Can it be possible that [#AlexanderPushkin] so gifted, so honored, so lamented, was a colored man- a #Negro? #Eritrea
By: Henry Louis Gates J.
Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 27: Were Alexander Pushkin’s African roots important to him?
Alexander Pushkin, author of Eugene Onegin and Boris Gudonov, is widely regarded as “the father of Russian literature” — the Shakespeare of the Russian literary tradition. As I described in Amazing Fact No. 25, “Did Peter the Great Have a Black Son?” Pushkin was also the great-grandson of the Cameroon-born General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, who was an adopted son of the Russian monarch. Was that fact incidental to who he was, or a defining characteristic?
On Feb. 11, 1847, on the 10th anniversary of Pushkin’s tragic death at the age of 38 following a duel, the abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an article about Gannibal’s famous great-grandson for the National Era, an American abolitionist newspaper. “The poet of Russia,” Whittier exclaims, “the favorite alike of Emperor and people,” it turns out, was a black man: “Can it be possible that this man, so wonderfully gifted, so honored, so lamented, was a colored man — a negro? Such, it seems, is the fact. Incredible as it may appear to the American reader.”
Pushkin’s life, he concluded quite eloquently, in the best of abolitionist rhetoric, exposes “the utter folly and Injustice of the common prejudice against the colored race in this country. It is a prejudice wholly incompatible with enlightened republicanism and true Christianity … With our feet on the neck of the black man, we have taunted him with his inferiority; shutting him out from school and college, we have denied his capacity for Intellectual progress; spurning him from the meeting-house and church communion, we have reproached him as vicious, and incapable of moral elevation,” Whittier argues.
“What is this, in fact, but the common subterfuge of tyranny, seeking an excuse for its oppression by maligning its unhappy objects, and making the consequences of its own cruelty upon them an apology for its continuance?” Pushkin, for American abolitionists just three years before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, was a grand and irresistible symbol: “Do not … Pushkin’s songs of a great nation, waken within all hearts the sympathies of a common [human] nature?”
A Bright Light Doused Early
The best analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s relation to his African heritage is found in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness (2006), a book edited by Catharine Nepomnyashchy, Ludmilla Trigos and Nicole Svobodny (and for which I wrote the Foreword).
As it relates, Gannibal was Pushkin’s mother’s father’s father. Pushkin was born on June 6, 1799, just 18 years after his great-grandfather’s death. He was an indifferent student at the Lyceum outside of St. Petersburg, preoccupied as he was with writing poetry and trying to get it published. He graduated in 1817 and took a position at the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg, where over the next three years he associated with members of the radical movement who would be responsible for the Decembrist Uprising in 1825, the famous plot to overthrow Nicolas I and place the emperor’s brother on the throne.
Pushkin began to circulate a series of radical poems unofficially, one of which, “Ode to Liberty,” would be found among the papers of all the major Decembrist conspirators. Pushkin, by this time exiled to his mother’s estate in Northern Russia, was not involved in the plot, so he escaped punishment, although the five ringleaders were sentenced to death.
Forgiven by Nicolas I in 1826, Pushkin began an extraordinary period of creativity, completing over the next five years two of his masterpieces, Eugene Onegin and Boris Gudonov, and four tragedies, including Mozart and Salieri, the story of which was retold more than a century and a half later in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, filmed by Milos Forman. During this period, he also began a novel about his great-grandfather, The Moor of Peter the Great, which he never completed.
Like his great-grandfather’s first marriage, to Evdokia Dioper, Pushkin’s marriage in 1831 to Natalya Goncharova was deeply troubled, and would have the most fatal consequences. In 1836, enraged by the French military officer Georges d’Anthes’s pursuit of his wife, Pushkin challenged him to a duel, but retracted it when d’Anthes married his wife’s sister. When d’Anthes continued his pursuit, Pushkin challenged him once again. On Jan. 27, 1837, Pushkin was mortally wounded, dying two days later. (d’Anthes was pardoned but expelled from Russia, returned to France and became a politician.) All of Russia grieved. Virtually overnight, Pushkin was hailed as the indisputable father of Russian literature.
A Shade of Meaning
So was the father of Russian literature a race man? Did he think of himself as “a brother”? Although in the United States, with its crazy “one drop” rule, Pushkin would have been categorized as a black man, did he identify with his great-grandfather’s African heritage as a matter of choice, or was that irrelevant to him?
The answer is: most definitely! And he wrote about this on several occasions. Once, in a letter written in 1824, Pushkin even highlighted his relation to black slaves in the U.S.: “One can think of the fate of the Greeks in the same way as of the fate of my brother Negroes, and one can wish both of them liberation from unendurable slavery, ” as related in Under the Sky of My Africa.
Nepomnyashchy relates a fascinating story about one of Pushkin’s favorite possessions: On his desk sat “an inkstand featuring a black man leaning against an anchor and standing in front of two bales of cotton (made to hold ink). Accompanying it was a note [from his close friend, Pavel Nashchokin] stating: ‘I am sending you your ancestor with inkwells that open and that reveal him to be a farsighted person.’ Pushkin was extremely pleased with the gift, which he kept on his desk to the end of his days,” according to Under the Sky of My Africa. The note and the gift were clever puns, as Marial Iglesias explained to me: “It is based on a pun with ‘ink’ (chernila, in Russian) and ‘black’ (cherni, in Russian).” As Nepomnyashchy says, “it holds the ink (literally, the ‘black stuff’) for Pushkin to ply his trade and thus attests to the creativity of its owner.”
Because the word for “ink” in Russian has the same root as the word “black,” the gift brilliantly signifies both upon Pushkin’s blackness and his role as a writer who is also black. That inkstand, we might say, was Pushkin’s signifying sign of his black ancestry, centrally placed on his desk as a visible testament and reminder both of his African ancestry and, perhaps, of the irony that a man of recent African descent was playing such a seminal role in the creation of Russia’s national literary tradition.
It won’t come as a surprise that Pushkin, in death, was frequently compared to Othello, Shakespeare’s famous black character whose jealousy led to his wife’s death — and to his own — or that racism accosted Pushkin in death as it did during his life. One of his classmates noted after his death that “In him was manifested all the ardor and sensuality of his African blood,” while another noted that he was frequently “Flaring up into a fury, with unbridled African passions (such as his mother’s ancestry), eternally absent-minded, eternally absorbed in his poetic dreams … ” writes Nepomnyashchy. And some Russian commentators have done their best to erase the significance of his blackness, or to claim that he had no interest in it at all, or that it was irrelevant to his genius.
But we know that this is not true, since Pushkin kept that token of his — and his great-grandfather’s — blackness on his writing desk.
And he would fight with his pen to protect his great-grandfather’s honor. In response to a vicious racist attack by a literary rival, Faddei Bulgarin casting aspersions on Gannibal’s status as a slave “bought … for a bottle of rum,” Pushkin, in a piece called “My Genealogy,” responded, “the blackamoor purchased cheaply grew up diligent, unpurchasable, a confidant to the tsar, and not a slave,” as Thomas J. Shaw related at length in Under the Sky of My Africa .
Fyodor Dostoevsky perhaps defined Pushkin’s unique status best, referring to what today we might call his “cultural hybridity”: “I state categorically that there has never been a poet with such universal responsiveness as Pushkin. It is not only a matter of responsiveness but also of its amazing depth, the reincarnation in his spirit of the spirit of foreign peoples, a reincarnation that is almost total and is therefore miraculous.” Pushkin’s literary legacy shines brightly, nearly two centuries after his tragic death, “under the sky of my Africa,” as he once put it so lyrically himself.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.