A professional soldier for 35 years, General Colin Powell was the first African-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. As a general in the United States Army, he served as National Security Advisor and was the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dr. Angelou talks to the now retired General Powell—a man she calls the "quintessential public servant"—about achieving success, remembering the past and his hope for today's young Americans.
General Powell's parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Growing up in the South Bronx area of New York City, General Powell says his family stressed the importance of education and hard work. "They said, 'You can be a bus driver or you can be a doctor, but in this family, you're going to be something and you're going to make something of yourself,'" he says. General Powell says it was his family's high expectations of him that propelled him forward.
General Powell says that while he is often lauded for his achievements—especially as an African-American—he strives to remind others of the many black Americans throughout history who made his success possible. "I cannot stand at the top without constantly recognizing those who went before and sacrificed," he says. For centuries, black Americans served in the U.S. military with little to no recognition, he says, paving the way for individuals such as himself.
Remembering the past is critical for understanding and appreciating what we now enjoy, General Powell says—a message he feels is often lost on today's youth, particularly in African-American communities. "We're here as the result of the struggles of millions, and you have to understand this so that we can help those that are coming along in the next generation understand where they came from," he says.
Today, General Powell says he dedicates much of his time to nonprofit work and is actively involved with America's Promise, a foundation that he created in 1997 to help children of diverse backgrounds. In his work with young people, General Powell says he often quotes Dr. Angelou, who famously summarized her own childhood with the words her aunt used to say: "Child, when you cross this threshold, you gonna be raised."
For General Powell, Dr. Angelou's wisdom mirrors his own philosophy on public service. "[It means] we have a responsibility to raise our children and to give them the right structure in life and the love they need and to put expectations on them and to give them a sense of shame," General Powell says.
Published on July 04, 2007