Dignity and integrity are two human attributes that seem to be growing rarer in our divisive world today. Individually, these traits are difficult to find in public life, but together in one public figure they seem almost non-existent. To mis-quote the former head of Chrysler Corporation, Lee Iaccoca, “where have all the statesmen gone?”
We probably all know someone that we think represents, at least at some level, these scarce attributes, but trying to find them in public figures seems like an exercise in frustration any more.
Many years ago, when I was working in East Africa, I remember being invited to a tribal funeral for the father of one of my colleagues. The funeral took place in the center of a village, ten miles walk from the nearest road, on the shores of Lake Victoria, in Kenya. It was a humbling experience made more so because of the welcome I received. I was, in all probability, the only white man for a good fifty/hundred mile radius yet it never occurred to me to treat the experience as anything other than a unique honour and privilege.
When I told my mother, back in England, she was horrified, and that made me question why I had felt so honoured, and comfortable. My answer, after a lot of thought, was the dignity of that village community. On further reflection, I added integrity to that answer.
To be honest, there are many sub-cultures in the Unites States, and also in the country of my birth, the United Kingdom, where I don’t feel anywhere near the level of comfort I felt in that village. I have to wonder why. One possible answer is the apparent lack of dignity, integrity and, perhaps, self-worth that I feel emanates from many of those U.S. and U.K. communities. This is my interpretation, certainly, but the comparison with the Kenyan village experience is poignant and real.
The sad news of Sidney Poitier’s death started me thinking along these lines again this week. This led to thoughts of two additional famous public figures; Colin Powell and the still-very-much-alive Harry Belafonte. My predilection for “connecting the dots” in my own way, then led me to look at the similarities of those personalities. Black, extremely successful in their chosen fields, and almost universally respected in ways few other enjoy, alive or dead but, most of all, recognized for their dignity and integrity. I heard that word multiple times in the media eulogies for Sidney Poitier. For some reason, that word made me remember my experience in Kenya.
Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Colin Powell all came from backgrounds that reflected cultures other than the U.S. Sidney Poitier came from the Bahamas, Harry Belafonte, although born in Harlem, came from a Jamaican background, as did Colin Powell. In all three cases they have publicly stated that those cultures had a defining effect on their lives and their characters. Is there a common thread there that reflects more than just the countries involved?
Two of my latest blogs addressed the different approaches to mixing cultures that France and the U.S. have taken – one of “color-blindness”, in the broadest sense and the other of emphasizing the differences resulting in a confrontational approach.
Perhaps the lives and contributions of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Colin Powell can shed some light on the efficacy of each approach in pursuing a positive and productive future for societal development. Thoughts please.