Our Body Politic

A Haitian Author on Her Family’s Immigration Story, Celebrating and Supporting Black Women in the Media, and What We Lose Politically with the Death of Colin Powell

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat about why it’s important to tell specific stories that complicate the immigrant narrative in the U.S. Writer Zeba Blay shares insights from her new book about Black women in pop culture, “Carefree Black Girls.” TV and filmmaker Felicia Pride discusses her focus on Honeys in her work in entertainment. And on Sippin’ the Political Tea, foreign policy expert Hagar Chemali and Leah Wright Rigueur of Johns Hopkins University, a leading expert on Black Republicans, join Farai to discuss the significance of the death of one of the last moderate Black conservatives, Colin Powell.


1:40 Author Edwidge Danticat on complicating immigrant narratives

12:37 Culture critic Zeba Blay on her new book “Carefree Black Girls”

22:30 TV and filmmaker Felicia Pride on celebrating Black women over 40

31:28 Sippin’ the Political Tea: foreign policy expert Hagar Chemali and Leah Wright Rigueur, a leading expert on Black conservatives, examine the complicated legacy of Colin Powell

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're so grateful for your support. While you listen today, consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps others find us, and we read your feedback as we continue to evolve the show. Thanks so much.

Chideya: This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. There are so many different important news stories happening right now from court battles over abortion and voting rights to the continuing impact of COVID. We've been devoting some time over recent weeks to Haiti, a nation whose move from slavery to independence made global history and triggered the fears of colonial powers. Today, we see Haitians at the US-Mexico border just part of a multi-layered migrant crisis. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal authorities have been using Title 42 to expel migrants detained at the border and not take in their asylum claims.

Chideya: Title 42 is basically an emergency public health order that permits this immediate expulsion of migrants. This started with the Trump administration who cited COVID-19 as a reason to do this, but it continues under the Biden-Harris White House. In July of this year, Customs and Border Protection reported having stopped over 200,000 migrants at the border, which is the highest number in over two decades. My next guest will help us understand more about what Haitians go through as they try to navigate the US immigration system. Edwidge Danticat is an activist, a 2009 MacArthur fellow, and author of many books, including a memoir called Brother, I'm Dying. Edwidge, welcome to Our Body Politic. Great to have you here.

Edwidge Danticat: Oh, so wonderful to be here with you. Thank you for having me, Farai.

Chideya: You've written about some really hard and painful aspects of your family's journey between Haiti and the US. I'm thinking of, among other things, your 81-year-old Uncle Joseph and what happened to him? Can you just tell us a little bit about what happened and also how and why you wrote about it?

Danticat: I wrote about my uncle a couple of years ago. Actually, when he died, he was a minister in Haiti. In 2004, there was a UN operation there in his neighborhood and the UN police forces shot at some of his neighbors from the roof of his church. In that particular moment, he had to leave. He had a valid visa, he came to Miami International Airport, and when he presented his papers, they asked him how long he'd be staying. He said he would be staying longer than the 30 days that the visa allowed and requested asylum. He was a cancer survivor, he spoke with a voice box. He was taken into custody, his medicine was taken away. We tried to get him a lawyer. It was on the weekend, the lawyer showed up on Monday at the detention center to ask for humanitarian parole for him. He fell ill during the hearing, the lawyer demanded that they take him to the doctor. They didn't take him to the doctor until much later and then he died chained to a hospital bed in the prison ward of a local hospital.

Chideya: I'm so sorry. Do you feel like being able to write about this for a wide audience is some... I'm struggling with, is it justice? Is it memory? What does it do for you and others and what doesn't it do?

