Donna is part of a new generation of African-American journalists who write frankly, thoughtfully, and from personal experience about much more than America’s still-troubling racial divisions. In articles for The Washington Post, Politics Daily, The Root, Sojourners and other publications, she has explored everything from why testosterone should be a controlled substance, to the trials of combining Christianity with Liberalism, to why wise men shudder when their fed-up spouses utter the word, “Fine,” to her ever-popular Valentine to Black Men.
Donna was born in Gary, Indiana, the sole daughter in a family of four. Choosing to attend Hampton University in Virginia, Donna majored in film there, and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. During her last year in Ann Arbor, her older brother Darrell was shot to death by Gary police. Donna was so traumatized that she had trouble speaking her brother’s name for years. She managed to graduate from Michigan and was hired by the Detroit Free Press. She spent seven years there, and then moved on to USA Today.
In early 1989, Donna began working for the Washington Post as one of its Style section writers. But her editors also seemed interested in the occasional first-person piece, and Donna began to write about Darrell’s death. It swelled to 5,000 words, and she has said that she cried often during the writing process. “In order to do this piece right, I had to turn myself inside out,” she told Neal Rubin in the Free Press. “If it didn’t hurt while I was doing it, it wasn’t enough.”
When the remembrance was published in April of 1989, readers deluged Donna’s desk at The Post with phone calls and kind words. Many said they had cried when they read it. “I got a call from a 47-year-old white man,” she told Rubin, “who told me he finds himself becoming a racist, which was something he never thought he would hear himself say, but with all the drugs and all the killing, he had stopped caring about these lives. He read the piece and he blessed me for making him see that.” The article was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism that year, but it resonated even deeper: Post editors asked Donna if she’d like to write a column for its local section. Having one’s own column is every reporter’s dream, but Donna was uneasy with the Metro section of The Post, where much of the city’s most disturbing news stories appeared. At the time, Donna’s husband was a deputy managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, and she talked it over with him before declining the offer. She told her editors that she wanted to write about life, not death, but as she recalled in an interview with Editor and Publisher’s Chris Lamb, the metro editor “told me I could write about anything I wanted.”
So Donna wrote about race relations, popular trends, books, film, and personal recollections for her Post column. A few years later, it was picked up by a syndicate and appeared twice weekly in several major American newspapers. Her style caught on with readers immediately, and she received mail, phone calls and sometimes even flowers. She has written about the death of her grandmother, offensive rap lyrics and current events. Once, Donna wrote a column about how her husband looked at her one morning. “More people care about the way their husband or wife looked at them…than the passage of the GATT [General agreement on Tariffs and Trade] treaty,” she told Lamb. “The small stuff isn’t celebrated enough.”
Hampton University, undergraduate degree; University of Michigan, master’s degree.
Detroit Free Press, staff writer, 1978-85; USA Today, staff writer, 1985-89; Washington Post, began as a features writer, 1989, then as a Metro columnist, 1990 to 2008; recently a columnist for Politics Daily from 2009-2010
Distinguished Writing Award for commentary and column writing, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1994; Salute to Excellence Awards, National Association of Black Journalists, 1990; The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors