- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

TOP HILL, Jamaica Ask Colin Powell's cousin Muriel how the son of humble Jamaican immigrants rose to the top and she has a ready answer.

"Jamaicans are not afraid to lick [hit] the child if he be rude or out of order," said Muriel Meggie, 65, wearing the mischievous grin of someone who got a lick or two in her day. "A child has got to know his place, when to play and when to work."

She stood by the tin-roofed boyhood home of Luther Powell, Colin's father, looking out from the red dirt yard over the sloping hills of this southern Jamaican farming community.

"We're proud people, maybe not rich but we've got dignity, and dignified people they know how to behave," she said.

She didn't know whether the future secretary of state got any licks, but the message was clear: During Mr. Powell's New York childhood, the values of hard-working rural West Indians left their mark.

There's evident pride here over the rise of "our big man up north," in the words of cousin Reuben Powell. And the rest of the island is also pleased.

Mr. Powell's background and Jamaican roots "may cause him to view the world through different prisms than the mainstream of the Republican Party," the Jamaica Observer said in an editorial.

Mr. Powell is one of countless children of Caribbean migrants who left their sun-drenched homelands for North America and Europe, looking for a better life.

In his book "My American Dream," Mr. Powell wrote: "I look at my aunts and uncles, their children and their children's children, and I see three generations of constructive, productive, self-reliant members of society."

Slavery in the British Caribbean colonies ended a generation earlier than in North America, and after emancipation "West Indians were left more or less on their own," he wrote. They had schools, good jobs and "they did not have their individual dignity beaten down for 300 years, the fate of so many black American slaves and their ancestors."

Coming from countries where blacks are the majority has given Caribbean immigrants greater self-confidence about getting ahead through hard work, said Selwyn Ryan, a political science professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

"We grew up feeling that there were no insurmountable barriers," Mr. Ryan said. "Even though there were constraints in Caribbean society, there was always the perception that one could do well, given they had an education and were persistent."

Luther Powell left Top Hill in the early 1920s, around the same time that Colin Powell's mother, Ariel, left her small western Jamaica town. The two met and married in New York City, where Mr. Powell was born in 1937.

Many of the adults in his family hadn't lived in Jamaica for decades, but the island culture pulsed through his youth and has stayed with him.

As a child, Christmas dinner was curried goat, a Caribbean specialty, he wrote in his book. Afterward came dancing to calypso and Appleton rum "in my family, to serve anything else was considered an affront."

When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calypso tunes drifted from his Pentagon office. But his aides "did not get the pidgin lyrics and missed most of the innuendo," he wrote.

"But then, you do not hear much calypso music in the Pentagon's E-Ring."

Mr. Powell went back to Jamaica in 1992 after the Persian Gulf war, at the invitation of then-Prime Minister Michael Manley, and again in 1994 with TV interviewer Barbara Walters.

He walked down a narrow, rutted trail and through fields of knee-high guinea grass and stood in the shade of a guongo tree in the yard of his father's four-room house.

He and his wife, Alma, paid their respects to his grandparents, who are buried on the property, and met relatives whom he recognized because they resembled him.

Among the newest generation of Powells is 5-year-old Christopher, whose creased eyes and stern mouth make him look just like the retired general. What does he know about the future secretary of state, a reporter asked?

"Auntie told me he run America," he said.

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