Danticat: I think what it does do is to tell a story that I think a lot of... I don't want to speak, I guess, for the average American, but a lot of people I encounter have a certain view of immigration as a kind of invading army. Especially when people are Black, that's weaponized with racism. So I think writing about individuals going through this tells a story of, he was my uncle, he was a hero to me. We all have people like that in our lives. I don't want to use that term humanizing because we're all human, but sometimes people need those specific stories. I remember after my book was published, I testified before Congress. And I would be sitting next to families who are mixed status families, so there are people in the families who also undocumented and would be afraid to talk about their loved ones who had been denied a wheelchair, who had been denied their medicine, who had been denied cancer medicine. So telling my story was also telling a broader story.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, I think about my father and some of his siblings immigrating to the US. Some stayed, some returned to Zimbabwe, including my father. It was just so deeply emotionally fatiguing in the '60s and '70s to be an African immigrant in America. People now in big cities are used to there being Africans. But back then, you were the raisin in the bun for real. You are someone who has been able to maintain the depth of your ties in Haiti and in the United States. How are you perceiving what's going on right now with immigration and migration and those horrific images of the horseback patrols.

Danticat: First of all, there's so many depths to that. First of all, Haitians relatively are not the largest number of migrants at the border and there were less likely to receive asylum relatively. And that migration and that particular group of people, some of them had traveled through 10 countries to get to the border. They had first left, some of them, rural Haiti, then to the city, then after the earthquake in 2010 went to Chile and to Brazil and then had to travel through Central and South America through the Darién Gap, which is a harrowing journey on foot through a jungle, and then to get to another country and then to travel to the border. And often, they're taking that journey with Venezuelan migrants, with Cuban migrants. So it's a very complex migration situation. I think we have to keep talking about the specificity of it, of the specific elements, because it serves different political interests to just reduce what's happening. But migration is very complex and I think will become more complex as time goes by with climate change and other factors will be driving people from different parts of the world towards the better off countries. So it's something that I think it's worthwhile for all of us to better understand rather than stigmatize or stereotype.

Chideya: Haiti is in a space dealing with the aftermath of a presidential assassination and another earthquake. What are you hearing from friends and relatives in Haiti?

Danticat: Well, I mean, it was definitely a difficult summer for Haiti. A lot of people are still in the south still suffering from the after effects of the earthquake, which then was moved off the people's attention, I think, because of the images from Del Rio with the migrants. But that difficult moment in Haiti continues with the earthquake in the south. School was supposed to open this month. In some places, the buildings are no longer there for children to return to school. So there's a feeling with friends and family that we talked to that what's happening now, it's just adding to chronic problems that the country has been having for a couple of years now. But it's a very difficult moment that Haitians themselves are trying to address in the way that they always have, but with a lot more, I suppose, this different kind of attention, including the return of some of the folks from the border, and many of whom have not lived in Haiti for years.

Chideya: What do you think the pressure points are in terms of engaging with US policy on Haitian migrants and with the global west or the global north, however you define it, people who were able to extract wealth from Haiti over more than a century? What are the pressure points to shape that dialogue on behalf of Haitians?

Danticat: Well, I think the pressure points have to start with those people whose perceptions about Haiti certainly needs to be changed. We're still struggling so much with racism and xenophobia in this country that I think Black immigrants like Haitian immigrants fall into this mixed space of both racial animosity and xenophobia, right? But Haiti has a very specific history being the first place in the world where enslaved people overcame those people who own them and created their own Republic. Haiti has been in the battle since that moment for having dared to do this. We see this more and more reflected in US policy that seems in a way to have not changed since 1804 in the way that Haitians are perceived as these outsiders, this place that needs to be tamed. What you're seeing over and over... It was really well-worded by this US envoy recently who resigned in protest in part because of the refugee situation, but also because of this long history of US policy in Haiti of interference, the shape to US interests, not to the interest of Haitians and also infantilizing Haitians and treat like these people who can't rule themselves and we have to impose these leaders on them. So I think listen to what Haitians are now saying, listen to these groups that want to engage, that want to really participate fully in civil and political life, and who want to make opportunities for others to participate as opposed to imposing from the outside.

Chideya: So what is giving you joy, giving you life, inspiring your writing or just your relaxation?

