WHATEVER HAPPENED TO COLIN POWELL? / 2004-05
The initial premise was to write a story about the life of a man called Colin and compare it to the life of a man called Robin. But now that Colin has been consigned to the dustbin of history, it could be argued that my subject has lost some of its potential topicality. You see the problem is, when you leave the public eye, you also leave the public mind. So where does that leave Colin? And where does that leave...this performance? Well anyway, let's just remind ourselves, lest we forget. What does Colin look like? So let's just...close our eyes, and just take a few moments to create a mental picture of Colin Powell.
Ok? Good. Even if we can't agree on a collective sense of what Colin looks like, I would imagine we'd all have a similar image in our minds eye. Now as you will eventually see, our physical similarity is actually rather...uncanny. So in a sense, this is what led me to the conclusion that Colin's life perhaps represents an indication of what might eventually happen to Robin. But appearances can be deceptive. People change over time, and these changes can manifest themselves in a multitude of ways, mentally...and physically. We talk about the mind body split, but you can't tamper with the mind without tampering with the body...
ROBIN STOPS MID-SENTENCE, WALKS CENTRE STAGE AND APPEARS TO URINATE ON STAGE.
So let's hear a little bit more about him. As a feted member of the predominantly white US political establishment, Colin Powell is often presented as a positive example of a black man reaching a position of genuine power. And yet, Powell is a figure who always divides opinion. On the one hand, for many, he is 'one of us' - and hence, beyond reproach. Why criticize one of the few figures of colour in a position of such influence? On the other hand, for some, it's a question of Bush man, or black man? But the whole idea of Colin Powell - the face, of the affluent, black middle class - always fascinated me, especially the often quoted assertion that Powell's meteoric political rise led to his absorption of prevailing value systems that ran counter to that of the majority of black people, not only in America but in the world as a whole. You know, sometimes, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, but nonetheless, I am a believer in the power of good intentions. Nowadays, it seems almost de rigueur to do down our leaders, without necessarily understanding the pressures they may be under, without attempting to sympathise with them as people, who have feelings, doubts, flaws and emotions very much like our own. This was never more evident than at the protests in the run up to the Iraq war.
It's what I've come to describe as placard posturing. It seemed to me that certain people were there merely to attract attention to themselves with some supposedly witty, amusing slogan or silly costume - this was protest as fashion statement, which offered no alternative solutions. And what is to be achieved with such, hurtful, personal attacks?
My desire is always to try and see the better side of people, to find their decent qualities, no matter how hard that may be in some cases, so my protest is a heartfelt plea for understanding, and the nature of my presentation this evening is in that self same spirit. Maybe it's our remarkable physical resemblance - I see Colin, and so in a sense I see myself.
EMPATHY is the key word. This is not to be a savage polemic, as beyond our remarkable physical resemblance, it would be hypocritical of me not to admit that Colin and I have a great deal in common. So what is it exactly that ROBIN and COE-LIN have in common? This is after all supposed to be a comparative exercise. Well, much of the criticism that Colin Powell receives from the black community echoes strongly with some of my own, formative experiences.
Believe it or not, when I was growing up, I was never racially abused by white children. I was called a Paki once, but being a case a mistaken identity, I didn't consider it to be a racist comment. But at school, it was amongst the black children that I was deeply unpopular. It seemed my education, my accent, my dress sense, my lack of any black friends, my lack of interest in the crude misogyny of rap music, its vulgar vernacular, my lack of any black friends…whatsoever...for some reason, all this was construed as being some kind of betrayal of my so called roots. Now reactions to this manifested themselves in several ways:
The Bounty chocolate bar is a good example. 'The taste of paradise' indeed, but not for me, as this simple confectionary product was used as a weapon against me throughout my childhood. Not as a physical weapon (confectionary products will not break anybody's bones), but this was something more subtle, more metaphorical. It's a simple dichotomy, referring to the essence of its primary ingredients. Black on the outside (that's the chocolate), white on the inside (the coconut, natch), brilliant in its simplicity:
So for some, that represented the perfect analogy for my demeanour, appearance and attitude, my lack of interest in the crude misogyny of rap music, its vulgar vernacular, its crude patios, my lack of any black friends...whatsoever. So, it went from a product name to a description of me. This was my body. Therefore, I was 'A bounty' - or in some instances, I was 'A bounty boy'. Perhaps I could have drawn some solace by the logical assumption that if this was the case, then I was also the proverbial 'taste of paradise', but I was to remain sexually inactive for some years to come. Now in terms of this split ingredients conceit, the equivalent in the United States is the Oreo. 'America's Favourite Cookie'...
The lack of coconut in this product removes certain racial subtexts...it is actually biscuit based, but the effect is very much the same. Again, black on the outside (that's the chocolate again), and white on the inside, which in this case is some kind of generic, artificial cream filling. However, there are subtle differences. In the case of a Bounty, the whiteness is only revealed upon physically breaking open the dark chocolate casing. But in the case of the Oreo, there is only a partial concealment of the mitigating white interior.
