Three notable African American men joined the ancestors within a few days of each other. Easily, Colin Powell is the most famous of them and we lost him to the complications of COVID-19 on Oct. 17. He was 84. Last week Dr. Timuel D. Black, a prominent figure in Chicago’s political and social history, died on Oct. 13. He was 102 and succumbed from prostate cancer. Much younger and perhaps less well-known was photographer Risasi Z. Dais, whose death came as I was composing obituaries for Powell and Black. I am still waiting for more information about Dais’ passing.
Obviously, each of them deserves a separate reflection but given space considerations I have agreed to blend them as one, recounting their personal relationships with me. Whenever Powell comes to mind it has less to do with his phenomenal military and political resume, but with his connection to the Harlem community. Most striking of these memories is one in a photo with the late Pan-Africanist Elombe Brath when both were members of the St. Margaret’s Church basketball as teens in the Bronx. Later, the trajectory of their lives would be radically divergent. Powell attended City College and a program there now bears his name. Several of my students have continued their studies in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
On a personal note, several years ago I had the opportunity to interview Powell and during our conversation I shared with him our common experience as members of V Corps in Germany (some years apart) which he once commanded. His eyes lit up when I told him about the A Bar in Frankfurt, frequented mainly by African American soldiers. There is no need here to list his numerous accomplishments, practically every news agency in the world will cover those details, and to ignore the blemishes of his career—most egregiously his lie about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—would be a gross oversight.
I only had one occasion to be in Dr. Black’s company and that was during a visit to Chicago to be with him on a panel during a Black History month celebration. Ironically, on the panel with us was Jim Tilmon, then a popular television meteorologist who was my company commander during my 18 months in Germany. Dr. Black and I shared our personal memories of the great migration and the fact that we were both born in Birmingham, Alabama. Much like Powell, Black was a highly decorated soldier and during World War II earned four Battle Stars, the Croix de Guerre, and the Legion of Honor. His memoir, “Sacred Ground,” is packed with the Black experience, in both senses of the word.
My relationship with Dais was the most enduring and collaborative over the years. On countless occasions, for nearly a generation, we had been together to document an event, lecture, concert, or festival. Whenever the late Amiri Baraka was in town or the region, or perhaps anywhere in the world, you could count on Dais being there to photograph and sometimes to record the moment. Very little of social and political importance happened in Newark without his presence, his camera ever-ready to memorialize it. This he did with remarkable consistency and one photo of his available on the AP website depicts his capture of the incomparable Ashford and Simpson in a Valentine’s Day performance and tribute to Maya Angelou in 1996.
One of our last engagements was covering a birthday celebration for Harry Belafonte at Aaron Davis Hall two years ago. As always, we chatted about the event and he asked me what photos he should submit. I told him he was the best judge of that, which he always was, and unfailingly so. And much of this was accomplished while he was holding down a day gig at the Newark City Hall.
I will miss him on the beat and so will the world of politics and entertainment where he was as ubiquitous as he was talented. More later on this graduate of South Carolina University (1967-71) and my Facebook friend.