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Bound by Blood to the Race: Pushkin in African-American Context

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Bound by Blood to the Race: Pushkin in African-American Context
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  Under the Sky of My Africa Nepomnyashchy, CatharineSvobodny, NicoleGates, Henry Louis Jr.Trigos, Ludmilla Published by Northwestern University Press For additional information about this book  Access provided by New York University (18 Mar 2013 14:25 GMT) http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780810162051   Anne Lounsbery “Bound by Blood to the Race”: Pushkin in African American Context Pushkin is a prophecy and a revelation. —Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880 Here we have Negro youth, with arresting visions andprophecies; forecasting in the mirror of art what wemust see and recognize in the streets of reality tomorrow, foretelling in new notes and accents thematuring speech of full racial utterance. —Alain Locke, 1925 Our literature will give us our very selves. —Nikolai Gogol, 1835 My art will aid in giving the Negro to himself. —Jean Toomer, 1922 UNDER THE HEADING“Pushkin,” the Dictionary Cat-alog of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History at the New York Public Library contains 118 entries. Some of these entries note that “Theauthor was a Russian with Negro blood,” while many state merely “Negro au-thor.” 1 The Schomburg Collection’s impressive array of Pushkiniana—whichincludes everything from critical studies in Latvian to newspaper clippingsand postage stamps commemorating various Pushkin jubilees—is only onetestament to Pushkin’s enduring presence in black American culture. Otherexamples abound. As early as 1899, in Charles Chesnutt’s landmark collectionof short stories, one snobbish character’s mark of refinement is his ability to“give the pedigree of Alexander Pushkin.” 2 By the 1920s, Pushkin had be-come more than a “pedigree” to be cited in defense of Negro intellect, as bothhis works and his biography were gradually incorporated into African Ameri-can literary discourse. In 1925, Opportunity magazine, which was among themost important publications of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 248  1930s, instituted an annual Pushkin Prize to recognize outstanding poetry  written by Negroes. In 1926 the first book-length study of Pushkin in English(published by the émigré Russian scholar Prince D. S. Mirsky) was reviewedin the black press in places both culturally and geographically remote fromtraditional centers of Russian literary study: in Muskogee, Oklahoma, for ex-ample, the African American newspaper Weekly Progress lauded Mirsky’s work alongside news items of decidedly local interest. 3 In the late 1930s the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death consolidatedhis position in black American culture, helped along (though not totally pro-pelled) by Soviet propaganda and news dispatches from black American jour-nalists who had traveled to the U.S.S.R. 4 In February 1937, the 136th StreetLibrary in Harlem exhibited works by and about Pushkin, as well as memen-tos recently acquired by Langston Hughes in the Soviet Union. That samemonth at the Harlem People’s Bookshop, Pushkin’s centennial was marked inconjunction with Frederick Douglass’s birthday, in a celebration that includedan “impressive window display” on the Russian poet and a “Pushkin-Douglasstea.” 5 Pushkin remains a presence in black American culture today: what isprobably the only standing exhibit on the Russian poet in the United States islocated at the African-American Museum in Cleveland; the course catalog of Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania, lists two classesdevoted largely to Pushkin and the black experience; and discussions of Pushkin as a black writer occur regularly on the Internet. Perhaps most strik-ingly, the Russian national poet, in a 1983 comic book called The Life of Alexan-der Pushkin, merits inclusion in a series of comics devoted to black heroes. 6 These examples should mitigate the surprise of the average Slavist uponlearning that Pushkin is today, for many Americans, a black man. Just as theseexamples attest to Pushkin’s long-standing prominence in black American cul-ture, so the deceptively straightforward label that recurs in the Schomburg cat-alog (“Negro author”) evokes the complexities of race and nationality that bothAfrican Americans and whites have confronted in writing about the nationalpoet of Russia. This article will treat American texts that focus on Pushkin as a“Race writer,” on the Pushkin who was, in the words of a black intellectual in1904, “bound by blood to the race.” 7 Most, though not all, of these writings were published by black Americans in the black press, and most were intendedfor a popular rather than a scholarly audience. By examining these texts’ mainthemes, I hope to reveal how the figure of Pushkin was relevant to AfricanAmerican culture for reasons  including but not limited to his race. My analysis will emphasize earlier writings (that is, those dating from approximately 1847to 1946), both because these are generally less accessible than later works andbecause it is during this historical period that the figure of a multiracial genius was fraught with especially perilous significance in the American context. Inthe wry words that introduced the first English translation of Pushkin’s brief bi- “Bound by Blood to the Race”249  ography of his African great-grandfather (published in a 1937 issue of W. E. B.DuBois’s journal The Crisis ), “An utterly fascinating topic to white Ameri-cans—indeed, to white people everywhere—is mixture of the races.” 