Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Colin Powell and The Ballerina

She grew up in Arkansas in the 1950's and '60's.  When they integrated her high school, there were two proms - one Black, one White.  The White families migrated to a Whiter neighborhood with Whiter schools.  She wasn't paying much attention to what the Black families were doing.

She spent no time with people who didn't look like her.  No one did.  There were passing acquaintances and superficial relationships, but nothing that anyone would call friendship.  It just wasn't done.  

Fast forward several decades, and find her sitting next to me at the Marin Speakers' Series in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Civic Center.  We were comfortably ensconced in the middle, several rows from the back.  High enough to see everything, center stage so we didn't get stiff necks, surrounded by a mostly White and wealthy audience - it was Marin in the early 1990's, and that was who we were.

The Speakers' Series was a long running program bringing world leaders to our little corner of the world.  Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachov (through a translator; it was beyond dull), Garrison Keillor, Margaret Thatcher (standing at the podium in spike heels, refusing to stop taking questions "because this is the fun part!") - TBG and I saw them all.  This time, I took The Ballerina to hear Colin Powell speak.

It was just after he announced that he would not be running for national office; his wife, Alma, was afraid he would be assassinated, he didn't like campaigning, he just wasn't going to do it, though he was grateful that we were all sighing and moaning noooooo as he revealed his lack of interest in the most powerful office in the land.  

He spoke eloquently about Iraq and about CCNY and about learning Yiddish while working in Sickser's Everything for the Baby store.  He addressed racism and militarism and love.  He told funny stories and sad stories and powerful stories.  He reviewed the past and expressed hope for the future.

At the end, he received only the 2nd standing ovation I'd ever seen at the Speakers' Series (Maggie Thatcher was the other one - impressing that decidedly left leaning audience to everyone's surprise).

People were clapping madly, many were teary, including The Ballerina.  She stood next to me, wet eyes and a bemused look on her face.  She was shaking her head when, through a tiny smile, she turned to me and said I can't believe I am standing here applauding for a Black man.

She went on - her parents would not know what to make of it all, this upended her views on so many things, she believed in equality and hated discrimination of any kind, but this was different.  This was an actual human being speaking directly to her soul.  He was right there in front of her and all her upbringing, all her separate from The Other childhood, all of that was put to the test by the distinguished soldier and statesman on the stage that night.  The tropes that filled her youth were banished in a single night.  It was transformative.

It's decades later, but we still remember.  We went out for a snack afterwards; there was so much emotion that food was not a priority.  We sipped wine and she talked... and talked... and talked.

Flags are flying at half staff this week to honor General Powell.  For me, his memory is forever intertwined with The Ballerina.  He made an impact in so many, many ways.

The world is a lesser place without him.


  1. I think you would enjoy this blog post:

    It references the way Colin Powell treated the parking attendants.

    1. As usual, your reading recommendation was perfect.

    2. Glad you enjoyed it. We parked our car in a large garage that was described in that piece when we had the apartment in San Francisco. I got to know all of the attendants, and they could see me when I stepped out of the elevator (probably the red hair) and usually had my car waiting by the time I maneuvered myself across the large floor. When we left, and I still owed a month's parking, the manager of the garage waived the charge. I brought him lunch and dropped it off as we drove away.


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