. 18, in Alabama, Robert Edward Chambliss, a 73-year-old retired auto mechanic, was sentenced to life in prison for killing four little girls in a Birmingham church bombing 14 years earlier. In December, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare reported that in 1976, black men in the United States lived 5.6 years less than white men, due to poorer nutrition, housing and medical care and “a higher rate of violence” -- accidents, suicides, homicides. Business as usual.

But nothing was as usual. My mother saw Darrell everywhere: in young men with his coloring or haircut, in guys who sported similar jackets. For a moment she’d think, “Why, there’s Darrell,” and reach out to him and it would be the most natural thing in the world.

My younger brother Bruce, then 19, was furious with Darrell for getting himself killed. Soon he was a virtual recluse who avoided Gary’s suddenly mean streets, spending so much time in bed that once, when he tried to rise, his knees buckled like a newborn calf’s. Mellick, less than two years older than Darrell, hurled at my mother his certainty that the family wished he had been the one who’d died.

Back at the University of Michigan, I finished the semester in a fog. As the months passed, I wondered if I could possibly live long enough to experience an afternoon, an hour or even five minutes free of the heavy, breathless hurt crowding my chest.

Something so incomprehensible had happened that I had to repeat it to myself to digest it. Trying on a new dress, I’d stare in the mirror and think, “Darrell is dead.” In the midst of savoring a slice of perfect cheesecake, I’d remember, “Oh, yes, Darrell’s gone.” Just at the delicious moment before sliding into hilarity over a Mary Tyler Moore rerun, I’d think, “That’s right. My brother died,” and listen to my laugh trill on without me.

I kept thinking of Officers Cyprian and Mattox . I wondered if they had a clue that the shot that pierced my brother’s chest had just as neatly excised my capacity to fully experience joy. I wanted to find them, to let them know that the moment that they shot that crazy nigger in the ditch, my life changed forever.

I thought that if only I could tell them, I could make them care.

The man who I am to believe spent his last moments charging at a couple of badge-wearing strangers who’d just fired two warning shots at him was, in my childhood opinion, the finest human being on the planet.

Gentle where I was feisty, effortlessly humorous where I was clumsy with a joke, Darrell was everything that I wasn’t -- and still he adored me. The guy was a riot. Bruce and I would be sitting in the living room, watching TV, and Darrell would “sneak” into the room, apparently bent on frightening us. In plain sight, he’d sidle past us in a burlesque tiptoe, “hiding” his 180-pound frame behind a slender vase. Inching closer, he’d crouch behind a completely inadequate footrest. Then he’d jump out at us with a loud “Boo!” We’d scream with laughter.

Darrell was my knight, one of the few people I’ve known who seemed reflexively good. When he and Mellick played cowboys as toddlers, Mellick invariably used his older-brother status to force Darrell to be the villain. My mother says Darrell sobbed for her to make him stop. “Bad guys,” he told her, “always lose.”

He’s the one who, when I was 5 and he found me sniffling in the closet, told me that the grown-ups were wrong for snickering when I brought the wrong hat to one of my parents’ guests. When I was a flat-chested preteen, he soothed the sting of Mellick’s put-downs of my “pear-shaped” body by saying he hoped to marry a girl just like me.

Perhaps more than anyone except my mother, Darrell shaped me. His implied lack of respect for “bad girls” convinced me that I should guard my virginity fiercely; his friends’ hesitant flirting taught me volumes about the power of sexual attraction. He set the standard for what still most beguiles me in men: the ability to dig deep enough to answer my questions. His unquestioned acceptance -- even of my weakness for hopelessly uncool Broadway musicals -- showed me that someday, a man who wasn’t a relative might love me.

He wasn’t perfect. Slow to anger, he’d occasionally erupt memorably. Fascinated by the mystical, he -- like many in his generation -- experimented with marijuana and other drugs in the 1970s when he went away to college.

I hated when he left for Indiana, fearful that our closeness couldn’t survive the distractions of college life. An avid basketball player, he tried out for Coach Bobby Knight’s freshman team. To everyone’s surprise, Darrell -- 5 feet 10 1/2 and cut from his high school team -- made the squad after a walk-on tryout.

