As A Jamaican American, I Understand What Colin Powell’s Legacy Means To The Immigrant Experience
Jamaican immigrants are insistent about making sure their American-born children and family members understand their privilege and operate in it to achieve great things.
November 01, 2021 at 8:28 pm
As a young boy growing up, Colin Powell was more than just a general to me. He was the walking, talking, breathing and living example of what my mother wanted my brother and me to become. This dream of hers wasn't due to General Powell’s service in the military. It was because General Powell was a first-generation American from Jamaica; this made both his parents and the tiny island in the Caribbean Sea proud.
If there is one English word that describes what is required of a first-generation American youth from Jamaica, that word would be proud. No matter what, you are required to make both your parents, your family and your countrymen proud. If in the process of that, you become the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of state, that is just icing on the cake.
"American Blacks and West Indians also wound up on American soil under different conditions. My Black ancestors may have been dragged to Jamaica in chains, but they were not dragged to the United States," said Gen. Powell, in his 1995 best-selling autobiography, My American Journey. "Mom and Pop chose to emigrate to this country … to seek better lives for themselves and their children. That is a far different emotional and psychological beginning than that of American Blacks, whose ancestors were brought here in chains."
General Powell represents precisely what makes this country's immigration process so vital. Only in the United States of America can folks from a developing country migrate, plant roots, work hard and then watch on as their child climbs the ranks and ascends to the highest levels of government and most extraordinary levels of influence on the planet.
And, indeed, that is the story of Colin Powell. He represented the best of America while also not forgetting his Jamaica roots. He visited Jamaica numerous times, including a famous visit in 1992 following the end of the Gulf War, and a visit in 1994 for an interview with famed journalist Barbara Walters. In addition, he was one of the specially invited guests for Jamaica's Grand Gala, celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence. And the U.S. Congress renamed the building that houses the U.S. embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, in Powell's honor in 2005, from the Crowne Plaza to the Colin L. Powell Residential Plaza.
His untimely passing to COVID-19 is devastating and should also serve as a shock to the American conscience. If it were not for immigration, there wouldn't be a Colin Powell. If not for his Jamaican parents, General Powell would have never learned the unique traits of optimism and the ability to find common ground, demand respect, love his neighbor and triumph through adversity.
Though not unique to Jamaica, these highly sought after traits seem to be ingrained in Jamaican culture. They most definitely reflect the lives and legacy of Jamaican Americans that have gained prominence in America, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and NBA All-Star Patrick Ewing.
Growing up Jamaican American isn't easy. From the time you are born until forever, you are constantly reminded about the importance of doing well, playing by rules, treating others with respect and demanding the same for yourself. Whether it is with little catchphrases you might hear your mother say as she is helping you prepare for school, or the words you hear from your uncles at the backyard family cookout while they’re drinking Red Stripe beers, Jamaican immigrants are insistent about making sure their American-born children and family members understand their privilege and operate in it to achieve great things.
While Gen. Powell's generation is a couple before my own, I'm sure those conversations happened and those seeds were planted. The reason why I don't have to guess is because those seeds made Gen. Powell one hell of a tall tree.
A former colleague of Powell and the previous Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations, Curtis A. Ward, said, "Many Jamaicans and Caribbean people in the diaspora, and also at home, tend to claim famous individuals of Caribbean descent as their own. We didn't have to claim General Colin Powell. He claimed us."
"He was proud of his Jamaican heritage. He wrote and spoke of his Jamaican and West Indian heritage proudly," Ward continued.
Beyond his many firsts, Gen. Powell will enter the pearly gates with a legacy of a statesman — a skilled, experienced, well-respected and adored political leader who was above politics. The four-star general was a devout believer that out of many, America was one people — a popular refrain that harkens back to Jamaica's national motto, “One of Many, One People.”
Powell was able to see his race and force others to see beyond race when it came time to make some of the hardest and most consequential decisions.
Yes, it is true; some of Powell's decisions were not the best. But, if we're counting, his good ones far outweighed his bad ones. And that too is part of the Black immigrant experience in America.
When most Black immigrants first arrive in America, they don’t find gold paved roads and silk bed sheets. They are oftentimes met with closed doors, a lack of opportunity and the harsh realities of American racism. This unholy trinity causes some to make a wrong decision or two, but it doesn’t mean good decisions can’t follow.
Recently, the streets of Heaven have been pretty loud, and they have been blasting some of Jamaica's finest music for its newest resident, General Colin Powell.
And while we’ll miss his words, deeds, infectious optimism and willingness to see beyond our politics, his spirit and what he taught us should remain and cause us to require more of ourselves and those very same politics.