Black Like Him: Pushkin References in James Patterson's 1993 Poetry

Romy Taylor, University of Southern California

James Patterson, Soviet naval officer, Russian poet, and, for the past year or so, American immigrant, was born in Moscow in 1933 to a black American expatriate father and Russian mother. Patterson was chosen to play the mixed-race toddler in the 1936 film Circus, and his appearance there—as a black/white baby embodying the best aspects of (Soviet) Russian culture—led viewers, such as Paul Robeson, to draw parallels to Pushkin. When Patterson began writing poetry in the late 1950s, he encouraged these parallels: throughout his work, Patterson makes both overt and oblique references to Pushkin, including one early poem in which he asks Pushkin to approve the comparison. Whether Patterson was simply tapping into what every Pushkin-toting Soviet citizen would have thought of themselves, or whether his treatment managed to turn a distant link to Pushkin into a distinct one, the connection solidified. Patterson was invited to speak at Pushkin festivals, emphasizing their parallel roles as poets who were at once partly Black and fully (Soviet) Russian, while photographs of Patterson with sketches of Pushkin in the background stress their physical resemblance.

In Patterson's most recent published poetry, a 1993 booklet h1d Nochnye strekozy, alongside a new degree of introspection we find layer upon layer of Pushkin references. The collection's opening poem, "Boldinskaia osen'," is particularly laden with these references: Pushkin's 1830 productivity, aided by quarantine, is recalled in the light of his 1827 "Poet" ("Poka ne trebuet poeta"), which serves as unspoken framing device, motivating Patterson's breaking of poetic silence.

Like Pushkin, Patterson was also interested in his Black ancestors. Pushkin's unfinished project on Hannibal, Arap Petra Velikogo, compares with Patterson's interest in the life of his paternal grandmother, a worker's leader with Communist sympathies, whose 1937 autobiography Patterson republished in 1964 with his own thoughts interspersed in the text. Furthermore, nearly every Patterson publication included a photograph and mention of his father. To what extent was a link with Pushkin and exploration of his own Black ancestry necessary for Patterson's self-identity? To what extent do issues of Pushkin and Blackness underpin Patterson's poems? In discussing Pushkin and Blackness in Patterson's life and work, I will focus on his 1993 poems, using analysis of lexicon, word-combinations, modes of discourse, rhyme and meter. I will also draw on contemporary discourse on Black identity and autobiography, James Brown's 1993 AATSEEL paper on "Iur'evu" (and self-hatred), and more recent interpretations of Pushkin's blackness in essays soon to appear in Under the Sky of My Africa: Pushkin and Blackness.