An Oreo is semiotically more honest proposition, with a white line from the side, which can lead you to imagine a white circle looking down from the top. Even somebody like Powell who survived the racism and segregation of the 50's and 60's, is still plagued by accusations of selling out, with this idea of some kind of betrayal of his so called roots inferred in much of the commentary about the former Secretary of State, with Powell himself frequently described as being 'an Oreo'.
So this sets the scene, but what do these two snacks truly represent? The comprehensive and irrevocable rejection of two people by their own kind, or the irrevocable and comprehensive rejection by two people of their own kind?
While the question of the rights and wrongs of cultural diversity rage on day in day out, in many ways, the United States military that spawned and nurtured Colin Powell represents the way forward. This is because the US armed forces is one of the few places where a white person is likely to have a black person telling them what to do - way ahead of many of our so called liberal institutions. But what about the world of politics?
Here is a photograph of Colin in 1972 shaking hands with then President Richard Nixon. Colin had just started as a White House fellow, a kind of work experience programme for up and coming policy wonks, and judging by this photo, a bright career lies ahead. But for some, there is a quid pro quo involved in this. Singer, dancer and entertainer Harry Belafonte is a vocal critic of Colin, and in October 2002, he said this in relation to Powell's ascendancy up the ranks:
But what does this mean exactly? Well, the argument goes that if you were privileged enough to work in the masters house - to be a 'house slave', these jobs were usually much less arduous than those out in the fields. So in order to prove their loyalty to the master, these slaves would detach themselves from their so called roots and subsequently identify more with the objectives of their masters. And for some, this image would be suggestive of that concept. But again, not wishing to be disingenuous about my own relationship with this issue, could it be said that something similar is going on here?
This is a photograph of Robin in 1999 shaking hands with Karen Crowley, Manager of the Bedford branch of Debenhams, as he receives the stores Employee of the Month award for April. You may feel that a comparison between the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation on earth, and the manager of a medium sized department store in the home counties, is an erroneous one. But in this case, it could be said that I also served the master in the way that was intended. The remarkable physical resemblance is obvious here. Observe the hunched shoulders and obsequious, servile facial expression. But obviously, there was some efficacy in my bearing, because having received my Employee of the Month certificate, I was subsequently told that I had 'management potential'.And although this climb up the greasy pole of the retail industry was short lived, to this day, I proudly display my Employee of the Month certificate as the fruits of my desire to ingratiate, and submit to the love of an authority figure, something I'm sure Colin would understand as a soldier.
You see, what Harry Belafonte fails to understand is that these kind of atavistic, backward looking analogies regarding slavery only serve to compound the mentality of the underdog. Colin Powell is surely living proof that we are now the masters of our own destiny. We are no longer the slaves, but the people who make our trainers and fashion wear are. Our oppression has been outsourced, so for the first time in our history, we now have people under us…and this is progress. So this is where Colin Powell has never failed to be a source of inspiration to me...seeing Powell, a man of integrity and conviction, making it to the top without resorting to the kind of rabble rousing that has been such an embarrassment to our race in the past. Lets face it, 'having dreams' will get you nowhere. But the fact that Powell not only married but remained faithful to his wife Alma is an example to all black males such as Martin Luther King who often seemed to have problems in this area. These days, it's all about pragmatism. Lets look a little closer at what Colin has to say, on how he got to where he is today. Now key to this is his attitude to, and dealings with white people. In a profile in the New Statesman magazine dated December 2002, he laid out his stall thus:
Now earlier, I wrote about my lack of interest in the crude misogyny of rap music, its prurient argot, its cheap innuendo, purveying as it does these self same stereotypes and threatening visages. Colin himself expressed similar sentiments saying, quite diplomatically I think, "the appeal of rap...escapes me..." He goes on to explain his preference for the mellower sounds of Paul Simon, Carly Simon, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Somebody said that much of today s hip-hop is the modern equivalent of the old minstrel shows, the rolling eyes, the arms outstretched, the dancing fingers &and Colin s advice regarding the dangers of pandering to such stereotypes really got me thinking about my work as a performer. Because in this sense, I certainly have &shoved it in peoples faces. This is from a performance I did four years ago, entitled, Lets Talk About Racism.
So why was I doing this? Was this an ironic use of confrontational imagery, or a cheap shock tactic? Either way, I was, as ever, hoist by my own petard, as it ended up in a Springtime for Hitler type scenario, with this visually disturbing statement being generally quite well received by the predominately white audience. On another ccasion when I did something similar, somebody sensed my self disgust at this behaviour. I remember trying to claim that the whole thing was somebody else's idea, but they responded with words to the effect that you can't abdicate responsibility for your actions & - and would you do this in a room full of black people? So the more I delved into Colin's autobiography - his life, his ethos, his (gesture) wise counsel &- the more I realised that I was wrong about so many things. But I hope to put these a bad experiences behind me, and I've promised myself I will never humiliate myself in front of an audience again, pretending to be something I'm not. Bring in the snare:
Robin proceeds to unconvincingly 'lay down some dope lyrics':
So this was the first of Colin's lessons that helped me, in terms of restoring my own self respect. But I hope to put these bad experiences behind me, and I've promised myself I will never humiliate myself in front of an audience again.
