It was in the late 1980s when I first came across the name Colin Powell whilst reading his name in the UK newspapers when he was part of George H Bush’s administration.
My first impression of the name was that Colin Powell must be a black man or at least Jamaicanish.
You see, Colin was at that time was such a popular Jamaican first name and Powell was a surname rooted mainly from the Jamaican parish of St Elizabeth. If you meet anyone in Jamaica whose surname at birth was Powell then Saint Eliz was generally their parish of roots. Surnames such as Bent, Mullings, Rochester, Salmon and Ebanks also resonate with the said parish or the neighbouring Westmoreland.
Months later I saw Powell’s face for the first time on UK TV news and thought ‘yes, I knew he was black’. But the reporters were pronouncing his name as Coorllin.
Hear me out, Jamaicans pronounce Colin as Calin. So I was could not help but laugh at how the US and British media pronounced Powell’s forename.
I first heard Powell’s voice during the first Iraq War of the early 1990s as he was a regular fixture on tv news during that period alongside US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf.
I could not help but be impressed by Powell. In his press briefings he came across as assured, serious, commanding and succinct.
From that time I just took a deep interest in Powell’s career.
In the 1980s/early 1990s it was so rare to see a black man in a position of authority in any US administration and Powell’s presence was something to feel fascinated by.
Then I got the confirmation of Powell’s Jamaican roots via the Caribbean press. “Yes, I knew it.”
Colin Powell was one of those public figures that I felt was such an inspiring figure. He just had something about him that I was drawn to.
I was not a fan of the Bush administration (1988-1992) and yet I was proud to see a Jamerican in such lofty levels of government.
I felt even prouder when Powell became Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration of 2001. He seemed the adult in the room to keep the war mongering Neo-Cons in check. How wrong I was.
Despite my high regard for Powell, I (like many others ) was disappointed in his crusade for the post 9/11 Iraq War. At the time I was working in the UK government and we were stunned at Powell’s speech at the UN in 2003.
After Powell’s UN speech the mood across Whitehall was downbeat as Powell was seen at the only one who could stop this pointless Western-backed march to war in Iraq.
The UK public was not keen any war with Iraq. We knew the intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq was a lie. But PM Tony Blair was on mission to suck up to the Bush administration by any way necessary.
The really sad part of Powell’s role was that not even his own intel team at the State Department agreed with the CIA and Vice President’s Dick Cheney’s arguments of WMD in Iraq. Yet Powell went against his own intel team and sided with neo-cons of the Bush administration orchestrated by Cheney, Donald Rumsfield and Condi Rice.
Once his UK equivalent Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s government weeks after the UN speech, Powell should have sensed something was not right about trumped-up case for the Iraq invasion and followed Cook’s noble stance.
It was hard to accept Powell’s poor judgement over Iraq. Even today.
But what we must never forget is that Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the CIA chiefs drove this disaster from the outset and got away with their lies without any retribution. Today, Blair is going around like some world figure providing so-called consultancy to governments with the latest gig being as an advisor to Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of Tanzania.
[Powell’s legacy would have probably been more kinder and enduring had he accepted either the post of Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense from the then newly elected President Bill Clinton in 1993.]
Even though I had a deep disregard for the likes of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Blair, I still had admiration for Powell.
His autobiography “My American Journey” first published in the late 1990s is an excellent read. If you are of Jamaican heritage you will be immediately gripped from page one of his story.
Much has been commented over the past few days about Powell 13 rules of leadership which he published in the autobiography. Yet, Powell just did not follow his own leadership playbook when it came the case for the 2nd Iraq War, especially his rule of “check small things”.
But my favourite part of Powell’s autobiography was his and his wife Alma’s emotions when they went to Africa in 1992 for the first time and visited Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Senegal.
In Sierra Leone, Powell said
“As you know, I am an American. I am the son of Jamaicans who emigrated from the island to the United States. But today, I am something more. I am African too. I feel my roots, here on this continent”
But an interesting footnote to Colin Powell’s life and his enduring Jamaican roots.
The usual narrative is that Powell had one sibling in Marilyn Berns. But I am sure Powell had an elder sister who lived and worked in Old Harbour when I grew up there in the 1970s/1980s. Different mother.
From what I was told the sister tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Powell when he visited Jamaica in 1992.
According to Colin his dad Luther (who emigrated to the US in the early 1920s) never ever spoke to him about his life in Jamaica. Something Colin regretted not pursuing when Luther was alive.
Powell’s extended family in Old Harbour (Powells & Dawkins) and its environs is vast. Real shame he never had a chance to meet them.
Luther Powell died in 1978.
Wark good Colin.
Colin Powell Reflects on His Mistakes in This Unpublished TIME Interview