Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Original Black Russian

As we Americans observe Black History Month in February, Russians will celebrate their own link to black history. This year marks the 171st anniversary of the death of their greatest national poet, Alexander Pushkin. Yes, Pushkin, who died on Feb 10, 1837, was part black.

Pushkin's great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, was born in Sub-Saharan Africa, probably on the territory of what is now Cameroon, in the late 17th century. Taken captive in his boyhood, he was transported in 1705 by a Russian emissary from the court of the Turkish Sultan and presented as a gift to Peter the Great. Peter had the boy baptized and made him his godson. Since Abram was apparently a quick study, Peter gave him a job as his personal secretary then, as part of his crash program of modernizing Russia, sent him to France to study military engineering.

After his return to Russia, Gannibal (who named himself after Hannibal, the greatest African military commander in the ancient world) went on to enjoy an exceptionally long life. He survived six tsars, rose to the rank of general, was granted nobility and estates, and was decorated for distinguished service.

Pushkin himself was fascinated by his African heritage and did not hesitate to identify himself as a "descendant of Negroes." In a famous line from his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, he imagines fleeing "under the sky of my Africa to sigh for gloomy Russia." African American writers and intellectuals including Frederick Douglass took inspiration from Pushkin's poetry and from his pride in his African roots.

Yet Pushkin was also proud to trace the other side of his lineage back to one of the oldest boyar families in Russia. While he sympathized with the plight of his "brother Negroes," in the United States, and wrote poetry eloquently promoting freedom from tsarist oppression, Pushkin himself owned serfs. The poet himself, it would seem, was torn by the same competing vectors of race, class, national identity and political allegiance that have haunted his posthumous image for two centuries.

In 1899, the tsarist government staged an elaborate, empire-wide celebration of the centennial of the poet's birth, attempting to harness Pushkin's status as a metaphor of Russia in service to the state. Ironically today though, a growing wave of Russian nationalism is spurring ugly instances of xenophobic violence. A major Russian monitoring center recently reported a rise in hate crimes against dark-skinned people from the former Russian republics and against African students.

Nevertheless, Pushkin remains a mirror in which Russians profess to see reflected back at them their fondest aspirations and best impulses. The country would do well to take a good look into that mirror today. Find out more about this world-famous poet at

Research info gathered at:

Now, here's a poet that's never heard of Russia:

Progress, Disguised As A Centipedes

And when the dust finally settles, here’s what’s left:

-A row of concrete dividers on a receding hairline.

-Every wood-framed church in the Bible Belt.

-Trains that are only used to scare away ghosts.

-A building that was originally scheduled for demolition.

-Thickly spread peanut butter wedged between two silos.

-A coat rack made from barrels of Agent Orange.

-One lamppost that longs to be a lighthouse.

-A pair of spectacles that desperately need polishing.

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