8  While Russian culture allowed Pushkin to play with the idea of beingAfrican (and through such play to turn his heritage to his own advantage, aes-thetic and psychological), it is abundantly clear that for Americans who writeabout Pushkin, race is no game. In fact, in two American novels based onPushkin’s life, racial identity has the power to write the scripts of characters’lives even as “race” as a category eludes (or actively confounds) clear definition.One of these novels was published in 1922 by a white woman, Edna Worthley Underwood; the other was published in 1989 by a black man, John Killens. Un-derwood’s and Killens’s agendas could hardly be more different, but both writ-ers represent race as the key to both Pushkin’s identity and his genius. As a re-sult their work illuminates important ways in which Pushkin has long beenused to focus an American discourse about race, a discourse which began inthe black and abolitionist press in the mid-nineteenth century and continuesto develop today. While my primary focus will be the recurrent themes of these journalistic writings, I will conclude with a look at Killens’s and Underwood’s versions of Pushkin’s life, the distortions of which reveal the persistent powerof racial categories to shape Americans’ understanding of a Russian poet. While this paper treats African American ideas about Pushkin, it is notconcerned to trace the sources of these ideas (sources which will often beclear to any Slavist, particularly those familiar with Soviet literary propa-ganda), nor to indict American texts which at times rehearse clichés of Pushkin criticism or embroider upon the facts of Pushkin’s life. I am inter-ested, rather, in the Pushkin who emerges from African American writings.For example, a black journalist writing in 1932 gleefully imagines that theracist southerner Edgar Allan Poe (who in fact never went to Russia) traveledto St. Petersburg to pay tribute to Pushkin, only to be shocked to find that theRussian poet was black. Pushkin would have challenged the lowly foreignerto a duel, the story goes, but Russian aristocrats did not duel with their socialinferiors. 9  What are we to make of such inventions? Similarly, what does itmean to celebrate Alexander Pushkin alongside Frederick Douglass in 1937,or to write about Prince Mirsky in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1926? Clearly,such pairings imply a Pushkin who is new to many readers, and it is thisPushkin I hope to illuminate.Pushkin’s place in African American culture cannot be understood without firstunderstanding the role played by writing and high culture in nineteenth-century efforts to defend the basic humanity of black people. In 1848 the blackintellectual Wilson Armistead published a book with a formidable title that re- veals the burden that accomplished individuals of African descent were made  Anne Lounsbery 250  to bear in arguments for abolition:  A Tribute for the Negro. Being a Vindicationof the Moral, Intellectual and Religious Capabilities of the Coloured Portion of Mankind with Particular Reference to the African Race, Illustrated by Numer-ous Biographical Sketches, Facts, Anecdotes, etc. and Many Superior Portraitsand Engravings. 10 Books like Armistead’s aimed—in the words of William WellsBrown, who wrote one of the genre’s influential examples—to marshal evidenceof the “genius, capacity, and intellectual development” of black people so as torefute “calumniators and traducers of the Negro.” 11 Pushkin’s great-grandfather,Abram Gannibal, was a staple of such texts. His name appeared in the AfricanAmerican press as early as 1828, when the first black newspaper in the UnitedStates, Freedom’s Journal, published a brief account of his achievements, aparagraph which was republished in The Anti-Slavery Record in 1837 and againin The Colored American in 1839. ( Freedom’s Journal identifies this passage asan extract from an influential antislavery treatise of the eighteenth century writ-ten by the French cleric Henri Gregoire, a treatise which appeared in Americafirst in 1810 and later in various other translations. Most early American textsthat describe Gannibal probably used Gregoire as their source.) 12 The story of Gannibal, a brilliant military tactician and engineer who wasfree to rise in a society unburdened by “color prejudice,” clearly served to bol-ster abolitionist arguments for blacks’ innate ability. A literary genius, however, was far more useful to the cause of abolition—and, after emancipation, to thestruggle for equality—than the most brilliant general or courtier. The very actof writing, and especially the writing of literature, had come to play a peculiarly significant role in Western ideas of race and “civilization.” As Henry Louis GatesJr. has chronicled, since the Renaissance “the act of writing has been consideredthe visible sign of reason,” the primary means of demonstrating both the self-hood of an individual and the history of a collective. 13 Africans and black slaves,the story went, had not written because they were not fully human: “Without writing, there could exist no repeatable sign of the workings of reason, of mind; without memory or mind, there could exist no history; without history, therecould exist no ‘humanity,’ as was defined consistently from Vico to Hegel.” 14 Gates insists on the strangeness of the belief that literacy is a necessary sign of humanity, but he also points out that blacks themselves long acceptedthis idea. 15 A great many African Americans, beginning with the scores of es-caped slaves whose life narratives provided one key foundation for the blackliterary tradition, wrote with the urgency of people who were being requiredto demonstrate their own humanity to whites through the creation of literary art. Thus in the words of the black intellectual Daniel Murray, writing in 1904, we hear an echo of German historicism, with its emphasis on a collective cul-tural memory essential to civilization and achievable only through writing:“Every nation is estimated largely by its literature, and justly so, since it is theonly means by which distant people can properly judge. Have they produced “Bound by Blood to the Race”251
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