A giant tree has fallen in the forestSunday, October 24, 2021
The passing of the late Colin Luther Powell on our own National Heroes' Day has evoked a flood of tributes and memories from across the globe. Presidents, prime ministers, international personalities, and the man in the street have been moved by the transition of this humble soldier, statesman, and immensely popular leader.
Sir Colin Powell (yes, he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993) left the world stage with his dignity, integrity, respect, and achievements enshrined in the stories and legends which have already made him an American hero.
He has inspired millions who would want to trod in the footsteps of the little boy who journeyed from the Bronx to become four-star general, America's first black secretary of state, first black national security advisor, first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in his late years the man who his countrymen would have most wanted to draft as president of the United States.
From the Jamaican perspective we look on at this moment with pride at our son of the soil. Colin (he pronounced it Kohl in), was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem to Jamaican parents who had migrated to the USA in their 20s. His father, a small farmer from Top Hill, southern St Elizabeth, owned a tiny four-room house with no water, no light, no indoor plumbing, an outdoor kitchen. Outside, the family burial plot, inside a peaceful family retreat for a farming family that tilled the soil; battled perennial drought; and raised watermelons, cabbage, scallion, pumpkins, onions, sorrel, along with nine children.
Growing up on Kelly Street in the south Bronx, Colin was literally surrounded by his Jamaican extended family and friends and had a thorough Jamaican indoctrination of curried goat and Appleton rum parties, dancing the mento, singing calypso, and packing the traditional barrels for sending home at Christmastime. He was proud of his Jamaican roots and, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he played Jamaican and West Indian music in his office, much to the bewilderment of his aides who, according to him, “just could not understand the patois lyrics, but, then, you do not hear much calypso music in the Pentagon E-Ring”.
When reflecting on his Jamaican background, or visiting us on several occasions, he often wondered what dreams or fears had prompted two solid Jamaicans to leave the land they loved to migrate to somewhere so foreign. “I wondered if they could have imagined how much this act of courage and hope would shape the destiny of their son.”
Now the daddy, Luther, was a “boasy”, little Jamaican, 5' 2”, but full of confidence and Jamaican swagger. He settled in the south Bronx, New York, working first as a gardener, and finally as foreman in an established garment manufacturing company.
His mother, a seamstress, from Westmoreland, took charge of the house and raised their two children, Colin and Marilyn.
Colin describes his father as the eternal optimist and his mother as the perennial worrier. He gives, in his autobiography, an amusing story of how, whenever he visited, his mother would say, “Colin, take the book to the bank so they can show my interest.”
“And I would explain, 'Mom you don't have to do that. The interest isn't going anywhere. The interest is on the statement they mail to you.'
“ 'How do you know they won't tief me?', she would say, using the old Jamaican expression for stealing... She would go into the bedroom, fish out an old lace-covered candy box from under the bed, and hand me the bank book.
“I would dutifully trot off to the bank, stand in line, and say 'Will you post the interest on this account please.'
“ 'Of course, General Powell,' (I was four-star at that time). 'But we also show it on the statement. That can save you a trip down here.'
'' 'No,' I would insist, 'my mother has to see those red numbers you print sideways to show her interest.' And I impishly wanted to add, to prove you didn't tief her.”
It was a warm and embracing family unit, but there was a certain toughness about the environment that exposed a growing young boy to the harsh realities of life in the South Bronx lane. “Burglaries were common”, he tells us in his autobiography, “and we kept our doors and windows locked. Street fights and knifings occurred, and gangs armed with clubs, bottles, bricks and homemade guns waged war.”
But Colin Powell was only a spectator at the hustling and violence he glimpsed in the inner city. He came from a strong, rural background that brokered no room for such behaviour. And his father never let his race or station affect his sense of worth. He came to America with nothing, and every morning got on the subway, worked all day, supported his family, and educated his children. If he could do that, how dare anyone think that he or his family was less than anybody's equal.
So Colin was born in Harlem, knew the rough street life of a teenager, and had an average performance at public schools. Joining the army turned out to be the right move. But meeting Alma was a life-changer for him. For a while Colin found himself living in the same apartment building and it was there he fell in love. His future father-in-law may have questioned his daughter's suitor in much the same way that suspicious fathers still do it in southern St Elizabeth: “Where you from, Son? Who you be? Who yuh pa?” Colin passed the test. They were married for 59 years.
Reading his autobiography we are, as the editors put it, ringside spectators to some of the greatest international dramas of our time. And Colin Powell was at the centre of those operations: Desert Storm, the invasion of Panama, the Iran-Contra story, the meetings with Gorbachev and world leaders, and other world shaking events. Powell served as confidential and top advisor to US presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and was in charge of the most powerful military forces on Earth.
The popular move from both parties to have him run for president started in the 1990s. Did you know that Colin Powell outperformed every presidential candidate not named Trump or Clinton at the 2016 Electoral College official vote for the presidency? Yes, he received three electoral votes which were enough to put him third in line. He beat Bernie Saunders, John Kasich, and Ron Paul.
In 1992 he was even considered as the vice-president replacement for Dan Quayle. In 1996 he was being pushed to run against Clinton, and actually won the Republican vice-presidential primary in New Hampshire without trying, solely from write-in votes.
So there we had one man who had a big chance to become president of the US if he had wanted it. A Jamaican in the White House? Well, not quite a Jamaican, but we certainly would have owned him lock, stock and barrel as one of our own. Thank God he lived to see another success with firm Jamaican roots standing at the front door. Kamala Harris, of course, vice-president of the US.
Powell never forgot or tried to hide his roots and social background. He was self-assured about his colour, and once said, “Others may use my race against me, but I will never use it against myself. My blackness has been a source of pride, strength and inspiration.”
Moved by the lack of recognition for black US soldiers, he spearheaded the monument, statue and park that was built to honour the Buffalo Soldiers which he officially opened in 1992.
In October 2002 Powell was a member of the US team led by former President Jimmy Carter that monitored Jamaica's general election. He was also the official representative of the US for the Jamaica50 celebrations in 2012.
We are now left with the urbanity, calmness, courage, and self-effacing behaviour that General Powell has exhibited all through his life and career. The philosophical question is often asked: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In this case a giant tree has fallen. And the sound is reverberating around the world.