Danticat: I think the other thing that I always want to celebrate, always want to emphasize about Haiti that sometimes gets lost in all of the conversation is the arts and Haiti music and literature and painting. Even when people talk about the financials, the economic situation in Haiti, that's a source of pride for us, that's the source, I think, of cultural wealth. That's one of the things that I would encourage people who want to engage in Haiti too to also look at, is Haitian culture, because it's very powerful and I think it's one of the things that is carried us through all these many years, all through these many difficulties. What also gives me joy is young people now in Haiti who are engaging so forcefully in the political process, who are really coming forward and participating in this process as well.

Chideya: Yeah. I have a very small piece of Haitian artwork in my house, one of the metal pieces. You wrote a book After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. Maybe one day I will make it there. I would love to. Thank you, Edwidge.

Danticat: Thank you. We'd love to have you.

Chideya: That was award-winning author, Edwidge Danticat.

Chideya: This whole next segment is all about celebrating Black women and all women of color. That was one of my goals when I set out to launch the show over a year ago and I'm excited to explore why joy sometimes comes with complex judgments with our next guest. Zeba Blay is a film and culture critic has written for many publications, including the New York Times, Essence, and HuffPost. In 2013, Blay coined the hashtag, #CarefreeBlackGirls, on Twitter. Now she's developed that idea into a new book of essays titled Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Pop Culture. Welcome, Zeba.

Zeba Blay: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

Chideya: Your book is so many different things, and among other things, I loved the section on Lizzo twerking and what it means to... Basically was kind of an exploration. It's like, why do skinny girls get to twerk and women of a certain size don't, which then leads into much bigger issues about commodification of culture and body size? I've been overweight since I was a child and I have spent years doing various things. I don't feel the need to be thin, but as I age especially, there's weight on my knees, et cetera. You talk a lot about bodies in this book. How do you relate to your body and how do you relate it to your work on Carefree Black Girls and on culture?

Blay: Yeah. I think my relationship with my body is constantly evolving. I think at this stage in my life, you turn 30 and things begin to change. I think when you're young, you have a certain ideal set in your mind that you're always reaching towards. I'm really at a stage now in thinking about acceptance. The chapter about Lizzo was really cathartic for me because in writing about her body and the policing of her body and the debating about her body, I realized how much internalized fat phobia I had. That was really shocking to me because I didn't think that was the case. I had a pretty healthy body image and then I gained weight and I realized that just 20, 30 pounds could change my entire conception of myself. And that is a reality and a problem that isn't of me, it was something that was given to me.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, I was gifted by a mother who wasn't overweight. This idea that my body was a representation of Blackness and that... One of the lines that I remember from childhood was we were on our way to church and I guess some roll of mine or whatever was showing and she was like, "Back in the day, you would have had to wear a girdle," and I was like, "Thank you for informing me of that."

Blay: Wow!

Chideya: It was just one of those moments where it's like... she was like, "You are a representation of the Black community and you better keep it tight in all of the senses." I was like, "I didn't ask for this. I really didn't."

Blay: Yeah. And it can be so hard to reclaim your body because that's what it comes down to. All of these anxieties that we have around our bodies are because oftentimes, especially for Black women, our bodies don't feel like our own. It can feel really empowering to reclaim that relationship to yourself and say that, "This is a body that means so much more than what it looks like." But then at the same time, it takes a lot of dedication to sustain that level of unbotheredness. That's why I really admire Lizzo because she's also been real about the fact that sometimes as much as she loves herself and her curves, sometimes it's hard to stay in that space when everyone around you is giving you reasons to hate yourself. I appreciate that vulnerability and that authenticity because it mirrors for other women that it's okay to have the ups and the downs.

Chideya: Yeah. There is a ton of power in Black women who are rappers or pop culture artists, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, among many who have an overt sexuality in their physical presence, in their anthems. How do you feel about these women both representing themselves and being represented in a world that has all sorts of intersectional conversations and biases around women of color, bodies, class, race, et cetera?

