As a patriot and a black man, Colin Powell embodied the “two” of the African-American experience.

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As a patriot and a black man, Colin Powell embodied the “two” of the African-American experience.

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By Chad WilliamsOctober 18, 2021

Chad Williams is Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

Colin Powell knew where he stood in American history.

The former secretary of state – who died on October 18, 2021 at age 84 from complications from COVID-19 – was a trailblazer: the first black national security adviser in US history, the first president black of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and also the first black to become Secretary of State.

But his “American Journey” – as he described it in the title of a 2003 autobiography – is more than one man’s story. His death is a time to reflect on the history of black American men and women in the military and African Americans in government.

But more deeply, it also speaks to what it means to be an American and the tensions Colin Powell – as a patriot and black man – has faced throughout his life and career.

I am an African-American studies specialist who is currently writing a book on the great civil rights intellectual WEB DuBois. When I heard of Powell’s passing, I immediately remembered what DuBois called the “double consciousness” of the African-American experience.

As DuBois put it in an 1897 article and later in his classic 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk”, this “special feeling” is unique to African Americans: “You feel your duality – one American, one. Black ; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled efforts; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose only stubborn strength keeps it from being torn apart. “

This concept deeply describes Colin Powell as a soldier, career soldier and politician.

What it means to serve

On the surface, Colin Powell’s life would seem to disprove DuBois’ formulation. He was someone many people could cite as an example of how it is possible to be both black and full-fledged American, which DuBois saw as a lingering tension. There is a story that Powell used the military to transcend the race and become one of the most powerful men in the land. In this sense, it was the ultimate American success story.

But there is a danger in this story. Colin Powell’s story was exceptional, but he was not the avatar of a post-racial color blind America.

The US military has long been seen as a way out of poverty for black Americans, especially young blacks. Many have chosen to make their service a career.

By the time Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants raised in the Bronx, joined the United States military, there was already a proud history of African Americans in the United States military – “Buffalo soldiers” who served in the United States. the American West, the Caribbean and the South. Pacific post-American Civil War to World War II Tuskegee aviators.

Powell was part of this military history. He joined in 1958, a decade after the desegregation of the Armed Forces in 1948.

But the military was – and still is – an institution characterized by structural racism. It was true when Powell joined the military, and it is true today.

As such, Powell should have struggled with his blackness and what it meant in the military: what did it mean to serve a country that doesn’t serve you?

As a serviceman during the Vietnam War, Powell also distinguished himself from many black political leaders who condemned US action in Southeast Asia.

While Muhammad Ali asked why he should “put on a uniform and walk 10 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people” at a time when “so-called blacks in Louisville are treated like dogs and deprived of simple human rights, “Powell was climbing the military ranks.

This helps explain why, despite Powell’s unmistakable accomplishments, his legacy as a black leader is complicated. His identity – being of Jamaican descent – has raised questions about what it means to be an African American. His life in the military has made some wonder why he would serve a country historically hostile to non-whites in the United States and around the world. Veteran activist and singer Harry Belafonte compared Powell in 2002 to a “domestic slave” in a particularly controversial remark questioning his loyalty to the American system.

Powell recognized the realities of racism in the United States, while believing that it should never act as a barrier or cause black people to question their Americanity. In a May 14, 1994 opening speech at Howard University, Powell told graduates to be proud of their black heritage, but to use it as “a cornerstone we can build on, not a place. where to withdraw “.

And then there are his political affiliations. He was the national security adviser to Ronald Reagan and the chairman of the chiefs of staff to George HW Bush at a time when the domestic policies of the two presidents were devastating black America, through the mass incarceration of men and women. black women and economic policies that deprived services in the slums. income zones.

It was before one of the most important and controversial moments in Powell’s political life.

In February 2003, Powell pleaded before the United Nations Security Council for military action against Iraq – a speech that falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. He hadn’t, and the war Powell helped lead the United States in the scars of his legacy.

A complicated existence

Powell’s duality, to use DuBois’ expression, later manifested itself in his 2008 decision to endorse Barack Obama as a presidential candidate rather than his Republican and military colleague John McCain.

In Obama, Powell saw “a transformational figure” in America and on the world stage.

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In endorsing Obama, Powell chose the historical significance of the United States having its first black president over loyalty and service to his friend and political party.

His drift towards republicanism was accentuated after Donald Trump took the reins of the party. He increasingly spoke out against Trump, who viewed Powell – like many Trump supporters – as some sort of traitor.

This view ignores history.

Powell was a patriot who embodied “the two warring ideals of DuBois in one dark body.” For Powell to reach the heights he has achieved, it took relentless strength and perhaps a lot more effort to maintain him than his white predecessors.

In America, being black and patriotic is – as DuBois suggested over a century ago, and as Powell’s life attests – a very complicated, if not painful, business.The conversation


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