On Monday morning, as I was heading into the office to do my thing as the Deputy Facility Manager at Embassy Bogotá, I received word that Colin Powell had passed away from complications related to COVID-19. He was 84 years old. Much like the loss of my wife’s aunt 3 months ago, his death doesn’t exactly come as a huge shock (I read recently that he had some form of cancer) yet it hits me in a tender place. He was a true American in the purest sense of the word. With today’s entry in the Flashback Friday series, I’ll share some thoughts on what he meant to me.
How I first came across Colin Powell? My first discovery of Powell was from his days as General Colin Powell. This was during the Gulf War back in 1991. The 6-year-old version of myself watched the evening news with Grandma Sallie and there he was, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to the media about what was happening in Kuwait and Iraq.
What Colin Powell meant to me then? As a 6-year-old, I wasn’t long enough in the tooth to understand what he represented at the time. But, as I ascended to Miss Williams’s 3rd grade class during the 1993-1994 school year, I learned a lot more and understood a lot more about him. While I did my Black history report on Jackie Robinson, a classmate of mine selected General Powell. During my senior year of high school, as I met with my Honors Economics 12/Honors Government 12 teacher to prepare my application package for nomination to the U.S. Air Force Academy, I learned a lot more about his trailblazing path in Washington: the first Black National Security Advisor, the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first Black Secretary of State. I learned about his Birmingham connection—his wife, Alma, and his son and former FCC chairman, Michael, were born in the city. There were so many conversations about Powell that I feel as if the late great Mr. Zeigler wanted me to use the opportunity with USAFA, had I received the nomination, to maybe enjoy a military career similar to that of the great general. Even after I enlisted into the Air Force after my Congressional representative refused to nominate me for USAFA, Powell’s legacy was still ever-present. I came across a lot of fantastic Black senior non-commissioned officers and young Black company-grade and field-grade officers that exhibited the great leadership qualities that General Powell embodied. For a while, until the brutally cold Weighted Airman Promotion System left me disillusioned with military service, I actually considered engaging a long career of national service in the uniform…mostly because I read a lot about Powell’s struggles to overcome roadblocks in an Army that he one day ascended to being its top soldier.
What Colin Powell means to me now? Today, I’m an American diplomat. For Powell, his last act of official national service was as an American diplomat: U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President George W. Bush. From the stories I’ve heard from those in the senior ranks, he was actually quite the people’s person as Secretary Powell. Though his 4 years as Secretary of State ended in controversy, that doesn’t cheapen what his ascension to that office means to me. Just like him, I’m a Black American who had somewhat of a tough upbringing. Like him, I’m a veteran and graduate of non-Ivy League schools. And just like him, I’ve spent the majority of my life—to this point, at least—in national service. Perhaps there is a chance, with a lot of hard work and maybe a few high-powered friends in Washington, that I can be U.S. Secretary of State…or at the very least, be in a position to make a major impact in international diplomacy on behalf of the United States. What Colin Powell means most to me at this age of 36 actually has nothing to do with his military or diplomatic careers. It has nothing to do with his service to the country in whatever he did. Powell’s fierce adherence to his principles despite how he was perceived is what meant the most to me the last few years of his life…and what will mean the most to me in his passing. The fearlessness I showcase in how I vote, what sides of the issues I stand on and a bit of my worldview can be attributed to the same kind of fearlessness he showcased. I really wish I would have had the honor of meeting him but I’ll settle for making sure I continue to work hard and serve my nation admirably in memoriam to him.
Rest in Peace, General/Secretary Powell.