Blay: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes Black women can not just be in the culture, they have to mean something. So, Cardi B can't just be a rapper. She has to be this representative of some feminist utopic ideal of the rags to riches story and every action that she makes has to be politicized in some way. And I don't think that that's a bad thing. I think that that's just a reality of the culture that we live in. But then, I don't think anyone ever really considers what it is to be that person who has to take on so much, who has so much projected onto their bodies, onto their sexuality. I mean, Cardi B, she had the song, WAP, come out last year. It was a huge, huge hit. For a lot of people, it was an anthem of female sexual power. And that's so refreshing. But then there are people who say, "Okay, but this is going too far." I remember when that song came out, I was at a dinner party somewhere and one of the people at the dinner was really, really upset by the song and by the video. This was a man, and he said, "What are you representing when you talk about your body in this way, when you talk about your anatomy in this way? What does it say about Black women?" I found that so interesting because it's like, why does someone like Cardi or someone like Lizzo or Beyonce or whoever have to represent all Black women ever, right? It's like there are people who are going to hear this song and get their life and be like, "Yes. WAP, that's me," and they're people who are not going to go inside, identify with it at all. And that is art, that is the point. It resonates with some people and it doesn't with others. But to say that her being her authentic self is in some way hindering or taking women back a few pegs, it's unfair. If you say that you want women to be empowered, you have to accept them and all of their messiness and all of their brilliance and all of their vulgarness. It has to be the whole package. It may make you uncomfortable, but that's something that rather than placing the blame on her, you might want to interrogate for yourself why a Black woman talking openly and honestly about her body is abhorrent to you.

Chideya: As we wrap up, we've been talking about some heavy stuff within the framework of a book called Carefree Black Girls. I want you to just take a deep breath and talk to me about what being carefree really means to you, where you feel carefree, how you get to being carefree, all of it.

Blay: I think that being carefree, getting to that place, is a never ending journey, right? Because I've been dealing with depression and anxiety since I was about 10, 11 years old. And when I was a young girl, I used to think that I was trying to get to a place where I would finally be happy, where I would finally be okay. Then you get older and you realize that, "Wow! Happiness is actually a thing that you have to work at and it's also no longer a goal of mine to be happy all the time." That actually would be incredibly exhausting, right? So for me, being carefree is about being present to my life, to myself. I think it's all about accepting the fact that I am a human being, that we are human beings, and the point of a life is to feel, is to feel everything.

Chideya: Yeah. Zeba, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

Blay: Thank you.

Chideya: That was culture critic, Zeba Blay. Her book is Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture, and it's out now.

Chideya: My next guest is creating solutions to better represent Black women, specifically those over 40. Felicia Pride is a TV and filmmaker known for her work on Queen Sugar and Grey's Anatomy and for her production company, Honey Chile. Felicia, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Felicia Pride: Hey, how are you?

Chideya: I'm great. I'm just really glad to see you living your dreams and helping other people connect with their own dreams. So you created and run Honey Chile, a production company aimed at celebrating and inspiring Black women, 40 plus, to live abundantly and authentically. As a proud 52-year-old, I co-sign to that mission.

Pride: Oh, I love that. I love that so much.

Chideya: What were you noticing or experiencing when you decided to cater to this demographic?

Pride: Yeah. I think it was a couple of things. One as just a lover of storytelling on screen. Just seeing really great programming coming from Black creators, but feeling like it was skewing on the younger side. I'm 42 years old, I moved to LA at 35 years old, so I wasn't what is considered out here spring chicken. The conversations that I'm having with my friends are different and I want to see those conversations illuminated. I want to see complex women over 40, over 50 in all their messiness and all their glory and an end in them still trying to figure it out.

Chideya: I know that for me, as someone who's both Black and over 50 and a fan of genre fiction, there's a lot of times where I'm like, "Okay, where do fit?" But I like a broad array of storytelling and you have been doing some great storytelling. But what do you like?

Pride: I want to see us more like what you're saying. I want to see us more in genre. I want to see us as action heroes, I want to see us in westerns, I want to see us as spies. We want to see -s in space as heroes, as villains, kicking butt, loving hard, messing up within these different worlds, within these different genres, within these different situations.

Chideya: So you are a creator of course and your film, Really Love, is currently streaming on Netflix. It set in Washington, D.C. with a love story between an up-and-coming artist played by Kofi Siriboe, and people might know him from Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar, and an ambitious law student played by the Dutch actress, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing. Just tell us a little bit more about why you chose this project.

