It is perhaps surprising that Colin Powell rose to the level of prominence that he eventually achieved. Although he lived a somewhat idyllic childhood, he was an underachiever in both elementary and secondary school. His older sister Marilyn much overshadowed him academically. Colin’s mother frequently expressed concern to relatives about her son’s unimpressive school performance.
Upon his graduation in 1954 from Morris High School in the Bronx, Powell, more or less by default, entered the City College of New York (CCNY) not knowing what he really wanted to do with his life. Parental urging nudged him into an engineering major, but after three semesters he realized that engineering was not his forte. He switched his major to geology, which he found more manageable than engineering, and received his bachelor’s degree in that subject in 1958.
Crucial during his college years was his participation in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), which resulted in his becoming a second lieutenant in the Army upon graduation, with highest ROTC honors, from CCNY. Growing up in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, Powell had several valued friends with close relatives in the armed forces. Powell had a positive attitude toward military service, so his involvement in the ROTC provided him with a motivation he did not find in his academic studies.
Karen DeYoung, whose well-written text is enhanced by sixteen pages of relevant photographs, weaves together carefully and convincingly the various threads that, in time, came to represent the fiber of Colin Powell’s existence. His sincerity and his easygoing temperament, well demonstrated throughout Soldier, blossomed into the charisma that marked his adult life, especially when he began to advance rapidly in the Army to the point of achieving the rank of brigadier general in 1978.
Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937, into a transplanted Jamaican family that had come to the United States in the 1920’s seeking a more prosperous existence than that available to them in Jamaica. The father, Luther, worked as a shipping clerk. The mother, Arie, stayed home, caring for her children who were born during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. She had some subsistence income from the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), in which she was marginally involved.
The Powells lived in Harlem toward the end of the Harlem Renaissance, but as the Great Depression advanced Harlem became a depressed area overcrowded with people, mostly African Americans, who could not find work. By the early 1940’s, the Powells had relocated in the Bronx area called Hunts Point, which had a population largely made up of Jews, Italians, and Jamaicans. Growing up in Hunts Point, Colin experienced none of the racial prejudice that afflicted other parts of New York City and that was rampant in much of America, particularly in the South.
Although Powell had heard tales of places where African Americans had to use separate drinking fountains and were barred from entering certain parts of town, he had experienced none of this firsthand until, in 1964, now a college graduate and an Army officer, he was assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia. There, because of segregation, he could not find living quarters off base for his wife and child.
During this sojourn, “a local Columbus [Georgia] drive-in exercised its ’property rights’ by refusing to serve him a hamburgeran incident that sent him screeching out of the parking lot in a rare public display of fury.” Such a display was indeed uncharacteristic for the Colin Powell whom DeYoung presents, a person who from earliest childhood was acquiescent, diplomatic, obedient, controlled, and mild>mannered.
The title DeYoung chose for her biography, Soldier, cuts in several directions. Certainly Powell was, throughout his adult life, a career Army man, a soldier who rose through the ranks to become a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before being selected by President George W. Bush to serve as secretary of state during Bush’s first term as president. Powell also, as a good soldier, respected the chain of command that demands obedience to one’s superiors, a system that presumes a strong...
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