“He told me he was so hot that day, hitting bombs from the three-point line, outplaying quality people like George McGinnis {now a former NBA star},” Mellick recalls. “So hot that they couldn’t cut him.” But he didn’t make varsity the next season. Darrell was deeply disappointed.

Hoping to cash in on his humor, he left school after his sophomore year, traveling to Los Angeles in search of fame. He returned home after six months, broke, chastened but still mesmerizing with his tales of Hollywood egos and nights spent under starry Arizona skies.

Back in Gary, he moved to a beachfront neighborhood on Lake Michigan and worked as a drug counselor. Later he was dropped by the program’s new funders, who decreed that every staffer had to have a college degree. Soon after, he took a job in the steel mill.

I knew it was temporary -- a man of Darrell’s intellect could never settle for manual labor. But his jokes became moodier, more pointed. “Darrell is changing,” I told my mom during a visit home. “What’s happening to him?”

He called me three days before he was shot. He missed our childhood closeness, he said -- couldn’t we try to recapture it? Touched almost beyond speech, I sputtered something like, “I want that, too.” Then he told me he was thinking of becoming a minister.

Long ago, he said, our mother had told him that when he was an infant, our near-blind great-grandmother had laid hands on him and announced, “This boy is going to be a preacher.” Darrell chuckled.

“I resisted that my whole life, but it was always there.”

For my family, Darrell’s sudden transformation was startling. Mellick, himself quite devout, recalls that a month earlier he’d talked to his younger brother about the beauty of “living in the Word.” Darrell had rebuffed him. “He told me that his feeling was that if you got into the Bible, you’d die. That God would just take you. He told me, ‘I’m going to have fun, live my life.’ “

But, inexplicably, a few weeks later, he seemed totally changed. “The last time I saw him, he was a Christian,” says Mellick. “He had such a glow, a peace. It was obvious that he’d undergone a very sincere conversion, almost to the point where he wasn’t dealing with religion as we know it. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to start going to church.’ Darrell was transformed in the spirit.

“I said, ‘Slow down a little bit, you have the rest of your life for this.’ He just said that he loved me and he loved God and he was all right. He really had been touched.”

Maybe he always had been. In that last conversation, he said to me, so quietly, “When I was 6 or 7, I used to talk to Jesus. I heard Him; felt so close to Him ... But I never told anybody because I knew people would think I was nuts.”

Nuts? I thought. Never you.

Back then, so much was impossible. It was unthinkable that words like those from the coroner’s report of the shooting scene -- “Rigor mortis and lividity are absent and steam is rising from the {victim’s} blood as it hits the cooler air” -- could ever be related to my brother. So unthinkable that after his death, I shuffled and reshuffled the evidence: Darrell’s ashen face in his coffin; my father’s disbelief at watching a morgue staffer roll his nude body out from among an assortment of naked black corpses; Unidentified man shot by Gary policemen.

I couldn’t make sense of it. How could Darrell, who loved women and relished a great meal nearly as much; Darrell, who mixed tenderness and macho more effectively than anyone I knew; Darrell, who, as my first best friend simply could not be replaced, die with a policeman’s bullet in his breast?

I have told myself that these things happen. That my brother’s being blown away on a cool fall morning had nothing to do with the fact that he was black and the shooters were not. That a white man who cursed and threatened a pair of marginal cops, who came at one of them with a pipe and a chain and threw a plastic baseball at him, would have been dispatched just as efficiently. And I don’t believe it.

I don’t believe it because I know that if I could question the value of black life, if I could, for 20 years, unconsciously feel that a black body in a ditch could in no way be connected to me, then why should Cyprian and Mattox have felt any kinship to the suspected thief in that gully? If I could be so blind, it is depressingly predictable that lots of other folks, some of them bearing guns and the license to use them, should be, too. Blind enough that in a life-and-death pinch, they’d shoot first and, maybe, think later.

But then, I saw Darrell as special, totally unlike those whose speech, dress, bearing or lack of education brand them as expendable. He wasn’t one of those for whom the possibility of ending up an anonymous corpse on a morgue slab was real. But Cyprian and Mattox didn’t see that. They must have seen black. And I can’t help thinking that was enough.