Pride: Well, firstly, it took 10 years to get this project made. I wrote the first draft of what became really loved 10 years ago when I was living in D.C. There were a few things that I was struck by. One was that we hadn't had a romantic drama in quite some time. On the second hand, D.C. for me, coming of age as an artist, D.C. is such a rich terrain for storytelling. I think often we see it from a political lens, but there is culture, history. They have their own music, they have their own just way of being. Then there's a lot of class situations that you can get into. Then there's this idea of me as an artist in this place that also can be seen as very practical because it has government money, it has foundation money. What does that look like when things are clashing up against that? So I was very struck by that and also just the diversity of Black people in D.C. from all walks of life across the diaspora, across class, wanting to show that D.C. was such a rich place to explore that. Then also just a love story that felt like my life. I've never lived in a romantic comedy, I love that it's aspirational. I'm writing romantic comedies now, but I just wanted something that felt like the ups and downs of love, that felt that love is not linear, that felt that sometimes timing isn't right, that two people can love each other and a relationship may not work. Or that two people can come back to each other. So those were the things that I was bumping up against in addition to being an artist, being someone who supported artists, and that journey of dating and how that can be. Then when I moved to LA, I met Angel Kristi Williams. We were both from Baltimore. We met at a cookout, who's the director of Really Love, and we connected

Chideya: The film gave our team some Love Jones vibes, that late '90s film based in Chicago. Did that inspire you?

Pride: Oh, absolutely. I remember watching Love Jones in college over and over and over again, this story of these artists getting together. And then the love making scene. I remember, again, just being in awe at the intimacy and Black bodies on screen in this way and wanting that in my own life and then also wanting to see more of that on screen. So the fact that Angel and I were very much aligned in the importance of Black intimacy on screen was a blessing.

Chideya: Before we let you go, do you have a vision of where you want to be in two years, five years, 10 years, 20 years, or do you more just path find along the way? I find for me it's a little bit of both.

Pride: Yeah. I think it's definitely a little bit of both. I can tell you that a big inspiration for Honey Chile is Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon's company, for many reasons. One is just this direct connection that she has and she nurtured on Instagram with community through books. Through her book club is how it originally popped off. My background was books, I wrote books, I wrote about books, I worked in book publishing. So we're really committed to book adaptations by Black authors, by Black Honeys, or about Black Honeys. Then there is just being across mediums. Hello Sunshine is audio, it's digital, it's TV, it's film, for a very specific audience. Then we have a full slate of TV and film projects that we are working to get off the ground. So, yeah.

Chideya: I love the focus on Honeys. Obviously, I'm older than you are, but I have Honeys in my life all the way to age 100. My friend Betty Reid Soskin...

Pride: There you go.

Chideya: ... she's 100 and she's still a Honey and she's still fine. That's not the most important thing, but the important thing is she knows she's fine and she wakes up every-

Pride: That's what I'm talking about.

Chideya: Right?

Pride: Yes.

Chideya: ... every day. She knows and she's talked about bringing all of herselfs, from her six-year-old self to her 20-year-old self on and on and on into who she is. That is one of the most interesting things I think about aging, is that if you remain connected, you can access both your inner child and your elder. So I'm also doing work on connecting to who I will be in my 70s, 80s and beyond, God willing.

Pride: I love that.

Chideya: I mean, how do you think about aging?

Pride: I love that so much. I'm actually very excited about getting older because I feel like I now am armed with a stronger sense of self, I'm armed with experience and wisdom. I also am surrounded by a community of Honeys and soon to be Honeys, because everybody's going to be a Honey, God willing. Then I'm also just in peak joy as well. I have found this foundational joy that took me 40 years to find. Not to find, I would say to uncover. Now, I revel in that. So I'm just really excited about meeting, as you're saying, the evolved versions of Felicia, the older versions of Felicia. Then still, keeping those aspects of my younger self, that fire that I used to have, that curiosity as a child, keeping those things and integrating. I'm just really, really excited. Because I got to tell you, my 30s and 20s, they weren't it. They were not it. I was confused and I was lost and I was running from myself. Now I'm here and I'm facing myself and I like what I see, so I'm just excited.

