The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering where Colin Powell came from

The four-star general served under three Republican presidents and was also the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Video: Monica Rodman, Drea Cornejo/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.

They’ve been uttered as a warning and a plea. But they’re also a gift. They’re a way that Black folks have of sending their brethren out into the wider world with something akin to an amulet. These sturdy syllables can guide you home if you ever feel lost or alone. They’re a balm against indignity and slights and a reminder that even if you’re blazing new trails, you do not have to walk them entirely alone.

That phrase is a call back to the ancestors and an acknowledgment that you were not raised to be fearful and irresolute. Remember: You did not come from a people who quit or who turned back at the slightest hurdle. The words are meant to conjure bravery when it’s most needed.

Powell came from immigrant stock. His parents arrived in the United States from Jamaica, and he was born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. He grew up in the South Bronx, a mediocre student who found his motivation and success in the military. He was a warrior formed by the ambitions and failures of the Vietnam War, and he rose to become the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the first Black secretary of state.

He was a man of military bearing, who after entering civilian life always made sure that he was precisely attired when he stood before the public. He was a man who was friends with his tailor Martin Greenfield, which is to say that Powell lived a particularly rarefied suit-and-tie existence but also recognized the value and skills of those who crouch in the shadows. Powell was a Washington suit. And he imbued the word with dignity. He was a Black man in a hand-tailored, single-breasted suit, which wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was a commentary on power and history and pride.

Republicans wooed Powell to run for president even before his political affiliation was clear. He was a Republican who endorsed Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden for president. He was a Republican who became so concerned by his party’s chipping away at American democracy that he no longer considered the Grand Old Party to be his political home.

Powell never forgot where he came from or the distance he’d traveled. He kept to his north star. He was 84 when he died Monday.

Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state and military leader, dies at 84

That old school adage is also a stern reminder of duty. It suggests that forward progression is a communal effort, and a wise person understands that success is built on the good work of those who’ve come before and that the only way to repay folks for that backbreaking labor is to offer up opportunity to the next generation. That’s the easy part. Powell was philanthropic. He shared his expertise.

Those words are also pinpricks to an overinflated ego. They are constant reminders not to become so self-confident that you start to mistake luck for knowledge, the arc of history for the strength of one’s own bootstraps, experience for omniscience. Powell rebuffed calls by Republicans for him to run for president mostly because he didn’t think he should have the job; he didn’t think he was the fixer of the country’s most pressing problems. He was a rarity among the great men of Washington. He did not think he had all the answers.

Over the years, those words about keeping the past close have fallen out of favor. Bits and pieces of the sentiment live on in hashtags that are aimed at making sure folks stay attuned to life’s hard truths and try to move through each day with authenticity. Stay woke. Keep it real. Those rallying cries encourage the striver to remain on the offensive. To fight. To never back down. Personal authenticity is sometimes so highly weaponized that it’s akin to an explosive device that detonates under pressure, leaving everyone bloodied and scarred.

Remembering where you came from is not just about what you take with you as you move forward. It’s not just about one’s obligations to the future. It’s also a reassurance that there’s always something you can come home to. It’s a statement about solace. It’s a reminder that you have a soft place to land when you stumble. Because everyone stumbles. And barrier-breakers are sure to get knocked around and screw up.

The terrible mistake that haunted Powell were his words justifying the U.S. war in Iraq — notably his speech before the U.N. Security Council in 2003 warning about weapons of mass destruction. He later acknowledged that the speech would forever be a stain on his record.

There are those for whom his contribution to the war in Iraq will be the totality of his legacy. But regret is also part of his Iraq story. And regret is a rarity.

But if you are keenly aware of where you came from and you are secure in the knowledge that that is a place of enduring welcome, then admitting to one’s own failures comes with a safety net. It doesn’t feel so much like plummeting to the bottom of a lonely abyss. The folks back where you came from may not go easy on you. They will not coddle you. But they will let you come home.

Powell was a historic figure. He was a Republican; he was democratic. He flew high; he committed a grave sin. He was a Black man.

And he never forgot.