Two, I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. So, number two:
But beyond these externals of musical taste, is there an essence of Colin, ontologically speaking?
Miles Dyson, Terminator 2
We can look to the character of Miles Dyson, the well meaning Negro scientist in the film Terminator 2 to answer this question. The story goes that Dyson has designed a satellite communication system called 'Sky-net', certain that this action will make the world a better place. But when the Governor of California comes back in time to tell him his handiwork is responsible for the deaths of millions, he is naturally horrified. Miles Dyson does the right thing in the end, by destroying his life's work. But unfortunately, in the process, Dyson inadvertently ends up destroying himself too.
Alien, Brother from Another Planet
Then we have 'Brother From Another Planet', in which an unnamed alien being crash lands on the planet earth, and transcending his status as an outsider, he comes to be A feted member of the local community. It seems appropriate that Joe Morton, the actor who played both of these confused, well meaning black men would end up being cast in the role of Colin Powell in David Hare's 'Stuff Happens', a play at the National Theatre last year that explored events in the run up to the Iraq War. The play makes much of Colin's isolation, frozen out of discussions in the run up to the war, because of his dovish, reasonable approach.
Joe Morton, convertly filmed at The National Theatre
Now there was a time when it could have been said that if the White House had an employee of the month award, Colin would have won it hands down every time. But towards the end, it seemed that everyone's favourite 'moderating influence' had fallen on harder times.
You would look at Colin s face sometimes, and he seemed so sad and unhappy, so lost. It was something inscrutable, but it was there. But a few months later, there was a suggestion that something had 'happened' to Colin, with several commentators sensing a marked change in his demeanour, appearance and attitude. Journalist Gary Younge's account of this metamorphosis is particularly evocative, as he describes Powell's performance at a meeting of the UN Security Council:
All of a sudden, Colin wasn't reasonable anymore. You know sometimes you have these situations where somebody can tell you something, and you interpret it in a particular way.
Perhaps you have to - but you embellish, you focus on the aspects that suit your arguments or perception of things, and then you end up making a complete fool of yourself in front of your peers. Let' s look at the third of Colin Powell's suggestions for the reasons of his success.
You see, all Colin's advice so far has been about attitude. How you choose to carry yourself. But these notions of 'inauthenticity' are rarely talked about in physical terms. As people around me have grown up, the Bounty taunts have been moderated to even friends politely describing me as being 'the least black black person' they know. But these notions of in-authenticity are rarely talked about in physical terms. Now from my perspective, I can always blame my parents, (they just couldn' t stick with their own). So what is Colin's excuse?
On a visit to the Foreign office on April 8th 2005, I recorded the following in relation to this painting of General Sir Eyre Coote:
So is this what Colin Powell looks like?
Let's just go back a step. Joe Morton and Colin Powell could both be described as being black, but it could also be said that Morton represents a less racially indeterminate proposition. So if we agree that Powell 'ain't that black', then we can also agree that obviously, Joe Morton 'ain't that white'. Of course an actor portraying somebody doesn't necessarily have to look like the person in question. But just for the record, Joe Morton bears about as much resemblance to Colin Powell as I do.
The news that Colin Powell was diagnosed as having prostate cancer filled me with sadness. It is however a disease with a high recovery rate if caught early enough. However, there is another possibility that may have not been considered - misdiagnosis. Lets look a little closer at one symptom in particular: the frequent urge to pass water. I want to think about the idea that rather than an illness, the body of Colin is undergoing a transformation. In its simplest terms, what we may be dealing with is an infection, a contagion. We talk about the mind body split, but you can't tamper with the mind without tampering with the body. If you don't stick with your own, then your values change, through contact with certain people - and if your mindset changes, then there is no reason to believe that this wouldn't also have some kind of physical manifestation. Straightened hair, thinner lips and lighter skin for example. What I am positing is that race is not manifest in skin pigmentation - in simple terms, differing skin colours are highly contagious viral conditions, reflecting differing degrees of psychological identification with the other. Colour is something you can catch, and total identification represents the conclusion of this process, when you are either truly black or truly white. Of course, this is a two way process, and Powell's former boss Bill Clinton (often described as America's first black president) is a prime example, with his sexual peccadilloes and saxophone playing, leading directly to his enlarged, bulbous nose. Colin seems to be in the later stages of transformation, so rather than assuming the symptomatic periods of incontinence are attributable to cancer of the prostate, my feeling is that this is the result of a substantial reduction in the size of the genitalia often associated with this syndrome. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it's a perfectly natural process. So you see, it's not such a sad ending after all. So I'll just leave you with this thought. Don't allow your minds have been poisoned with hate - the powers that be are doing their best under testing circumstances. And remember, stay white!
But seriously. Never forget who you really are.