Britt, Donna 1954(?)–

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Donna Britt 1954(?)


At a Glance


Donna Britt writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post that appears in syndication in several U.S. newspapers. Britt is part of a new generation of African-American journalists who write frankly, and often from personal experience, about racial divisions in America, and her columns have struck a chord with newspaper readers across the country. But behind the scenes, she and her contemporaries have been heralded for ushering in a new, more diverse era in mainstream American journalism in little more than a decade.

Britt was born in Gary, Indiana, the sole daughter in a family of four. Her father was a bricklayer, and she grew up in a tight-knit, achievement-focused household. Choosing to attend Hampton University in Virginia, Britt majored in film there, and went on to earn a masters degree from the University of Michigan. During her last year in Ann Arbor, her older brother Darrell was shot to death by Gary police. It was a particularly heinous crime, for the 26-year-oldwho had no alcohol or drugs in his system that nightwas virtually executed by white police officers who claimed he had charged at them. Britts older brother, who wrote poetry and coached Little League baseball, was barefoot when he was found in a ravine, and apparently had been forced to wear a cooking pot on his head before being shot. Both officers were later dismissed from the force, but on charges of burglary and child molestation.

Britt was so traumatized that she had trouble speaking her brothers name for years. She managed to graduate from the University of Michigan, and was hired by theDetroit Free Press. She spent seven years there, and then moved on toUSA Today. In early 1989, she began working for theWashington Post as one of its Style section writers. But her editors also seemed interested in the occasional first-person piece, and Britt began to write about Darrells death. It swelled to five thousand 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 Detroit Free Press. If it didnt hurt while I was doing it, it wasnt enough.

When the remembrance was published in April of 1989, readers deluged Britts 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, Britt said in the interview with 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 Britt if shed like to write a column for its local section. Having ones own column is every reporters dream, but Britt was uneasy with the Metro section of the Post, where much of the citys most disturbing news stories appeared. At the time, Britts husband was the 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

At a Glance

Born c. 1954, in Gary, IN; daughter of Thomas (a bricklayer) and Geraldine (an employment counselor) Britt; married to Kevin Merida (a journalist); children: three sons. Education: Hampton University, undergraduate degree; University of Michigan, masters degree.

Career: Detroit Free Press, staff writer, 1978-85; USA Today, staff writer, 1985-89; Washington Post, began as features writer, 1989, became Metro section columnist, 1990.

Awards: Nominated for Pulitzer Prize in journalism, 1990; Distinguished Writing Award, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1994.

Address: Office Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.

and Publishers Chris Lamb, the metro editor told me I could write about anything I wanted.

So Britt 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 began appearing twice weekly in several major American newspapers. Her style caught on with readers immediately, and she began receiving mail, phone calls, and sometimes even flowers. She has written about the death of her grandmother, offensive rap lyrics, and current events. Once, she wrote a column about how her husband looked at her one morning. More people care about the way their husband or wife looked at themthan the passage of the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] treaty, she said in the interview with Lamb. The small stuff isnt celebrated enough. In 1994, she won in the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Britt finds the columns on race or sex the toughest to write. Nobody wants to be a racist or a sexist or deny anyone their humanity, Britt told Editor and Publisher. The hardest thing about the column is to be honest and not accusatory. Britt discussed the unique challenges to black columnists in a panel discussion held at Harvard University in 1992, and claimed to be her own worst censor. When I write some things, the voice that I fear the most is this guy who calls me whoand I know his voice, I dont know his namebut he calls me and tells me constantly that I am sort of a handkerchief head, Aunt Jemima, Im not nearly black enough because of this and this and this and this, and that hurts, she told her colleagues, according to Nieman Reports.

Britt, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Meridawho became a journalist at the Post as welland their three sons, also used a column to recount a flap at her sons high school. The school newspaper interviewed her eldest, Hamani, for a feature story about interpersonal challenges at the ethnically diverse school. The article discussed subtle forms of racism and even reverse discrimination; Hamani talked about being the only black male in some of his honors classes. It was not the article, however, but an anonymous response printed in the paper that interested Britt. In it, a white female classmate of Hamanis objected to what she felt was too much talk about race, which made her ashamed to be white. Despite [the letters] factual errorshonors enrollment is based on grades, not race; despite record employment, joblessness is more prevalent among blacksthe letter intrigued me, Britt wrote in her column. Ive received dozens like it, missives teeming with resentment, shame, ignorance and hurt. And often, with racism As an African-American, I understand the letter-writers frustrationfeeling unacknowledged and blamed is a terrible thing. But I wish she realized that black students, too, are hassled by tough, rude classmatesmany of whom are black.

In May of 2000, Britt announced she was taking a much-needed break. In the column explaining the hiatus, she wrote about the frantic pace of modern life, how so many complain of being overworked and chronically tired. For all our moaning, we must love the late nights, the dashing, the Im so busy incantationswhy else do we cling to them? Why else do we convince ourselves that were so essential to everybody else that we dont need time for ourselves? But Britt returned just a few months later with an irate column published just a few days after election day in November. She fumed over predictions that the Electoral College would decide the winner of the Bush-Gore contest, regardless of the popular vote.

Britt resumed writing her column regularly by the first of the year. In January, she tackled the controversy surrounding a recent nonfiction book that explored disparities in educational achievement between blacks and whites. Its author, an African-American academic, claimed that a cult of victimology hampers success. But Britt found other culprits. Anyone who listens to todays black musica huge influencewould have a hard time believing youngsters are free from the self-contempt taught by a long-prejudiced society, she wrote. And pleaseresearch cant link heavy TV-watching to underperformance? Television promotes success bought without struggleexactly the world that indifferent black students seem to believe in. As always, Britts columns seem to resonate with readers.Im hyper-aware that there are many doubting, scared, pretending-to-be-tough people out there, she admitted in the interview with Lamb for Editor and Publisher, and Im one of them.


American Editor, May 1998.

Detroit Free Press, April 13, 1989, p. 1B.

Editor and Publisher, December 31, 1994, p. 28.

Nieman Reports, spring 1993, p. 38.

Washington Post, March 3, 2000; March 31, 2000; May 5, 2000; January 5, 2001, p. B1.

Carol Brennan

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Britt, Donna 1954(?)–

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