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Under the Sky of My Africa
 Sep 10, 2010

Anne Lounsbery, associate professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University and a fan of works of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, carried out an interesting studied. Throughout the course of a year she asked Ney York cab drivers whether they had heard of the existence of a certain Russian poet by the name of Alexander Pushkin. Ms. Lounsbery that white tax drivers knew practically nothing about the poet. However, black tax drivers considered Pushkin to be one of their own and called him a poet of African origin.

“They know that he was black,” Lounsbery writes in her paper “Bound by Blood to the Race”: Pushkin in the African American Context. Interestingly, in the Dictionary Catalog of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History at the New York Public Library (one of the most authoritative catalogs of texts related to the history of African-American literature) Pushkin is cited in 118 entries. “Some of these entries note ‘The author was a Russian with Negro blood,’ while many merely state ‘Negro author,’” Lounsbery writes.

Anne Lounsbery’s research takes a look at how Pushkin over the course of many years was almost a hero of African-Americans, and the poet’s lack of recognition in Europe and the United States was attributed to his African roots. An example of this is an article from 1929 in the Amsterdam News (a black New York newspaper). “In America Pushkin would have to ride in dirty Jim Crow cars, would have been refused service in restaurants, theaters and libraries. For Pushkin was a Negro.” In 1983 Pushkin was the star of a comic book that was included in a series of comics devoted to black heroes.

With all due respect to Anne Lounsbery, New York cab drivers and comic series compliers, Pushkin was not a black poet. This we know for sure! But Alexander Pushkin sincerely respected, valued and took pride in his African roots. It’s no coincidence that the history of the life of his great grandfather Ibragim Gannibal is found in the annals of classic Russian literature.

“The names of my ancestors are encountered over and over again in our history,” modestly notes Pushkin in one of his autobiographical works. Here we find the retelling of the fateful story of the author’s international ancestor: “The family tree of my mother is even more interesting. Her grandfather was a Negro, the son of an influential prince. A Russian emissary to Constantinople was somehow able to free him from the court and sent him to Peter I together with two other Negro children. The emperor christened young Ibragim in Vilnius in 1707 and gave him the surname Gannibal.

The geographical location of Gannibal’s birthplace has been constantly called into question. The most popular version is that of Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov which was further developed by Dieudonné Gnammankou. According to this theory, Gannibal’s homeland is on the border of modern-day Cameroon and Chad in the Kotoko Kingdom, where the Sultanate of Logone-Birni is located. At eight years of age the great grandfather of Pushkin was seized and taken with his brothers to Istanbul, where in 1705 or 1706 Savva Razguzinsky brought the brothers as a present to Peter I, who loved all sorts of rarities and  curiosities.

In Gannibal’s petition in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth to be considered royalty and for confirmation of the family coat of arms includes the following: “I am from Africa of a royal family of note there; I was born on an estate of my father in the city of Logone, which was one of three cities in my father’s charge.”

In Africa neither the poet nor his famous great grandfather is forgotten. Several years ago African researchers established that Gannibal was born in a town not far from the capital of Eritrea, a country that recently split away from Ethiopia. Residents of the country have brought up the idea of creating a museum in honor of the poet – the Russian African. However, only a monument has been established to date.

Word of Pushkin the Poet spread not only throughout all of Russia and the European continent. In Africa, for example, there are monuments to Pushkin in Ghana and Ethiopia. In Addis-Ababa a monument to the poet was unveiled in 2002 in a central city square under accompaniment of a military orchestra. The monument, a work by Russian sculptor A.M. Balashov, was blessed by Patriarch Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. “We read [Pushkin’s] works in English and Italian. His creations are well known among us and the best poets and writers of Ethiopia have translated Pushkin’s works into Amharic. We hold this Russian poet dear, as his great grandfather was the son of an African prince, and we are confident of this. Pushkin in a sense was born here. A portrait of the great grandson of the Ethiopian is located not only in the museum but also in the world writers gallery of the university library,” said Assef Gabrie-Mariam, secretary of the Pushkin society in Ethiopia at the opening ceremony for the monument.  

This goes to show the great respect of African peoples toward our primary poet.

“In the village where Peter’s ward, the servant beloved of tsars and tsaritsas and the foregotten one who had lived in the same house with them, my ancestor the Blackamoor concealed himself, where, having forgotten the court and splendid solemn promises of Elizabeth, under the shade of linden lanes he thought in cool summers of his far-off Africa – I await you.”

Now, as we read Alexander Pushkin, we can think of hot Africa, the heroic warrior Gannibal and his grandson – the poet and hooligan, who was lucky enough to have remarkably interesting ancestors and an exotic pedigree.

Black can't be painted over
Can't correct it into white!
Not bad is the Russian classic,
Having once the African sky
Called his own…

These are the lines of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the poet’s biggest fans.

Africans, in turn, when visiting Russia have the opportunity to pay their respects at the Petrovskoye estate in Pushkinskiye Gory (Pskov region). The estate was bequeathed to Ibragim Gannibal by Empress Elizaveta. Today in excursions through the lands of Gannibal family, you can learn about three generations of this Russian-African family, which included state officials, generals and navy officers, who made major contributions to Russian history. You can also hear about how Alexander Pushkin worked in these parts on literature dedicated to the history of his family and Russia.

Maria Tokmasheva

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"And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
The great Russian word.
We will keep you free and pure,
And pass you on to our grandchildren,
Free from bondage forever!" Anna Akhmatova "Valor"

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