Life lessons from Colin Powell

Posted: Aug 10, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

"In my military career," recalls Powell, "there was the suggestion was that I was being given favored treatment because I was black. The only trouble was I ran a pretty good brigade. And so, I don't worry about those kinds of statements. I never have. I've never let my color or racism be a problem for me. Let it be a problem for the racists, never for me, because if you let it become your problem then you're weakened and you start to doubt yourself."

For Powell, those people who spend their days ranting about how all blacks are victims have already given up. They have excused their own failures by placing responsibility for their own lives onto vaguely defined threats - white people, Republicans, you name it. Standing outside of society and simply pumping your fists in righteous indignation doesn't change a thing. It just makes it easy for those in control to label and dismiss you.

"The advice I give young people," says Powell, "is don't walk around with the color of your skin on your shoulder waiting for someone to knock it off. That's their problem. If they look at you that way or they want to discriminate against you or they hold the wrong attitudes against you, that's their problem. And what you have to do is perform and defeat their stereotype, defeat their belief, defeat the prejudice that they have - and you defeat that prejudice by performing. If you don't perform, then they'll hold that prejudice, but if you do perform and take advantage of all the opportunities you have, then there's nothing they can do to stop you."

The remark betrays an essential contradiction of his life: He is at once an implacable career soldier who has been conditioned to believe that success means moving forward, never giving an inch, asserting your will on your surroundings, and never sympathizing yourself into inaction. It is a very linear, very masculine way of thinking. But it is tempered by the fact of his skin color, which taught him that overcoming prejudice comes not from standing outside the dominant sphere of influence and pumping your fist in masculine defiance, but by entering the dominant sphere of influence, breaking down stereotypes through personal contact, and twisting cultural norms from within.

In politics, that means moving beyond the victim theology that the Democrats have plied black America with for the last 40 years. "Blacks will be best served if they are in all political parties in America. If they give their vote to one party, then their vote can be taken for granted." In life, it means never using the prejudice of another to justify inaction in your own life.

It is this rare mix of unyielding tenacity and furious ambition - lurking just beneath the diplomat's calm exterior - that primed the pump of Powell's ambition and hauled him toward greatness.