Chideya: Well, I'm excited for you-

Pride: Thank you.

Chideya: ... and I'm excited for me to benefit from your creativity and your business acumen. Felicia, thank you so much for joining us.

Pride: Thank you so much for having me and for all the work that you do.

Chideya: That was TV writer, producer, and award-winning filmmaker, Felicia Pride. You can watch her film, Really Love, on Netflix. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur. She's a historian, a leading expert on Black Republicans, associate research professor at the SNF Agora Institute and in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Leah.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Thanks for having me.

Chideya: I'm also joined by Hagar Chemali, a foreign policy expert and host of the Oh My World video series on YouTube. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Hagar.

Hagar Chemali: Thanks so much, Farai. Happy to be here.

Chideya: Well, let's start with the news about General Colin Powell's death. Here's a clip from CBS News.

Clip: We're remembering the life and legacy of Colin Powell who has died from COVID-19 complications at age 84. Powell was the first Black Secretary of State and also the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His family said he was fully vaccinated against COVID, but battled other underlying conditions, including the blood cancer, multiple myeloma, which compromises the immune system.

Chideya: Leah, what was your reaction when you learned the news both of his death and of how it happened?

Rigueur: Shock. I think Colin Powell, General Powell, had been very prominent in new circles and media circles, particularly aftermath of the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol. He had weighed in a number of different times. He had weighed in on issues related to COVID. I was absolutely stunned.

Chideya: Hagar, he apparently told one interviewer, "Don't feel sorry for me." He was like, "Look, I'm of a certain age." Obviously before he contracted COVID. How did you react to the news?

Chemali: Likely, I was also stunned, but my mind did immediately go to this place where I felt just so sad and so worried about this era of centrists and those who are unafraid to speak up for the truth and to have them start passing.

Chideya: Let's dig in a little bit on that, Leah. You have written deeply about what you describe in your book title as the loneliness of Black Republicans. Give us a sense of how General Powell fit into the narrative of Black Republicans who are loyal to the party.

Rigueur: General Powell is essentially the last of a dying breed of what we might call the liberal or the moderate Black Republican. Came of age in an era of Bush Sr. He becomes a household name prior to his tenure in Bush Jr's White House, but really encapsulates this idea of moderate, pragmatic, rooted in the military conservatism. I always think of this moment roughly in 1992 where he's speaking at the Republican National Convention and he says, "Our party should be big enough for all. We should be big enough that we have supporters for affirmative action in our tent, where we have people that are pro-choice in our tent." And people, there's a smattering of boos and people you know ... Then you start to hear cheers. He ends up getting a standing ovation, which drown out the boos. To me, that signifies a moment where the party is very different from the party that we know now. So as we see somebody like Colin Powell, he becomes very representative of a kind of utilitarian or pragmatic approach to politics, whereby he says and actually confirms this right before he dies, where he says, "I'm no longer a Republican. I'm not what I would call a Democrat." He says, "I am a citizen of this country." Now, for him to get there, there's a long and contested path.

Chideya: Yeah. We're going to talk more about that, including his heritage. But I do want to get us pretty quickly to Iraq. Hagar, in 2003, General Powell made the case to invade Iraq and he says he regretted it later. It's been called everything from a mistake to a war crime. How do you think about it?

