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Black Renaissance Noire
N°1, Vol.2, 1997, NYU (New York University) p.198-202 Extracts

Extraits

A Negro in Moscow by Dwayne Woods

It is generally known that the great-grand-father of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was of African descent. Beyond this fact, however, little else is known about him. Much of the literature on Pushkin provides only vague and contradictory details about his African ancestor. By the end of the 19th century, many Russian historians claimed that Pushkin's great-grand-father was either a Moor from North Africa or an Ethiopian. Finally, Dieudonné Gnammankou, a historian and linguist from Benin, has written a well-documented and insightful study of Pushkin's African ancestor that corrects many misconceptions...

In the late 19th century, Russian historians claimed, without any firm evidence to back it up, that Pushkin's great grand-father came from Ethiopia. They settled on Ethiopia because they believed it was more civilized than other parts of the "dark continent." Influenced by Darwinian theories of race, Russian historians had a difficult time dealing with Pushkin's Negro ancestor; some claimed that Pushkin's temperamental character was due to the African blood in his veins. But in his biography, Gnammankou shows that most of what Russian historians and biographers of Pushkin have had to say about his great-grandfather has little to do with the facts...

Gnammankou argues that Hannibal came from a village bordering what is today Chad and Cameroon...he provides strong circumstancial evidence that exceeds by far the speculative claims that the Russian Negro hailed from Ethiopia...

19th century Russian historians sought to square Pushkin's essential Russian character with his African ancestor. Unlike Peter the Great, many of these historians were convinced that genes mattered more than environment and were determined to identify how Pushkin's African ancestor shaped his character. Reflecting the prevalent racist conceptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, they generally assigned Pushkin's negative traits to his African great-grand-father: his love of gambling and women and his hot temper. However, his poetic gifts and intuitive understanding of the "Russian soul" were ascribed to his Russian ancestry. But Hannibal's examplary life exposes the obvious nonsense of this interpretation; after his second marriage, there is no evidence that he was a womannizer, and unlike Pushkin, Hannibal managed his financial affairs well...

As for Pushkin, he was always proud of his African blood; he never saw it as a drawback and in fact wrote a sketchy biography of Hannibal and referred to him in some of his poems...

Gnammankou has written an insightful and detailed biography of Pushkin's Negro ancestor that works on two levels. On one level, it is a historical narrative that provides the reader with facts and dispels the misconceptions surrounding Pushkin's great-grandfather. On another level, the book reads like a good detective novel, where the author seeks to clear up the mystery of how and why this African ended up in Russia. Both levels are superbly handed, and the book as a whole is written in scrip and jargon-free French...

By writing such a book, Gnammankou has set the stage for future work on Blacks in the Diaspora. While Hannibal was an isolated case in Russia, he was not the only black who was taken as a slave and accomplished remarkable things in a foreign environment. Little has been written about the role of African slaves in the Ottoman Empire, in the salt marshes of Southern Iraq, and in the military in India and North Africa. Hopefully, Dieudonné Gnammankou's detailed biography of Hannibal will serve as an impetus for this type of research in the future.

Dwayne Woods, Assoc. Prof. Purdue University

 

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