During a recent interview that I conducted for TV-One with Secretary of the State Colin Powell, the four-star general kept wandering back to the territory of shame and self-defeat.
For Powell, shame seems reserved for anyone who shirks his duty, who doesn't duck his head and burrow forward with the tenacity of a career soldier. For Powell, avoiding shame was a virtue learned young:
"Both of my parents showed up here on boats - one in Philadelphia and one in New York. And they worked hard. They worked in the garment industry. They worked for minimum wage and it was simply unthinkable that the children of these immigrants would not do better. Nobody in my family dropped out of school. It would have been unheard of, unthinkable, and that was drilled into us and it was these expectations and these tribal rituals, family rituals that every family has, every culture has, were what kept us all in playing, kept us all going. . . . You were not allowed to shame the family."
The other abiding lesson of Powell's youth was that you could never defeat yourself. This was a lesson that was bound up in the color of his skin. The military had only truly been desegregated for about two or three years when Powell began his active duty as an Army lieutenant in 1958. On those early years in the military, Powell recalls the difficulty some of his commanders had separating his skin color from his performance.
"I remember one of my commanders saying to me, 'You're the best black lieutenant I've ever seen.' And I thanked him very kindly. I could have gotten mad. I could have gone in the corner and kicked a bucket, but I just thanked him. He meant well. He didn't know what he was saying, but he meant well. And I just said to myself, 'Thank you very much, sir, but before this is through, I'm going to be the best lieutenant you ever saw. You will not categorize me as the best black lieutenant you ever saw.'"
And indeed, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general. From Oct. 1, 1989 to Sept. 30, 1993, he served as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. In that capacity he oversaw Operation Desert Storm in the victorious 1991 Persian Gulf War.
So, does that mean Powell thinks we should turn a blind eye to the prejudices of others? No. It just means there is no point to letting them - racists, the ignorant, anyone who would seek to inhibit you - from renting space in your head. Never let them distract you from what is in your own best interests. To do so would be to defeat yourself, and to court shame.
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