Was the Father of Russian Lit a Brother?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out if Alexander Pushkin's African roots held meaning for him.

Alexander Pushkin, by V.A. Tropinin, 1827, Pushkin Museum

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).

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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.