Review: "Pushkin and Blackness on the Web"

Melissa Frazier

 

     The subject of Pushkin and his “blackness” is one that continues to attract American students of Russian. For this reason, Pushkin Review has attempted to assess the resource most likely to be the one our undergraduates first consult upon investigating this topic: the World Wide Web.

     Scholars in recent years have attained a more complex understanding of the facts of Pushkin’s African heritage and a more sophisticated approach to its possible significance for both the poet and his readers in his own time and in ours. Ground-breaking works in this regard include Dieu­donné Gnammankou’s Abraham Hanibal, l'aïeul noir de Pouchkine (Paris, Présence Africaine, 1996), the volume Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness (edited by Catharine Theimer Nepom­nyashchy, Nicole Svobodny and Liudmilla Trigos, Northwestern Univer­sity Press, 2006), and conferences such as that held at Harvard University in April of 2008, “Aleksandr Pushkin: An Historic Symposium at Harvard. Exploring the Dual Heritage of Russia's Greatest Poet, Father of Modern Russian Literature, and the Black Russians of the 20th Century.”[1] Ameri­can students interested in the question of Pushkin and race, however, are more likely to turn first not to Gnammankou or Nepomnyashchy et al., but to the English-language Internet. My own experience of “Googling” terms like “Pushkin AND Africa,” “Pushkin AND blackness,” “Pushkin AND Gannibal,” etc. certainly suggest that Internet sites aimed at the general public offer at best a simplified view of this issue, and occasionally real misinformation. Still, it is clear that increasing scholarly interest in the facts and implications of Pushkin’s African ancestry has had an impact on Pushkin’s presence on the web.

     Several sites distort the facts on Pushkin to suit a particular ideologi­cal perspective. Despite trading in exaggerated and/or mistaken informa­tion, some of these sites could nonetheless be described as well-intentioned; others are less so. Still, much of the information on Pushkin on the web is reasonably accurate and also reasonably balanced. The Wikipedia page de­voted to Pushkin was updated while I was in the process of writing this review in May–June 2009, and the brief mention of Pushkin’s great-grandfather as “born in Eritrea” on the page as I first saw it became “born in Logone-Birni, Cameroon, Africa,” with extensive footnotes and also links to some of the sites I mention below. Even in the earlier redaction, how­ever, a click on Gannibal’s name took me to a more detailed account of his life, which posits as his birth­place either Eritrea or Cameroon. That page, too, was updated in June 2009: now the bibliography includes Gnammankou’s work as well as Hugh Barnes’ more popular Gannibal:The Moor of St. Petersburg (2005) and Frances Somers Cocks’ historical novels written for children. Answers.com, that other friend of students, is a little less up-to-date. Some of the sources quoted fail to note Pushkin’s ancestry at all, while another describes Gannibal as “Abyssinian”; only one source ascribes any significance to this biographical fact, briefly claiming that “Pushkin took pride in his African heritage, referring to it often in his lyrics.”

     Pushkin’s biography is frequently offered in the context of African pride, for example on the site “The Global African Presence.” Among the almost 600 articles on various aspects of African culture and history, most of them written by the prolific Dr. Runiko Rashidi, at least four are devoted to some aspect of Pushkin’s biog­raphy, and sources mentioned include Gnammankou, as well as writing by Allison Blakely, Dorothy Trench-Bonett and John Oliver Killens. A site on “Writer Heroes” introduces Pushkin as “an inspiration to artist hero Paul Robeson,” while the James Robinson Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University makes available in pdf form a pamphlet in commemoration of Pushkin’s bicenten­nial in 1999 called “Popularizing Pushkin … Globally.”

     A more substantive popularization of recent scholarship can be found in Catharine Nepomnyashchy’s 2008 contribution to The Root, “The Origi­nal Black Russian.” Other sustained readings of Pushkin’s life and work in light of his African ancestry are in short supply on the web, and we are again reminded that the web generally is better at presenting facts, or at least what someone takes to be facts, than at con­necting those facts in a serious and thoughtful way. Still, there are sites that might suggest ways to move beyond simple statements of fact about Pushkin’s African origins towards the implications of that heritage in different contexts. Nepomnyashchy proposes “Alexander Pushkin as a ‘Black European’ Writer” as a workshop topic for a Black Studies Confer­ence organized by the Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz; that univer­sity’s Black European Studies site offers several truly thought-provoking propos­als for interdisciplinary work on the history of Black Europeans, including Robert Coles on “Russian Racial Attitudes Before Pushkin,” Kathleen Ahern on “Blacks in European Russia 1700-2000,” and Raquel Greene on “Representation of Africans and African-Russians in Russian Literature and Culture over the Last Four Centuries.”

     Less academic and therefore more accessible to students is the series on Black Europeans featured at the British Library Online Gallery. The British Library site is guest-curated by Dr. Mike Philips, a writer, journalist and “cross-cultural curator” at the Tate who is also author of London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (2001) and co-author of Windrush: The Irresis­tible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (1998), written to accompany a BBC television series. The site offers a relatively detailed biography of Pushkin which concludes: “Nowadays, in a continent struggling with the different claims of ethnicity and nationality, he seems to be, above all, a towering figure who was capable of using the different strands of his identity to create and inspire new modes of seeing and new cultural achievements.” Dr. Philips’ point is also made by the simple juxtaposition of Pushkin’s biography with that of four other prominent Black Europeans: Alexandre Dumas, musicians George Polgreen Bridgetower and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and British politician John Archer. 

     Another useful site is that of PBS which houses materials designed to accompany a 1996 Frontline documentary, “Secret Daughter.” The original documentary, in the words of the site, was the “story of a mixed race daughter and the mother who gave her away,” and PBS offers various materials to contextualize this story, such as a set of articles written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom under the heading, “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families.” The families listed in this article include a number of less well-known American families, a few more prominent European examples: Allessandro [sic] Medici, Queen Charlotte of England, Guillaume Guillon Lethiere, Peter Ustinov, and Pushkin. Some of the claims the site makes regarding the racial make-up of these different figures seem well-substantiated, and others less so; Mario de Valdes y Cocom himself is described only as “an historian of the African diaspora.” Whatever the facts, though, the site does provide a sense of the real mutability of our construction of race, as well as a useful deterrent to a tendency to essentialize. Certainly the site reflects a sense that the words “American” and also “Russian” encompass more compli­cated meanings than their ordinary use would suggest. 

     In short, the web is not a bad starting place for initial research on Pushkin and Blackness, but its real use should be in bringing students and other interested parties to our classes: while the web is beginning to raise the question of Pushkin and blackness, it remains up to the scholarly community to respond to that question with the depth and seriousness it deserves.

 

Sarah Lawrence College

 


Download: Frazier, Melissa. "Pushkin and Blackness on the Web." Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 189-91.


[1] Selections from this conference are forthcoming in Pushkin Review.