Colin Powell Showed Black Excellence Is Not Enough
As a young man, I admired him deeply. Today, I wrestle with my own desire for justice.
When I was 18, I aspired to the Black excellence of Colin Powell.
When I was 18, I aspired to the Black excellence of Colin Powell.
A first-generation Jamaican American born and raised working-class in the Bronx, Powell was an exceptional case of Black excellence—which, as the writer La Negra describes it, is “hard to define” yet achieved despite “meeting resistance in the form of institutional racism.” My high school teachers and family members in working-class Detroit would often point to Powell as a standard-bearer of how we, as Black folk, could excel in America.
There were good reasons for this. Black people held Powell in high esteem during the 1990s and early 2000s as a man who rose up to the highest ranks of the military, showing white people we were fully capable of joining them at the table. As the tributes to him after his death last month show, he was a man of honor, valor, integrity and, in general, just a nice man.
But the 41-year-old me can’t acknowledge this reverence without also acknowledging the tens of thousands of people who died because of it.
When I was 20, I wrote a letter of appreciation to Powell and received a generous note in response. At the time, I could not have imagined that a Black man would use his influence to harm other oppressed peoples. But he did. Powell’s legacy is his speech to the United Nations Security Council, in 2003, in which he wrongly claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was the most popular political figure at the time, a fact that likely played into the Bush administration’s decision to deploy him to New York and plead the case for war.
Powell’s Blackness was not incidental. A Black face, especially one as respected as his, pushing an agenda of what was essentially American imperialism implicitly countered any arguments of xenophobia or that the United States saw the lives of nonwhite people as lesser. While 78 percent of white Americans supported the war, 68 percent of Black America was against the Iraq invasion, and Powell was seen as a persuasive figure, both at home and internationally. His credibility helped seal the deal and, eventually, the coffins of between 184,000 and 207,000 Iraqi civilians.
Powell would later regret his involvement, but it was not Powell’s first participation in dishonesty in the service of war. He played a “small but unhesitating” role in the obfuscations around the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops from the C Company massacred hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. Challenged later on about the contempt with which American soldiers often treated the Vietnamese, he claimed that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Powell proved that you do not have to be white to aid and abet white supremacy.
Of course, it is easy for a Black person like myself to go on Twitter and preach against the war machine that Powell served, but it is even tougher to acknowledge that I once was a Colin Powell Negro: moderate and wanting to excel in white America, even willing to compromise with the hope of being a symbol of Black achievement.
The 18-year-old me wanted a seat at the table.
The 41-year-old me still grapples with that.
To be a Black person who excels in America’s racist structures often means to embrace, even reluctantly, its behavior and to believe in the American exceptionalism that the stories of Powell and others can fuel. The story of Powell, and other Black folk like him, creates the implicit idea that the United States is a land of unlimited opportunity and that oppression can be overcome. Otherwise, you aren’t working hard enough. It’s your fault.
Barack Obama was supposed to be the chapter-closing Black president on any critique of American racism as soon as he and his Black family stepped foot in the White House. Then Ferguson happened, along with his lukewarm police reform policies and his smug commentary on “defund the police.” Obama, a Black man who often talks about his own experience with racial profiling, did not use his intellect and charisma to push for tougher reforms. Condoleezza Rice, Powell’s White House colleague who served as national security advisor and later replaced him at the State Department, often was the loudest war hawk in Washington. That she was a daughter of the Jim Crow South seemingly did little to inform her policymaking.
Other Black writers, including Cynthia A. Young and my former colleague at the Root, Michael Harriot, have explored the paradox of Black excellence in white spaces. Young points out that Powell’s Blackness hardly informed his decision-making on life-or-death issues and that he “behaved just as the white leaders before him had, waging war when and where he was told to do so.”
Harriot explains Powell’s life by referencing W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness,” which explains how one exists as both a Black person and an American. The two are very different people, and, as Black folk, we have had to decide every day how much of one we must take on in order to survive—or, in Powell’s case, thrive in the upper echelons of the overwhelmingly white military leadership.
“In some sense,” Harriot writes, “Powell’s entire life can be viewed as the manifestation of this peculiar phenomenon described by Du Bois as ‘two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’”
In many cases, Black excellence in a white-run system can and has led to complicity in violence—both at home and abroad. Eric Adams, likely the next mayor of New York City, is a Black man and an ex-cop who has often shared his story of being brutally beaten by police as a teenager. Yet he rejects calls for defunding the police and insists on giving the biggest police force in the United States more money. During the 1990s, much of the Congressional Black Caucus supported President Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1994 crime bill, which accelerated the imprisonment of the very communities they represented.