Chemali: I'm so glad we're going to talk about this in depth because one of the first things that really pained me when the news started breaking of Colin Powell's death was that in the headline, right in the headline or the beginning, first sentence of the New York Times obituary for example, is, "Colin Powell who convinced the world that we needed to go to Iraq." This in a lot of ways tainted his entire legacy whereas he had numerous achievements in foreign policy that get very quickly and easily overlooked. The way it happened was Colin Powell, when he was secretary of state at the time, he told President Bush, he requested a lunch with President Bush and explained to him, this was about a year before they went to war and said, "Going to war with Iraq would be a bad idea." He literally predicted exactly what would happen there. That's because he knew very well the sectarian issues you had on the ground. President Bush listened to him and then after a while obviously decided that it was in the interest of the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq. Colin Powell was essentially told, "You're either with us or you're out of the job." He wanted to stay because he felt that if they were going to do this, that at least maybe he could help make it a successful war. But the problem was he wasn't tasked with leading this war. He was our chief diplomat at the time and was tasked with selling it to the world. And that is what he did. He went to the United Nations, where based on very faulty intelligence that he did not know was faulty at the time, he explained to the world that Iraq had this mass stockpile of chemicals and weapons of mass destruction and that it was in the interest of the world to get rid of it.

Chideya: But Hagar, let me just jump in here. There was a piece in the intercept that went into his statement to the UN Security Council. He said among other things, "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions." The piece goes on to say, "That's in public, what about in private?" According to Larry Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, here's what Powell was thinking at the time. "Powell had walked into my office musing and he said words to the effect of, "I wonder how we'll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing." So does a conversation like that change how you think about his role?

Chemali: No, only because I've seen it in government in my time. I've seen political officials be told that they need to go out in public and convince the public of something and those political officials believe that they're doing their due diligence. So what happened in this story, what happened behind the scenes is that Colin Powell was handed a speech by the vice president's office, Vice President Cheney's office, saying, "Okay, this is the speech that you're going to give to the United Nations." He looked at it and tore it up and said, "There's literally no way I'm going to give a political speech at the UN. This speech has to be steeped in only fact." Apparently, he spent a long weekend at the CIA headquarters at Langley going over the intelligence to see what exactly was the intelligence, what exactly could he share? He crafted that speech single-handedly with his own team, he looked at the intelligence that they genuinely thought was accurate. Now I can tell you, having been in government... I joined the government in 2004. I stayed until 2016. The way intelligence is analyzed now and retrieved is very different than that time period. It is because of that time period that vetting sources and confirming has changed drastically. The White House also said, told the Intelligence Community, "You need to go find this. You need to go create this story for us." My genuine belief is that he didn't know it was faulty because the IC, the Intelligence Community, didn't know it was faulty. But that was because of their weak sources and methods at the time.

Chideya: Leah, I'm going to turn back to the question, the broader question, of General Powell's legacy. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants. He was born in Harlem. He went on to acclaim in the military and in post-military life. You have talked about him as part of this literally dying breed of a certain generation of Black Republican centrist. What do you think their legacy is on younger Black social conservatives or fiscal conservatives who may not perceive their relationship to the party in the same way?

Rigueur: I've been telling everyone this. And I think this is actually true irrespective of now what we know about the death of Colin Powell, which is that Colin Powell's story is a tragic story. Part of why it is so tragic is because it is rooted in a narrative about the American dream and about success where Colin Powell very much embodies all that we suggest is great about the American experience. He is the son of Jamaican migrants who settle in Harlem. He grows up during a period where integration is the name of the game. He then goes on to be the first of many national security advisor, Joint Chiefs of Staff, of course Secretary of State, which we all know. Part of the tragedy of that story of being the first is about navigating race as the only one. So what are the things that you end up sacrificing? What are the values or the ideologies or the belief systems that you end up sacrificing in the service of desegregating, for lack of a better word, these spaces? I think that is a really important thing that actually transcends partisan ideology. One of the questions I have not seen discussed around Colin Powell in Iraq is what does it mean to be a Black man sitting under an all white cabinet in a president and being told, "This is what you need to do?" Then again, as a centrist, and I think this is a result of his prominence during the first Gulf War and in that moment where the military is receiving accolades, there is almost unanimous consensus around popularity and patriotism of the military, he comes to embody that. We do see not only the Republicans pick up on the strain, because if you are a Republican candidate that is running for president after Ronald Reagan, almost every single Republican presidential candidate is like, "I need Colin Powell on that ticket." There's an acknowledgement that they need him on the ticket because of what he brings to the table. I think he is also in a way, we can talk about how he opens the door, I think, for resurgence, a very brief and small resurgence among African Americans that really happens between 2000 and 2004, where we see an uptick in the number of Black people, particularly Black men that are willing to affiliate publicly as Republicans. Many of them point to Colin Powell as the reason that they have gotten involved in the first place. That all changes, of course, after Hurricane Katrina. It certainly begins to change after the invasion of Iraq. Then of course, Barack Obama runs for president. And what does he do? He gets the endorsement of Colin Powell. One of the things that I have seen even in this era where we are increasingly seeing Black people that affiliate with the Republican Party, that reflect the Republican Party as it exists now, so a very, very conservative, almost radical Republicanism amongst African Americans that's emerging. But even now, we saw many of them, this outpouring, where they acknowledged what he meant to them. We also saw from a number of Black politicos, again particularly Black men who self identify as Democrats and as liberals, but of course centrists as well, we saw an outpouring of grief from them because they said he inspired them as well.

