After a great World Series this year and a Yankee victory we took a cultural detour catching an off-Broadway production of Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies. What is really tragic is that so few of even our educated elite in America and Europe -- particularly those of African American ancestry -- know that Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet and literary genius, was of African descent. Arguably, Pushkin is one of the most significant figures in Russian history and world literature. He is credited with helping shape modern Russia’s character, its rich literary tradition, and its culture. So why aren't more American children learning about this stuff? The Cold War has long ended. And with President Obama’s popularity holding fast among black and Latino youth, English teachers could seize a teachable moment to introduce “at risk" students to a rare form of hero -- the literary genius.
Obama’s presidency has demonstrated that the "Joshua generation" (today's young people who will carry on the work of social justice and equality of opportunity begun by Civil Rights forbearers) will eagerly identify with successful black political heroes as positive role models apart from sports and entertainment figures. So why not consider a cerebral leap into more scholarly pursuits like English and World Literature, poetry and non-revisionist history to fire the imaginations and dreams of minority youth? Considering the huge appeal of Rap and spoken-word prose prevalent in today’s youth culture, Alexander Pushkin as a literary hero, albeit from an empire once deemed evil by an American president, would seem a natural focal point in the classroom for getting students interested in reading the classics.
Young facile minds in search of meaning typically fashion their heroines and heroes as idealistic, adventurers with single-mindedness of purpose; daring swashbucklers chalking up romantic quests, bristling with charisma. Any popular hero void of swarthy Hollywood stereotypic good looks and sex appeal must compensate by possessing true integrity or a combination of Herculean physical strength and unassailable moral courage and convictions. Hence individuals regarded as heroic can be as diversified by gender, physical qualities, and temperament as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, and Abraham Lincoln -- each sharing common traits as central figures of scholastic interest in discussions about what it means to be defined as a hero. Such discussions constitute a typical discourse within many K-through-post-secondary schools.
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is accorded heroic stature in Russian society to this day. He used his writings to explore humanity’s complexities, the beauty of nature, and human relationships, cultivating in Russians a fierce sense of national pride and identity through his works. According to Pushkin scholar Julian Lowenfeld, among Pushkin’s works are “Eugene Onegin, The Bronze Horseman, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Count Nulin and 16 volumes of inspired verse in an astounding array of forms, poetry, prose, fairy tales, histories, criticism, letters.” He is easily among the most revered personalities in all of Russian history. Lowenfeld states, “Pushkin is the fountainhead of Russian literary prose, writers from Gogol, to Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy to Chekhov all accord Pushkin the first and highest place in the great pantheon of Russian prose masters, with his most beloved works being his novel The Captain’s Daughter, and his peerless short stories, including The Queen of Spades, Dubrovsky, and The Tales of Belkin.”
So is it politically naive to ask how American educators can translate Pushkin -- an iconic Russian of undisputed African heritage -- with his prolific writings and colorful escapades, into an engaging, workable curriculum? Would such an effort raise the ire of conservative critics who would find such an innovation unthinkable, perhaps even treasonous, in light of lingering Cold War suspicions? Simply stated, Pushkin was able to convey universal themes and tap into human feelings through his ideas expressed in great prose and poetry. Like Shakespeare, Pushkin wrote fluently about common threads found in today's popular music: love, betrayal, rivalry, jealousy, sexual conquest , greed, and conspicuous consumption.
The Joshua generation of the Obama era, particularly young minority students, is no different from others before or to follow. They want to be led in ways that will empower them to make a difference. Black, Latino, and poor youth especially long to find meaning connected to their own relevant personal narratives and identities. The “Yes I Can"-ness of Obama’s candidacy and his ascendancy to the presidency of the USA challenged for many the notion of the powerless, hopeless "other" and shone a light on the power that ideas, discipline, intellect, and rhetoric can have in attaining personal and political success in America.
The fact that our nation elected as its President a person of African ancestry, one whose physical characteristics and cultural background for many resonate with the familiar, sparked a sense of national pride and heightened self esteem among even the most alienated of minority youth. For a great number of young people, coming of age means identifying with role models and heroes whose appeal is based on external cultural asthetics like looks, athleticism or accepted group norms deemed worthy of emulation.
Whether the hero embraced is President Barack Obama or Alexander Pushkin, the gravitas of
identity formation as a means for motivating young people and developing their positive self esteem should not be under-estimated.
In the July 23rd edition of the Alexander Pushkin Newsletter, Julian Lowenfeld references Pushkin’s pride in his African heritage and writes, “Pushkin inherited his great–grandfather's African features, including thick lips and somewhat frizzy hair and tan colored skin. On his desk he kept an ink well with a statuette of Negroes unloading cotton bales, and joked proudly of being a 'Moor.' The poet’s mother Nadyezhda Osipovna, nee Gannible, was known as 'la belle creole.' Her black grandfather, Ibrahim Gannible had been kidnapped in childhood from central Africa, sold by slave traders to the Turks and then sent as a gift to Tsar Peter The Great. Peter baptized the boy Abraham and raised him fondly and sent him to study military engineering at Vauban’s Academy in France. Abraham became Russia’s chief fortress builder and wrote textbooks in French on military engineering. He rose to the rank of General en Chef of the Imperial Russian Army. Upon retirement the former slave had become a Russian nobleman—owning 800 serfs (white slaves) himself. Proud of his African heritage he chose his last name in honor of the great Cartheginian general Hannibal.”
Pushkin biographers cite over 3,000 musical compositions by over 1,000 composers based on Pushkin’s works, including 41 operas, 19 ballets 20 symphonies and over 2,000 songs set to his lyrics. Pushkin’s voluminous output of works are said to mirror Russia’s soul and helped shape its national character, forging a common national identity among the Russian people. As with any life lived along epic proportions, Pushkin’s saga and generational influence are near mythical. The poet’s mystique is part of Russian folk lore and his enduring popularity is evident in Russian culture to this day.
What are some of the events that led to this impassioned, nearly religious zeal for Pushkin's talents? Lowenfeld seems to suggest a keen intellect, soaring rise to fame, passionate love trysts, multiple exiles , house arrests, censorship, espionage, and restrictions and hostility from imperial authorities and society alike. His keen wit and sense of integrity led him into at least twenty duels, the last fatal, when he was slain protecting his wife’s honor.
Perhaps Pushkin’s life story and impact alludes any American interpretation as hero,he is after all a foreigner. And as a nation, we are engaged in an ever evolving social experiment that challenges and expands our own national and cultural identity.Issues such as levels of immigration,bi-lingual education shifting demographic patterns and conservatives' anxieties around the loss of the elusive American character remain contentious. But since reading is so fundamental to developing self-esteem and competence, there must be some literary benefit to igniting the interest of so-called “at risk" youth who need every reason and encouragement to bolster healthy self esteem undaunted by gangs and violence. Many of these youth can be reached through role models, some through reading and media. Aspects of the life and works of Alexander Pushkin, can serve as an effective catalyst for studying classical literature and competing political ideologies without need of fearing a loss of the deep allegiance African American youth have for their American homeland.They can achieve academic success.Yes they can!