Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving

Introduction

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 clear that our 14-year-old American Eskimo was dying. Particularly stricken was my youngest son, Skye, 10. 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: Millie, a blond 9-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 didn’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 18, I left for college, where lunchtime at my historically black college 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 married—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.

Hilarious.

Know what’s really funny? I should have been as wary of Woofer–another male demanding my time and energy–as that snooty cat. Yet I adored him, just like all the others.

Why wouldn’t I? The divine Prankster who plopped me 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 1954 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–no, 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 things 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 the 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, by 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 1979, when grad school was my life and being a wife and a mother were faraway dreams, my beloved brother Darrell was killed. He was 26. 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.

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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...

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