Chideya: Well, I want to talk about diversity in a different context, which relates to these questions of how do we view people for their own accomplishments and also for their race or gender, sexuality, all those things. Here's a clip from local Pennsylvania TV station, WGAL, talking about Dr. Rachel Levine.

Clip: Former Pennsylvania secretary of health, Dr. Rachel Levine made history again today being sworn in as the country's first openly transgender four-star officer. Dr. Levine is now also the first female four-star admiral in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Chideya: NPR reported that Dr. Levine called her appointment, "Part of the Biden administration's commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity." But the Biden administration has been criticized by some civil rights advocates for not moving fast enough on voting rights. And earlier this month, immigration advocates staged a virtual walkout over the Biden administration's continuing the Trump administration migration policy. So Hagar, what does it mean to have a commitment to DEI that can encompass in this civil society the needs of trans Americans, immigrants, refugees, Black Americans, and so many other groups?

Chemali: When it comes to the criticisms I've seen so far for the Biden ministration on these efforts, and I don't want to sound like a government apologist because I was in government a long time, but the government doesn't move as fast as it should. When I see the criticism, sometimes I look at it as a former public servant and I look at it and I'm like, "Well, he's only been in office for five minutes. Give him a little bit of time." Because I do believe that the intention of the effort is very much there and it's a very clear and deliberate effort.

Chideya: Leah, as we wrap it up here, the point was not at all to undercut Dr. Levine's incredible career, but it does strike me that every political administration has to make choices about prioritizing different constituencies. I think that Dr. Levine's statement about the commitment to DEI... She said, "Diversity, inclusion, and equity." Is that now part of every person's job who is a leader in federal government and what does it mean to make that part of your job?

Rigueur: I'm going to make the argument that actually the ideas of DEI have been a part of the federal government's jobs really since 1966 with the appointment of Robert Weaver to what becomes Housing and Urban Development. That is the moment where essentially it becomes a very powerful political statement not to have racial representation in your political cabinet. The Trump administration, it was very well known that DEI was not a priority and that it was actively hostile to DEI in a lot of ways. I will also say that to do something like appointing a trans woman to a very visible position of power is important, particularly when we know so many of our LGBTQI+ community are experiencing harm, violence, death on a day-to-day basis. But with that said, visual representation is not enough. So I think when we see this pushback with the Biden administration, it is coming from a place of understanding that the federal government has been invested in visual representations of diversity for over 50 years. But now they want, I think, institutional and policy investment and diversity to have a far more wide-ranging effect on the American people, including those constituencies that are calling for it.

Chideya: Well, thank you so much for that. We are going to leave it there. Appreciate you joining us, Leah and Hagar.

Rigueur: Thanks for having me.

Chemali: Thanks, Farai. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Rigueur: It was great.

Chideya: That was Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur, associate research professor at the SNF Agora Institute and in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University, and Hagar Chemali, foreign policy expert and host of YouTube's Oh My World. Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mix this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “A Haitian Author on Her Family’s Immigration Story, Celebrating and Supporting Black Women in the Media, and What We Lose Politically with the Death of Colin Powell.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. October 22, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/