Former Secretary of State Colin Powell passed away at the tender age of 84 on Oct. 18, 2021. The cause of death was tragically due to coronavirus complications and multiple myeloma; he is the latest victim of this multi-year pandemic. I had the privilege to sit down with such a storied man on several occasions, one time standing out to me shortly before Bush left office in 2008. In the interview, Powell spoke to me candidly about his humble upbringing and the events and people that shaped him into the man he became.
Powell was a product of the streets of Harlem, New York, grounded in family and tradition. He was blessed with a strong foundation and was led with a spirit of vision by his beloved parents. This touched me deeply learning about it because a familiar firm root is a key to the success of any child. Powell recanted the expectations put upon him as a youth. His parents stressed the importance of education and staying focused on proper goals. To him, dropping out of school was “unheard of.” Powell further discussed the value of hard work and loving and providing for the family. More than anything, a genuine appreciation for family and love. A poignant message for many of the youth today.
Powell left his roots in New York after joining the ROTC in college, taking up a career in the military full-time following graduation. This was the beginning of what would become a legendary 35-year service for the man from Harlem. A focus of much of Powell’s career, from his perspective, is that of his skin color coming into the service during the Civil Rights Movement. Powell remarked that in the beginning, he was “looked at as a Black lieutenant.” Since the Army had only just recently desegregated before his service, Powell had to deal with a constant stream of overt and subliminal racism from both his peers and commanders. What is interesting, however, is that Powell never let this get in his way. As he said to me during the interview, it is true that at the time, the only profession in which a Black man could move up the ranks without his skin color being a significant factor was the military. In the military, more than anywhere else, valor and merit supersede all. Relatedly, Powell said that he “never let [his] color or racism be a problem to [him].” He pointed out that letting your color or identity define or diminish you is the end of your prospects. If you cannot be comfortable with who you are, then why should anyone else?
Powell moved his way up in the military, ultimately reaching its highest point with his appointment as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush. He served in this capacity for four years after serving as national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan. Despite these incredible highs, he never let his race define him. Rather than allowing people to view him as the “best Black” to serve in any respective role he served, Powell strove to become the best in that role irrespective of race. Powell was able to do this by foregoing the political aspects of work and focusing solely on his duty to serve his country to the best of his ability. Ultimately, he became a member of the Republican Party while serving Reagan, yet never becoming staunch on all issues. He always held firm to his root values and maintained a moderate stance on many issues. During the interview, he resoundingly denounced any attempts to chastise Black people who were joining the Republican Party. He said that “Blacks would be best served if they are in all political parties in America.” There is much truth to this statement, especially in the wake of the racists today who claim that any Black person who is not a Democrat is a traitor to their race. Indeed, if Colin Powell has done anything, he has shown with his ability and record that this is far from the truth.
Colin Powell capped off his illustrious career with his tenure as secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Though not devoid of controversy, Powell showed not just the United States but the world that the color of one’s skin is not a prerequisite for how far one may go. At the time of his service as secretary of state, Powell was the highest-ranking Black person in the country’s history, being the fourth in line for presidential succession. In our discussion, Powell defended his record as secretary of state, mainly when it came to forming a dynamic coalition of nations to fight the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. He was clear of the administration’s success in freeing “55 million people…who were not free before.” In addition, Powell acknowledged the deficits in the efforts in Iraq, a debacle that ultimately cost him his job as secretary of state. Nevertheless, Powell was proud to serve his nation while at the pleasure of President Bush and to oversee his agenda and the State Department.
It is no doubt that Colin Powell had a storied career. As a son, soldier, and statesman, Powell was involved with most of the significant events that have shaped our country to this very day. While hindsight is 20/20 on all issues, it was evident from my discussions with Colin Powell that his motivation was always an unwavering devotion and love for his country. He served the United States honorably, with grace, and with an eye towards the future. His words carry weight and relevance to this day, and I implore any conscious American to read into them. Finally, I join the world in sending my prayers to his dear family and honoring the man that was Colin Powell.
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