“When great souls die // the air around us becomes // light, rare, sterile. // We breathe, briefly.” – Maya Angelou in “When Great Trees Fall”
Around the time I landed in the US, recently retired Gen. Colin Powell represented the US muscle – by then he was twice winner of Presidential Medal of Freedom, youngest Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Adviser – the first Black to hold either of the last two positions. Following the footsteps of another successful soldier-statesman Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. Powell was widely expected to run for the US Presidency in 1996. He did not. Later he went on to become the first Black to serve as Secretary of State, and thereby, he became only the second person to serve as Chair of Joint Chiefs as well as the Secretary of State. It was all in a life’s work – and some life it was!!
A lot of ink has been spent on what is called the irony of his storied life, a UN appearance that shaped contours of his public life later on. People far more qualified have pontificated on either side, I will not even try. I find it fitting to spotlight the biggest takeaway of his life – that it could only happen in America. Or as Gen. Powell himself has put it in his1994 Howard University commencement address “America remains the last best hope of Earth”, and he expanded in his book that “we live in a remarkable country where ordinary people of whatever background or origin can do extraordinary things. We sometimes forget it. And there are some places in our country and some groups in our country where that faith may be shaken.”
Not shaken, not even stirred, for this West Indian born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx.
Powell recounted to Chris Davis, a former editor at Reader’s Digest, being present at a luncheon in honor of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew hosted by President Reagan. Reagan commented on how immigrant kids enter US public school system as complete aliens to the land, its culture and even language, but a few years later they flourish and exceed wildest dreams. Reagan posed the question “what would happen if American youngsters were dropped into a foreign country, would you see the same sort of acceleration and performance?” Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose own country has a very rich history of assimilating disparate diaspora, though mostly of Asian origin, replied in the negative. “Mr. President,” he said, “you don’t understand. It’s not reversible.” Powell added his emphatic support of this contention, smacking the tabletop for added effect, “There is no other place where you can take a foreigner and plop them in and five years later out pops an American of hyphenated background who can go as far as his talents will take him. It can’t happen anywhere else.”
I could not have said any better.
He grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants but not all looked like he did. In his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey” Powell described kids around him as “either a Jew, an Italian, a Pole, a Greek, a Puerto Rican or, as we said in those days, a Negro”. His childhood was defined by the West Indian / Jamaican diaspora his loving family, both parents worked in the garment industry of New York, proudly belonged to; “noisy” was a word he would repeatedly use to describe his surroundings. Goat curry and plantain dishes. And Calypso music. He carried a love of Calypso all the way to the White House, dropping an occasional “Water De Garden” or “The Big Bamboo” upon unsuspecting WASPs, who would have not the slightest idea about the double entendre they just were exposed to.
He was brought up in the glorious days of NYC public schools, and then at City College of New York (CCNY), also a shining example of American excellence those days. “I typified the students that CCNY was created to serve, the sons and daughters of the inner city, the poor, the immigrant. Many of my classmates had the brainpower to attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. What they lacked was money and influential connections.” Yet they went on to “compete with and surpass alumni of the most prestigious private campuses in this country.” He joined the ROTC whose discipline, structure, camaraderie and belonging was what he craved. He became a soldier.
Then he came to know “whites who were not the Poles, Jews or Greeks”, and other hyphenated Americans, “virtually my first WASPs”. On being sent to Fort Benning, GA, his ROTC Colonel warned him to expect differently in a pre-Civil Rights era. “I could go into Woolworth’s in Columbus, Georgia, and buy anything I wanted, as long as I did not try to eat there. I could go into a department store and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men’s room.” On being asked who he was by the waitress at a hamburger joint he announced “I’m a Negro. I’m an American. And I’m an Army officer.” “I don’t understand any of this. But they won’t let me serve you.” The woman said apologetically and suggested she’d sneak one to him out of a back window. Powell refused. To his relief life was different within the boundaries of the army post. “Except for the rare couple with inherited wealth, there was scant room for snobbery, since most of us were bringing home the same paycheck and living the same standard.” Army installations down South were “healthy cells in an otherwise sick body”, he observed. As a result, he remained steadfast in his belief in the US military. “Nothing that happened off-post, none of the indignities, none of the injustices, was going to inhibit my performance,” he wrote. “I did not feel inferior, and I was not going to let anybody make me believe I was”. Specifically, he was not going to let bigotry make him “a victim instead of a full human being”. In the Army, Powell was recognized early as a problem-solver, and therefore, a water-walker, and advanced rapidly, eventually superseding many four-stars to become Chair of the Joint Chiefs.
America has a race problem but his lifelong conviction remained that it was a slander America is irredeemably racist or that no progress was ever made. One more time, I could not say it more strongly.
His wife meant the world for him, and came from a world away. Powell “was mesmerized by a pair of luminous eyes, an unusual shade of green.” “(She) moved gracefully and spoke graciously with a soft Southern accent.” Alma Johnson was brought up in Birmingham, Alabama amongst Black elites of the city, her father was Principal of a prominent school, her uncle was Principal of another. “A well-bred girl from a proper Southern family needed to be exposed gradually to noisy, noisy, fun-loving West Indians.” For their first (blind) date, Alma wanted to repel a soldier away from courting her, but changed her opinion upon a single look at the man in uniform waiting to take her out. After four decades of playing a loyal, supportive military spouse – family moved frequently between his tours of duty in Vietnam, South Korea, Germany and Iraq – Mrs. Powell put her foot down in 1996 when Powell was being talked about a possible candidate for US Presidency. Even if he was at the very zenith of his public adulation, Gen. Powell demurred and begged out.
It is not Powell doctrine if you cannot commit overwhelming resources to a mission. With Alma thinking differently, Colin could not, and did not. I wonder what would have happened if he did actually run. He would have been the first Black President and the first child of immigrants since Andrew Jackson to rise to the very top. Maybe, just maybe, the second Iraq war would not happen. Maybe Powell as Secretary of State would not appear before the UN. Maybe…
Maya Angelou in “When Great Trees Fall” reminded us what happens next. “Our senses, restored, never // to be the same, whisper to us//They existed. They existed. // We can be. Be and be // better. For they existed.” We do understand, and we will be.