Collin Luther Powell is a distinguished, retired general of the US Army and statesman whose influence on American diplomacy has helped to change the organizational spirit of the Department of State. The man’s dedication to fighting against structural racism, which has allowed him to become the first person of color who has served as a secretary of state, inspire those who want to confront social injustices in workplaces across the country. When donating his uniform to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Powell stated that the museum is a “treasure” (Colin Powell: We) the significance of which extends borders of the country. It can be argued that his uniform represents the struggle of African Americans to be recognized and respected in a racially divided society.
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This paper aims to outline Powell’s upbringing, family background, life path, role models, accomplishments, obstacles, and points of acclaim. The paper will also explore a link between the prominent statesman and Black Popular Culture in the US.
The soldier and statesmen have risen from poverty to a position of enormous influence. He was born in 1937, in an impoverished neighborhood of New York City—Harlem (Biographies of the Secretaries). Powell’s parents were Caribbean immigrants—Maud Arial and Luther Theophilus Powell—who struggled to find their place in the big city (Lusane 60).
His father who was “the second of nine children” (Lewis and Lewis 19) worked as a foreman in a shipping department of a major company. Powell’s mother who was “the oldest of nine children” (Lewis and Lewis 19) worked as a seamstress in New York. Along with her mother, Arial sent financial help to other members of their family that lived in Jamaica. When later Luther and Arial became naturalized citizens of the US, they preserved their Jamaican roots and hard-working nature.
In the 1930s, Harlem was struck by the Great Depression (Brown 12). High levels of unemployment led to an unprecedented rate of evictions; therefore, previously beautiful streets of New York City were flooded with homeless people. When Powell was three years old, his parents moved to the Bronx and settled in Hunts Point. At that time, the area was not devastated by social and economic degradation and was referred to by locals as “the beautiful Bronx” (Brown 13).
In his autobiography, My American Journey, the statesman states that he “grew up in a neighborhood where everybody was a minority” (Powell 31). Therefore, he attributes his lack of racial awareness to the fact that he spent his childhood among Jews, Poles, Russians, Italians, and Irish among others. The man recalls that he “moved freely among Hunts Point’s various racial groups and even managed to learn some Yiddish” (Brown 15).
Powell’s parents wanted him and his sister Marylin to become upstanding citizens; therefore, they instilled in them respect for education. The man recalls regular urgings of his father to “make something of your life” (Powell 33). Furthermore, religious faith and hard work were an expectation in his family. Nonetheless, despite lessons of his hardworking parents, Powell was not a distinguished student. At the age of eight, the future secretary of state was often absent from school without an excuse (Brown 12).
When he studied at Public School 39, his performance was so abysmal that he was considered a slow learner. The future distinguished statesman loved playing neighborhood games such as stoopball, Sluggo, and shooting checkers among others more than he loved to study (Lewis and Lewis 21). Therefore, he would often find himself kite-fighting instead of attending lessons. Powell’s tendency to apply himself indifferently prevented him from being admitted to the Bronx High School of Science, which was one of his dreams. However, it was at this time when he showed a propensity for leadership by becoming a class representative at Morris High School (Brown 15). Moreover, Powell was elected as a treasurer of the school’s community.
College and the Reserve Officer Training Corps
Maud and Luther expected their son to become a white-collar worker; therefore, they insisted on him going to college. Having tremendous respect for his parents, Powell applied to the City College of New York in 1954 (Brown 17). He was only 16 when he joined the college. After trying to major in engineering without success, the young man decided to take an introductory geology course. The course change did not stir his enthusiasm—his averaged grade reduced to C (Brown 18).
During his time at college, Powell was introduced to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The young student was enamored with the stern look of the ROTC officers and wanted to join their ranks. Therefore, in 1954 he signed up for the ROTC drill team, which gave him a place to belong (Lewis and Lewis 24). Initially, Powell had no interest in becoming an officer and simply wanted to escape from his city. In his book, My American Journey, he recalls that the decision to join the ROTC was dictated by the desire to “have some excitement” (Powell 35).
By a fateful coincidence, the American army became desegregated the same year Powell enrolled in the ROTC, which provided him with a chance for advancement. The teenager quickly realized that he liked the spirit of camaraderie he felt among members of his ROTC group—the Pershing Rifles (Brown 27).
