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Alexander Pushkin as a “Black European” Writer

Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy

I would like to propose a contribution to the “Black European Studies” conference which, I believe, best fits the workshop topic “Representing Black European History,” although it broaches a number of the other suggested questions, most specifically the question: What is the relationship of categories like nation, gender, class and racialization to the category Black Europe? To this I would like to add a couple of further questions.

First of all, building on Henry Louis Gates’ contention that race is a “metaphor,” the question arises of how blackness as a metaphor has varied and migrated between and across European borders. A consequent question following from this is: How has blackness taken as the metaphorical “residue” of the existence of “real” black Europeans functioned as an essential component of the construction of European national identities?

To clarify how I see the significance of these points with regard to my own work and to my proposed contribution to the conference, let me first outline the context of my own ongoing research. For the past eight years I have been involved as originator, co-editor, and contributor in a book project shortly to come to fruition: “Under the Sky of My Africa”: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness. The book, which will be published by Northwestern University Press this autumn, constitutes a collection of essays exploring from various perspectives the significance of Pushkin’s African great-grandfather Abram Gannibal to the poet’s self-perception and to the evolution of the Pushkin cult after the poet’s death, a cult that ultimately became a powerful political force in late tsarist and Soviet Russia and remains potent in Russia even today.

What we discovered in the course of working on the book was that far from being merely a curious—and racially neutral—fact of Pushkin’s biography, his African heritage was crucial to the poet’s self-creation in his art and, perhaps more important, to the construction of Pushkin as a metaphor for Russian self-definition and imperial ambitions during the past two centuries. In the most succinct terms, Pushkin’s blackness appears as an inherent component of Russianness in that the defining trait of the latter becomes precisely the ability to appropriate the black other and to make that other quintessentially its (Russia’s) own.

In my contribution to the Black European Studies Conference I propose to extend my work on Pushkin beyond the boundaries of Russia by looking at the Poet’s reputation in Western Europe in order to explore how representations of his blackness were ignored, acknowledged, or diversely contextualized in the reception of the poet’s work in different European countries. I plan to focus my study on translations of Pushkin’s unfinished novel based on the life of Abram Gannibal, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, into various European languages, looking particularly at the timing and presentation of such translations. I hope through this comparative study of Pushkin receptions across Europe to get at the two questions that interest me most in my ongoing work: How do we “capture” the elusive traces of cultural difference and how are Russians—as what Martin Bernal terms “fringe Europeans”—constructed as Russians, here seen through the prism of race, in Western Europe.

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