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Opinion How Colin Powell shouldered the special pride and burden of many Black ‘firsts’

Former secretary of state Colin Powell in 2009, when he introduced a service initiative of then-President-elect Barack Obama calling on Americans to volunteer. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)
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There is a special pride, but also a special burden, in being “the first Black [fill in the blank].” Colin L. Powell shouldered that responsibility while giving the impression that the weight was as light as a feather.

Powell, who died Monday from complications of covid-19, long knew how his obituaries would someday describe him: “the first African American secretary of state” and “the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” and the “first African American national security adviser to the president.”

In his 1995 memoir, “My American Journey,” Powell wrote: “My career should serve as a model to fellow blacks, in or out of the military, in demonstrating the possibilities of American life. Equally important, I hoped then and now that my rise might cause prejudiced whites to question their prejudices, and help purge the poison of racism from their systems, so that the next qualified African-American who came along would be judged by merit alone.”

That was the easy part. Powell went on: “I am also aware that, over the years, my career may have given some bigots a safe black to hide behind. ‘What, me prejudiced? I served with/over/under Colin Powell!’”

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Indeed, Powell’s rise to the apex of American power has been cited by many politicians over the years as a sign of the nation’s supposed colorblindness — as alleged proof that we have managed to leave racism behind. But Powell was acutely race-conscious, aware that he was always being scrutinized and judged in ways that a White man would not have to endure.

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After the world learned of Powell’s passing, I asked another survivor of the “first Black” experience — Eric Holder, the first African American attorney general — to describe how it felt.

“You feel a dual pressure,” he told me. “The obvious — to prove wrong those who think, for whatever reason, that Black folks can’t do the job. The more subtle — you don’t want to disappoint those people whose hopes and sense of pride are with you. The pressure is not always front of mind — as it must have been for Jackie Robinson — but it is part of the task calculus. Colin handled it as well as anyone could have. A primary reason: Regardless of the level of his societal acceptance, he never lost his sense of himself as a Black man.”

Thinking of his role in the civil rights struggle, Powell identified less with activists who marched in the streets than with those who played more of an inside game — less with a firebrand organization like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee than with the smooth, polished, boardroom-friendly National Urban League.

“I have swallowed hard under racial provocations, determined to succeed by surpassing,” Powell wrote in “My American Journey.” “Had I been more militant, would I have been branded a troublemaker rather than a promotable black? One can never be sure. But I agree with Whitney Young,” he wrote, referring to the longtime leader of the National Urban League.

Powell’s public persona was not so much as someone who had defeated racism as transcended it. He was named to his groundbreaking “first” posts by Republican presidents, and in 1995 proclaimed himself a Republican — breaking with the overwhelming majority of Black Americans, who were and are Democrats. His presence allowed the GOP to portray itself as diverse and welcoming. But he was comfortable with the party’s views — back when it was the party of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Richard B. Cheney and John McCain.

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That political choice reflected Powell’s firm belief in old-school integration as the only way forward for African Americans. He said often that the nation was better, and African Americans would make more progress, when both the Democratic and Republican parties were strong. “The black agenda has been given over to the Congressional Black Caucus,” he wrote disapprovingly in his memoir. “The concerns of African-Americans stand in danger again of riding in the back of the bus.”

To me, this philosophy has long been better in theory than in practice — given that so many GOP policies, such as voter suppression, are overtly hostile to the interests of people of color. But to his credit, Powell knew his priorities: He supported Barack Obama over McCain in 2008, seeing the historic opportunity to elect our first Black president. And he was appalled and repulsed by the rise of Donald Trump, finally announcing after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol that he no longer considered himself a Republican.

The true test of any “first Black” achiever is how he or she handles making a consequential error. Powell’s was his United Nations speech in 2003 that gave gravitas and credibility to the false notion that Saddam Hussein had an active program to produce weapons of mass destruction. That set the stage for the disastrous war in Iraq.

Powell regretted that speech but refused to let it define him. He moved on. The first rule of being the “first Black” anything: Look to the future, not the past.