Colin Powell's Jamaican connection

November 03, 1995|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- The day was pure Jamaica -- radiant, ethereal sunshine and soft, sea-blown air. Gen. Colin Powell, fresh from victory in the Gulf War, was guest of honor in the Caribbean island of his parents' birth. ''Get some rest, dear boy,'' Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley had ordered down the phone. ''Come home, if only for a few days.''

Americans will do well to give some attention to Mr. Powell's roots. Harlem-born he was, but it is abundantly clear from his autobiography that his music is calypso and reggae, not Motown and soul; his favorite drink is Appleton's rum, not beer or whiskey, and comfort food for him is not chitlins and greens, but roast goat, plantains, peas and rice.

Mr. Powell was born an American but his parents arrived as immigrants, not as chattels in chains. Like the Irish, Italians or Poles, they came because they were on the make, upward.

While the Caribbean blacks had also crossed the Atlantic bound and boxed below deck, their experience of slavery was significantly different from that of their American cousins. Freedom from bondage came earlier, and political independence from Britain in 1961 compelled them to take charge of their own destinies a generation ago. The massive ''second shock'' -- the uprooting of American blacks from Deep South small towns to large impersonal northern industrial cities -- was not their experience. However far you go in the island, home is only a short bus journey away.

Personal politics

Politics is democratic and personal. Not so long ago I was in Jamaica watching Michael Manley wooing votes at a fund-raiser up in the mountains among villages whose names were plucked from north London (Islington, Highgate and Hampstead). The school hall overflowed with people feasting on four kinds of meat, plus rice and peas. A flamboyant fashion show followed, then a political skit on U.S. imperialism. Mr. Manley's favorite hymn was sung and then, only toward midnight, came the political speakers.

Mr. Manley was introduced to the sound of Bob Marley. Aspiring prime minister he might be, but the crowd insisted that he dance -- solo. Finally, he launched his speech, a block-buster harangue on world sugar prices and the loan conditions of the World Bank.

Jamaica was a turbulent place when Mr. Manley first was prime minister in the 1970s, He was a socialist, friendly with Cuba. Washington took fright, and so did investors. The economy went into a tailspin. Political violence raged. The marvelous system of social and health services that reached into every village, developed by a rather benign British imperial administration, went into decline. (Jamaica's fellow ex-colony, neighboring Barbados, didn't make Mr. Manley's mistakes and now has a standard of social well-being to match the levels of many industrialized countries.) In time, however, under Edward Seaga and then under a reformed Mr. Manley, Jamaica righted itself.

Any son of Jamaica, and certainly Colin Powell, knows all this. It gives him a view through both ends of the telescope. He sees the big picture with his Washington eye, but also the little man's stubborn pride being too casually humbled by big-picture forces.

BIn his book he tells of the late Whitney Young who, as director of the Urban League, used to commute from suburban Westchester County to his Manhattan office. As the train neared the 125th Street station in Harlem, Young would ask himself: Should he get out and demonstrate or should he continue downtown? He stayed on the train, concluding what he did downtown to promote jobs for blacks was a better use for his talents.

Mr. Powell sees a similar dilemma for himself as a successful black man in the American establishment. If president, I doubt he would find it hard to hear the next Caribbean cry over sugar prices, or that he would bully a small country for not dancing to American tunes.

This independent-mindedness appeared when Mr. Powell accompanied Ronald Reagan, as national-security adviser, to meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Powell was one of the first to believe Mr. Gorbachev's statements that he wanted to end the Soviet Union's antagonistic relationship with America. He was the first four-star military man to take a public stand on the need to shrink the military establishment and its budget. He clearly sees that America's political weakness comes not from a lack of arms, but from a lack of social progress.

When Colin Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his family celebrated. ''All the fun and warmth of my Jamaican boyhood came flooding back, and the party went on to the last tot of rum.'' American voters had better get wise to what being a son of Jamaica means.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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