Having a seat at the white man’s table doesn’t always lead to Black progress or the deconstruction of America’s military-industrial complex, which Powell had no incentive to do. Unlike that 18-year-old kid from Detroit who read Powell’s memoir My American Journey with awe, I know now that Black faces do not often lead to liberating white spaces.
Still, there is a part of me that clings on to the emotions of that 18-year-old kid because my upbringing conditioned me to go to college, be skillful around white people—and to aspire to be 10 times better than them for a seat at the table. But the 41-year-old me understands that Black liberation requires us to stand in solidarity with all oppressed peoples and fight to disrupt the systems that kill us all—and this is where Powell’s record falls short.
But Powell’s legacy will be judged in the court of public opinion, not the International Criminal Court, of which the United States is not a party. His death should empower us to grapple with the question: How much of the white supremacist system will we co-sign as we ascend within it?
But there are others who do better in this regard—or at least try to. Rep. Barbara Lee took that step of solidarity three days after 9/11 as the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force that led to the 20-year war the United States just ended. Lee would face nonstop death threats and severe media criticism for her brave decision, but she told me in an interview this year that her father, a Black man who excelled in the military himself, supported her resistance.
As someone who had been fighting for nuclear nonproliferation during the 1970s, a key congressional member behind the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, and a co-chair of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, Lee told me her Blackness informs her politics.
“As an African-American woman, I view these policies in an intersectional fashion, because as Black women, that’s what we have to do,” she said. “And we know that oftentimes the deck is stacked against us. And so, all my life I’ve been trying to find ways that create justice for everyone in this country and abroad. Being a Black woman, our experiences just require us to bring forward who we are, to find different approaches to the challenges that we face, both domestically and internationally.”
Powell’s legacy in this regard simply doesn’t measure up. But an uncomfortable question we must ask ourselves, as Black folk, is this: Would ours? I cried when Obama was elected to the White House in 2008, but I eventually mourned the innocent civilians across the Middle East and Central Asia who died from his accelerated use of drone strikes.
My politics weren’t always this way. Had it not been for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that sparked global consciousness after Michael Brown’s 2014 killing by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, I likely would not have picked up the language to critique Powell’s public service failures or dig deep to reeducate myself on Black complicity of white violence or understand its racist structures in general.
The U.S. education system doesn’t teach us about America’s imperial relationship with the world or its murderous and exploitative relationship with its own people. The Republican Party has deliberately misconstrued the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which challenges us all to reimagine the origins of America’s foundation as a nation. Critical race theory—which studies the relationship among race, racism, and white supremacist systems—is being banned across large swaths of the country. The United States makes us afraid to even ask about its white supremacist past and present and punishes, kills, and demotes us when we do.
Powell’s death should challenge us to be more like Lee and Hannah-Jones and to take notes from the former general on how not to participate in America’s imperial project. I also have learned to both forgive myself for my own past blind spots—and extend Powell some grace. No Black person was born in America with woke politics. When our schools and the mainstream media failed to educate us on American white supremacy and imperialism, BLM held classes for us—free of charge and easily accessible on Twitter and other social media platforms.
One of the themes of BLM is anti-imperialism, which insists that Black people cannot be free until all oppressed people are free. For me, that means we cannot push against anti-Blackness at home and orchestrate imperial violence abroad.
Muntadher Alzaidi, the Iraqi journalist who famously threw a shoe at President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in 2008, tweeted: “I am saddened by the death of Colin Powell without being tried for his crimes in Iraq .. But I am sure that the court of God will be waiting for him.” I empathize with him.
It is difficult to call Bush a war criminal without also morally holding to account his most persuasive mouthpiece for invading Iraq in the first place.
We don’t have to be BLM activists to be anti-imperial or stand for what’s right. But what we can’t do is plan the inevitable suffering of people of color around the world with the very men and women who have orchestrated our suffering at home.
So while I no longer aspire to be like the Powell I idolized in high school, I do feel his death should challenge us to be a better version of him—and ourselves.
Terrell Jermaine Starr is founder and host of the foreign-policy podcast Black Diplomats and author of the upcoming book, Black Man on the Steppes: My Odyssey From Detroit to Eastern Europe. He is also a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Twitter: @Russian_Starr
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