The Death Look: Donna Britt rages for a reason
Former Washington Post columnist Donna Britt has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. So why, in her household with three healthy sons and a husband, is such an acclaimed writer the one walking the dog, doing the laundry, and emptying dirty dishes from the sink?
And why does her reaction manifest itself in what she calls The Death Look?
"So many women have faced that rage when faced with men's cluelessness," says Britt, interviewed in advance of her appearance in Charlottesville. "And part of The Death Look is the anger at how we allow men to get away with it."
In her book, Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving, Britt explores the compulsion that some women seem to have to do-it-all.
"It's almost embarrassing to have this impulse you can't control," says Britt. "You think of yourself as independent and autonomous, and you're doing things like your grandmother did."
Beyond the obvious sexism, she also discovered a racial element, something serious and rooted in history. For her, the key moment happened more than 30 years ago. Britt was working on her master's degree at University of Michigan when she learned that back in Gary, Indiana, where she'd grown up in a middle-class household, her brother Darrell had been shot to death by police.
It took her years to fully understand how her brother's death had affected her. One day, while meditating after her son Darrell (named for her brother) asked for a last-minute favor, Britt had a moment of clarity.
"I thought, if I don't do this for him, he'll die. My eyes opened. I hadn't been there for my brother." She pauses. "The heart is not a rational place."
Suddenly, it did make sense why she had to be supportive, protective, and fully engaged in the lives of her men. Britt says she realized that African-American women often carry a "lurking sense of danger" since they come from a history of slavery, where a child could sold away, and more recently from Jim Crow, with its legacy of lynching.
"We have this history," says Britt, "of our men being snatched away."
She notes that such protectiveness helps explain why black women were so supportive of O.J. Simpson, of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, despite the sexually-charged testimony by Anita Hill, and even of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry who fumed, "The bitch set me up," when caught smoking crack.
"The way black women are really supportive comes from that sense of history and loss," says Britt.
Britt is married to Kevin Merida, national editor at the Post, and they still have a 16-year-old son living at home. "He's really clueless," laughs his mom. "I have to keep asking him, reminding him."
At least now she has a better understanding of the source of her rage behind The Death Look— and perhaps that's the first step toward embracing it.
Brothers and Me: A Conversation with Donna Britt, 3pm Sunday, March 25, CitySpace.