My search for a scapegoat always brings me to the same place. But in 1989, racism is an outmoded notion, something -- like bubonic plague, child labor and public hangings -- that we feel we’ve moved past.

And frankly, we’ve had enough of it. We’re damned sick of blacks’ and Latinos’ and Native Americans’ and Jews’ and women’s and gays’ and even white men’s whining about discrimination. Even the best of us are circling the wagons, disconnecting the antenna that links us to every one of the ax-grinders.

We’re at a place where a moderate U.S. senator can witness a shooting on a District street without reporting it, later explaining to reporters in his home state of Oregon that if he’d seen the same event in Portland, he would have called the police. We’re at a place where it’s not only okay, but maybe a bit healthy, not to sweat it when 50 people with dreams and talents and little sisters who forever will grieve are lost to us.

So the beast creeps on, insinuating itself into every phase of American life. Darrell taught me about racism’s omnipresence, how casually it infects us all. Some days it won’t leave me alone.

It nicks me when I watch “L.A. Law” and realize the only major character whose personal life is never examined, indeed never even referred to, is black. You are not, the beast whispers, important enough, interesting enough, real enough to warrant examination.

It slices deeper when my 3-year-old son, Darrell’s namesake, announces that he doesn’t want to return to his preschool because “there are too many black people there.” Day after day, I hold him and his big brother close, tell them, “You are so handsome, so smart, so special just as you are.” My 7-year-old stares at me sadly, knowing how much this means to me. “But I want blue eyes, Mom,” he says. “Superman has blue eyes.”

It scrapes bone when I remember that, despite the circumstances of my brother’s killing, most of the black people murdered in this country are killed by other blacks.

African Americans, black Harvard psychologist Alvin Poussaint recently told me, have always vented their wrath at racism on each other, on themselves. We’ve never been known for assassinating the bigots who trumpet our supposed worthlessness. “But here we are,” he said, “systematically gunning each other down. It’s as if we’ve internalized the old Klan notion that the only good nigger is a dead one.” In the District, 132 lives have been taken so far this year -- the vast majority of them blacks killed by other blacks.

The creature stalks us, too, steeps us in the notion that our lives -- when they merit notice at all -- must be denigrated, denied, devalued. Blacks sidestep the message with varying degrees of success. Most of us can no more be completely immune than we can stop breathing.

But this has to end. Nobody should live as I have, feeling the beast at my heels, continually phoning my younger brother (”Hi -- just checking in,”) to verify he’s safe. Nobody should ever have to pray, as one of my best friends recently did, that his pregnant wife wouldn’t bear a son because “I couldn’t stand for a son of mine to deal with what I, as a black man, have dealt with. I’ve been stopped by police a dozen times in my life and I have never committed a crime.”

I do have sons. They are bright and beautiful and special. They deserve to believe it. They deserve to live it.

Most days, I’m now able to talk about Darrell without a sob closing my throat. Most days.

Three months ago, I was on an Indianapolis-bound plane when a thirtyish woman asked if I ever had attended Indiana University. No, I said, but I occasionally visited my brother, Darrell Britt, when he was a student there.

“Darrell Britt? I know him,” she said. “Tell him you met Chicken -- he knows me by my nickname.”

I sat, eyes stinging, a bright smile smashed on my face. Darrell, she said, is so funny. “Won’t you give him my regards?”

I nodded, incapable of announcing that her hilarious classmate had been dead for a decade; unwilling to witness one more person’s shock at the news. But I also was silenced by my pleasure at hearing Darrell discussed so delightedly; by how apt it was, hearing him alive and funny again.

Later, marveling at how I maintained that fiction, I realized that on some level, it has ceased to be fiction. Just as the world has moved on -- the Gary police cooperated with me on this story; officers assure me that fewer Cyprians and Mattoxes are on the force -- Darrell and I have moved on as well.

He comes to me in dreams, tweaks me when I get complacent, smiles at me from other brothers’ faces on the street. Just as I now take tremendous pleasure in great food and new dresses, I’ve begun to feel joy, clear and uncomplicated, about my brother.

It helps, knowing that he has indeed been taken higher. It helps, knowing, as Darrell always did, that the bad guys inevitably will lose.