Early Military Career
Powell graduated in 1958 as a second lieutenant (Colin Powell: Military). At that time, no African-American could have expected to rise higher than a lieutenant colonel or one-star general. After taking airborne infantry and small commando unit courses, the lieutenant was shipped out to Germany (Laver and Matthews 66). In the country, his career rapidly progressed.
By 1960, after serving as a platoon leader and a commander of a rifle company, he became a first lieutenant (Brown 30). The real climb to success had begun when the man returned to the US. According to Brown, “Powell’s natural ease with people made him well suited for his new job as battalion adjutant” (30). A commanding officer of the future diplomat, Colonel William Abernathy, recalled him being “wise beyond his years” and added that “he was always thinking and planning” (qtd. in Brown 30).
In 1995, the United States started its involvement in a bloody war in Vietnam, in which two parts of the country were divided by hostilities between pro-Communist forces and anti-Communist forces (Colin Powell Biography). Powell along with his wife Alma, whom she married in 1962, departed to Vietnam to lead a combat unit alongside pro-American Vietnamese troops (Brown 31). The man’s intelligence helped him to better understand the nature of the conflict. By 1963, he was perfectly cognizant of the widening gap between the reality of the war and the government’s perception of the situation (Brown 35). It was that year when Powell’s wife gave birth to their first child—Michael.
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The US involvement in the war turned into open military action by 1968 (Laver and Matthews 68). Therefore, the army sent him back along with 500, 000 servicemen in the capacity of an infantry battalion executive officer (Brown 36). Shortly after his arrival, the man was promoted to a division’s assistant chief of staff. During the war, Powell habitually showcased bravery and once saved several soldiers from a burning helicopter, thereby earning the Soldier’s Medal.
The Rise to Power
After overcoming a major obstacle of war and triumphantly returning to the US, Powell decided to enroll in George Washington University to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Later, he explained his decision by saying that “good business managers are needed in the Department of Defense” (Brown 38). A year after his decommissioning, Powell became a lieutenant colonel, which was a title associated with a retirement pension. The promotion provided him with a sense of security that was essential for the man who his whole life experienced the adversity of poverty and constantly struggled to overcome obstacles of racism.
In 1972, Powell became a White House Fellow (Powell 75). The fellowship program was a major step in the man’s political career. Frank Carlucci, an Office of Management deputy, immediately recognized the future statesman’s talents and invited him to become his assistant. The stint at the office was described by Powell as a “dream job” because it proved to be a turning point in his career. The new assignment allowed the man to become acquainted with important figures in Washington politics. In 1974, the officer was invited to serve as a research analyst for the Department of Defense (Powell 89). Two years later, while studying at the National War College, Powell became a full colonel, which opened him a road to the appointment as a commander of the Second Brigade.
Another turning point in Powell’s career was a promotion to brigadier general. The promotion signified hard work of the person of color who through his desire to overcome racial prejudices and other obstacles had risen to such a powerful position. In 1987, Powell returned to Washington under command of Carlucci (Colin Powell Biography). In the same year, after the resignation of William Crowe, Jr., he was appointed a national security adviser, where he along with President Reagan’s advisers coordinated important summit meetings.
In 1989, the general was promoted to a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Colin Powell Biography). Powell did not feel at ease while taking the position because a presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush was associated with considerable racial tensions, which was unacceptable for the man supporting the black cause. Therefore, when years later he was asked by President Bush to serve as a director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the chairman turned the offer down.
The stint as a chairman was associated with many challenges for Powell. During his first year of service in the new position, the US got involved in crises with the Philippines, El Salvador, and Panama (Brown 72). The man commented on these events by saying that he had “several cold showers” and was forced to don “Superman’s cape” (Brown 72). In 1989, the chairman was assigned to put an end to drug-smuggling activities of Panama that were encouraged by the country’s dictator Manuel Noriega. Initially, Powell wanted to strike a deal with the president, however, when a US marine was murdered by Noriega’s army, the chairman prepared the American invasion, which came to be known as Operation Just Cause.
