By Torraine Walker
On Monday, General Colin Powell died from COVID-19. Once the news broke, the airwaves filled with testimonials to his life and accomplishments, most notable being the first Caribbean-American to serve as chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and as the first Black Secretary of State. For many African-Americans, Powell was the embodiment of “Black excellence”; an intelligent, hard working Black man who overcame America’s inherent racism to reach the heights of power and success. He was the ceiling, before Barack Obama smashed it in 2008.
However, that example of “Black excellence” came at the price of an estimated one million Iraqi dead, thousands of dead American service people, and untold millions at home and abroad with broken bodies, broken minds and broken souls, all because of a war based on lies that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney created but was sold to the public by Colin Powell, who squandered his credibility and integrity to convince the UN to endorse that fiasco. For Black Americans it begs the question of how much of a person’s legacy should we embrace, and should we elect someone our representative if they never asked for that role or made any effort to be that?
Colin Powell was always a company man. In Vietnam, he was part of an investigative team looking into the aftermath of the March 1968 My Lai massacre, where American soldiers murdered between 350 to 500 Vietnamese civilians including women and children. In response to a letter written by a serviceman describing the casual brutality American GI’s inflicted upon Vietnamese villagers, Powell recorded in his report that, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” While serving in Korea, Powell was charged with seeking out Black militants suspected of radicalizing fellow soldiers in the aftermath of racial unrest on a base, an investigation that ended in the discharge of one Black soldier and severe work detail for the others. In his later service as Joint Chiefs Chair planning the invasions of Panama, Grenada, and Iraq, he was the good soldier, sometimes clashing with administrations but never failing to carry out his orders and never voicing his opinion publicly. That training carried over to his Secretary of State duties, which to be fair, is what you want in a model employee.
My concern is not so much for Colin Powell’s image as for what it says about us that we invest so much into it. His actions are not much different than many in the Black leadership class, they just happen to have much farther reaching global consequences. You don’t reach the highest levels of military and political power without having literal and figurative bodies buried. You don’t reach the highest levels of success in the American system without compromising something, and for Black people this is doubly true. But we are also complicit in expecting people to lead us based on nothing but shared skin.
I get it. The history of Black America is the history of brilliant people being denied the opportunity to develop and profit off their brilliance by a white supremacist society. Our collective frustration over that fact often finds relief in us looking at any Black person who achieves any sort of success as something we have collective ownership of. But everything that looks good ain’t good, and maybe it’s time for the Black ruling and aspirational classes to reflect on their ideas of success.