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On National Heroes Day, Jamaicans at home and abroad pay their respects to ‘son of the soil,’ General Colin Powell

General Colin Powell, after reading the Gettysburg Address at the grand reopening of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo by Scott Ableman on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On National Heroes Day, Jamaicans awoke to the news that General Colin Powell, a decorated military man and the first African-American U.S. Secretary of State, had passed away at the age of 84 from complications of COVID-19.

The Jamaica Gleaner put together a fitting tribute of his life in a slideshow:

Commentator Wayne Chen immediately acknowledged Powell's Jamaican roots. Though born in Harlem, New York City, in 1937, his parents were Jamaican immigrants:

A Vietnam War veteran, Powell became the United States’ first Black national security adviser in 1987. Two years later, President George H.W. Bush appointed him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; at age 52, Powell was both the youngest and the first Black person to hold the position. In 2000, President George W. Bush appointed Powell as secretary of state. Despite being a Republican—and having served in two Republican administrations—Powell endorsed Barack Obama, Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2008.

Jamaicans’ holiday weekend had already been rocked by drama—the bizarre deaths of participants in a cult ritual at a church in Montego Bay, and the search for two abducted girls, both found alive—so reactions to Powell's passing were comparatively low key. However, Prime Minister Andrew Holness tweeted his condolences:

General Powell’s death prompted a rare tweet from former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who shared her sympathies:

Retired Jamaican Defence Force Colonel Allan Douglas also shared heartfelt condolences, quoting from his own memoir:

Jamaican filmmaker Justine Henzell recalled her meeting with Powell during the filming of One People: A Celebration, a documentary celebrating Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence:

Several Jamaicans and Americans shared memories of General Powell's visit to Jamaica on this occasion. A Nation of Islam member recalled Powell’s shared Jamaican heritage with Louis Farrakhan (who had a Jamaican father), and their meeting in Jamaica with then Minister of Culture Lisa Hanna, at the Independence Day celebrations:

A U.S.-based journalist also recalled the joyful occasion:

One Jamaican scientist recalled:

In 1997, Powell and his wife, Alma, had visited the small cottage in Top Hill, St. Elizabeth where his parents lived before migrating to the United States. He was serving as an election observer in Jamaica at the time.

Both the Jamaican diaspora in the United States and the country's African-American community flooded Twitter with messages. One diaspora magazine shared a video made by General Powell in June, in which he paid tribute to the political achievements of Vice President Kamala Harris (whose father is Jamaican), and Shirley Chisholm (whose parents were from Barbados). Harris's father, a Stanford University Professor Emeritus, received an Order of Merit in Jamaica's National Heroes Day National Awards.

General Powell was the first person with Jamaican roots to serve in the White House, preceding Vice President Kamala Harris, who commented on his passing and his trailblazing career on CNN.

Another American with Caribbean roots (her mother is Guyanese), MSNBC’s Joy Reid, summed up General Powell’s legacy:

However, not all Jamaicans shared those warm feelings. Despite his reputation for decency and integrity, Jamaicans—and the Caribbean in general—had qualms about General Powell’s involvement in the Iraq War.

One Jamaican expressed his disapproval of General Powell's role in the conflict:

There was a COVID-19 postscript to General Powell's passing. Powell was fully vaccinated but was being treated for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. This sparked some discussion among Jamaicans regarding the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines—a contentious issue, in light of Jamaicans’ continued vaccine hesitancy.

Whether feeling pride at this son of Jamaican immigrants’ remarkable rise from Harlem to the heights of U.S. politics or harbouring doubts about his role in a highly controversial war, there is no doubt that Jamaicans continue to celebrate the achievements of their countrymen.

One member of the Jamaican diaspora summed it up this way:

Although American-born, General Colin Powell, with his deep connection to his rural roots, was one of Jamaica's highest achievers.

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