My American Journey
It would be hard to think of a more propitious year for a bright young black man of ambition, cheerful manner, and light complexion to join the United States Army than 1958. The segregation of the races within the Army had ended with a stroke of Harry Truman’s pen a decade earlier; the US military was embarked upon an era of almost permanent expansion to fight the cold war, creating a vast institutional appetite for officers. The United States Army was traditionally white at the top, and white with a southern accent at that, but the battles of the 1950s and 1960s over race in civilian life—the integration of public education in the South, the assault on Jim Crow legislation relegating blacks to the “back of the bus” in every walk of life, the struggle for voting rights—encouraged equal opportunity in the military, the one field of American life in which the executive branch of government could do the right thing without paying an immediate price at the polls. It is clear in retrospect that Colin Powell at twenty-one, a son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in the Bronx and a 1958 graduate of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the City College of New York, enjoyed something very like the favor of the Gods as he departed for his first assignment, as a platoon commander with the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany.
It is no story of struggle against oppression that Powell tells in My American Journey. There were some stinging moments at hamburger restaurants around southern military bases before passage of the civil rights acts of 1965, some long stretches of southern highway between rest stops where a black man could pee, some prideful bile silently swallowed when an insensitive white commander early in his career said, “Powell, you’re the best black lieutenant I’ve ever known.” It was Thank you, suh, the angry Powell was thinking, but what he said was, “Thank you, sir.”
Powell may have been a military man, but he was singularly noncombative when it came to race: he did not consider it his problem when the people he met responded first or only to the color of his skin. He wasn’t going to agonize over their problem. In Powell’s long and interesting book, surely among the two or three very best campaign autobiographies published in two hundred years of American presidential politics, there are many reflections on the subject of race but few suggestions that it ever got in Powell’s way as he rose through the ranks, and none that it opened doors or speeded his passage, that he was the fair child, so to speak, of affirmative action. The Gods’ favor appears to have amounted to this: Powell was black in a time and place when superiors were modestly cautious not to be detected in an act of prejudice. Powell has refused to join Republican…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.