Steven V. Roberts: The boy from the Bronx

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 22, 2021

Many people are sharing their favorite Colin Powell stories, and here’s mine: As the child of immigrants from Jamaica, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood of the South Bronx. Behind every window or curtain, he told me, there was a pair of eyes, usually belonging to an elderly woman, watching the streets and the children who played there — not just their own relatives, but everyone else’s, too.

If he ever got into trouble, which was frequently, word of his misdeeds reached his mother long before he got home. The neighborhood telegraph system was as swift as any IM or tweet is today.

The point of that story, Powell emphasized, was the critical importance of community, of folks taking responsibility for each other. This was especially true for immigrant families like his. And as I remember Powell, who died this week at age 84, I think of the lesson that tale conveys and how it is central to his own life story.

As critic Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post, “For a generation of Black Americans who came of age during the civil rights era, success was accompanied by a singular phrase often repeated by friends and family, and total strangers, too: Don’t forget where you came from. Colin Powell exemplified the power, the complexity and the grace in those words.”

One way he exemplified those words was his choice of careers. Like so many other immigrants and their children, he saw the military as a way to serve the country his parents had chosen and become fully American. His record of achievement — from chairman of the Joint Chiefs to secretary of state — symbolized the countless contributions newcomers make to this country every day.

But he was also a Black man, deeply proud of his identity and committed to helping young people of color. Condoleezza Rice, who succeed Powell as secretary of state in 2005, recalls him inviting her to lunch in 1985 when she was just a 31-year-old visiting fellow at the Pentagon. She wrote a remembrance for the Post headlined “Colin Powell’s greatest legacy is in the people he inspired.”

Rice shared family connections in Birmingham, Alabama, with Powell’s wife, Alma. In her tribute, Rice describes a telling scene that took place 18 years after she first met Powell for lunch: “In 2003, sitting in Buckingham Palace during President George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain, Alma, Colin and I drank a toast to our ancestors. ‘They would never have believed it,’ I said. ‘No, but they are smiling now,’ he said.”

Above all, Powell was a patriot. To many Americans, his identity transcended both race and partisanship, and in August 1995, I wrote a column describing a groundswell of public opinion urging him to run for president. A recent poll by U.S. News had pegged his favorable rating at 71% while only 5% viewed him negatively.

His popularity was so broad that both parties evinced an interest in a Powell candidacy. Perhaps the only other figure in the 20th century who possessed that sort of bipartisan appeal was Dwight Eisenhower, also a general, who eventually won two presidential terms as a Republican.

Three months after my column appeared, Powell announced that he was, in fact, a Republican — and that he would not run for president. His wife was strongly against it, fearing for his safety on the campaign trail, and Colin himself lacked the stomach for the political grind. “He came to realize that he could not find the internal drive, the fire in the belly for the race,” wrote Bob Woodward in the Post.

But if he didn’t possess the “fire” to become the first Black president, he discovered someone who did: Barack Obama. By 2008, Powell was increasingly alienated from the Republican Party, particularly with the burgeoning xenophobia and race-baiting that would culminate in the nomination of Donald Trump in 2016.

Interviewed on “Meet the Press” in 2008, Powell explained his support for Obama by saying he was sorely “troubled” by Republicans who questioned the Democrat’s loyalty and labeled him a “secret Muslim.”

“He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” Powell asserted. “He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

Powell’s whole life emphasized and embodied the truth of his answer: No; that’s not America.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Contact him at