In 2001, Powell was appointed by President Bush to serve as the US Secretary of State (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). At that time, the CIA supplied Powell with information suggesting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was involved in the manufacturing of biochemical and nuclear weapons. Given that Hussein used chemical weapons against civilians in 1988, President Bush’s advisors urged him to engage in a preemptive military action against Iraq (Brown 87). The secretary supported the president. Therefore, he used his reputation to convince Congress to approve a military strike. Years later, Powell testified before members of Congress that the intelligence community was wrong in assuming that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (Schwarz).
During his stint as the chairman, which lasted for the duration of Reagan’s administration, Powell frequented media broadcast and became immediately recognized by African Americans across the country. The general was a role model for people of color because he was the first African American to serve as a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moreover, his reasonable approach to military conflicts and especially Desert Shield operation in Iraq quickly moved him to a position of prominence.
The American public was enamored with Powell who “publicly disagreed with the president on the issue of admitting gays into the military” (Colin Powell Biography). During one of many media appearances, the general revealed that his parents always were his role models and said that he hoped they were proud of what he and his sister had achieved.
Powell and Black Popular Culture
Although it is wrong to analyze black popular culture through binary lenses of black-white opposition, it can be argued that Powell’s rise to the position of power represents the man’s ability to cross boundaries of black expression that were prohibited by cultural mores of his society. There is no doubt that the general transformed the framework of black popular culture by proving that racial differences were social constructs that had to be opposed and ridiculed. However, his negotiation of black identity within the white hegemony was criticized by some members of black society. According to Brown, even though Powell was a proponent of the civil rights movement and worked hard to open a door of opportunity to other African Americans, “many black leaders felt he was betraying his race by serving a president whom they viewed as hostile to their cause” (66).
The most important point of criticism associated with Powell has to do with his role in the US attack against Iraq. In 2003, the statesman made a presentation in front of the UN Security Council in which he demonstrated satellite photos that purported to show Saddam Hussein’s attempt to manufacture weapons of mass destruction (Brown 88).
Jonathan Schwarz, in his article in Huffington Post, deconstructs the presentation line by line to demonstrate that Powell fabricated evidence and lied about it. The journalist argues that the man ignored warnings of some members of the intelligence community who were aware of the fact that his sources deliberately misrepresented facts and adds that “Powell’s loyalty to George Bush extended to being willing to deceive the world” (Schwarz).
In his interview with the New York Times, Powell told that it was his agent Marvin Josephson who convinced him to write the first book (Berg). The man confessed that he had not felt comfortable in the new role of a writer because he was “mostly a speaker” (Berg). Nonetheless, Powell wrote five books and was a co-author of four books (Berg). The secretary’s book My American Journey is arguably his most important work because it reveals intimate details about his childhood and provides readers with invaluable insights into the role of a black leader in the political landscape of America.
The paper has discussed Powell’s upbringing, family background, life path, role models, accomplishments, obstacles, and points of acclaim. It has been shown that there is a direct connection between the man’s rise to power and Black Popular Culture in the US. Few people would challenge the assertion that Powell was a phenomenal leader whose unfailingly polite yet persistent support for African American social movements has helped to broaden awareness about race as a significant factor in both domestic and international affairs. Despite numerous challenges associated with his background and crises of the Bush administration, the statesman was capable of reaffirming diplomatic alliances of the US around the globe, thereby showing his strong commitment to peace. Most importantly, during his term as the Secretary of State, Powell improved bilateral relationships with countries such as China and Russia.
Berg, Scott “Colin L. Powell: By the Book.” The New York Times, 2012.
“Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Collin Luther Powell (1937-).” Office of the Historian, 2017.
Brown, Warren. Colin Powell: Soldier and Statesman. Chelsea House, 2005.
“Colin Powell Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2017.
“Colin Powell: Military Leader, Diplomat.” Biography.
Laver, Harry, and Jeffrey Matthews. Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell. The University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
Lewis, Gregg, and Deborah Lewis. Today’s Heroes: Colin Powell. Zonderkidz, 2002.
Lusane, Clarence. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century. Praeger, 2006.
Powell, Colin. My American Journey, Ballantine Books, 2003.
Schwarz, Jonathan. “Lie After Lie After Lie: What Colin Powell Knew Ten Years Ago Today and What he Said.” Huffington Post.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Colin Powell.” Encyclopedia Britannica,2017.