A View from the East

[Jelani Cobb]

Some years back I made a resolution to ignore the second half of any sentence that began with the words "We are the only people who..." Almost always the next clause featured some shortcoming of the race and after years spent drenched in the backwaters of Afrocentrism (the patchouli era), I'd had my fill of black specificity.

"We are the only people," came to be an advance warning that I was talking to someone who probably didn't know much about any people other than (a small segment of) black ones. More subtly, an expression of the speaker's fixation on the values of a wider world they both rejected and envied.

I spent the past spring semester teaching African American history at Moscow State University. People tend to toward a common reaction when I mention this. "What was that like?" The inflection hinting that two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia -- at least in the minds of Americans -- remains foreign in a way that few other places are. There's a lot I could say about that experience but the shorthand version is the we are not the only people.

Half the horror of racism was the creation of a set of artificial specifics about black people, the idea that the trials, problems, shortcomings and quirks of one community are in no way reflective of the general folly of human behavior. And, on some understandable level, it made sense that generations of black folk fought back by forging another set of specifics, equally artificial but like steroids for the self esteem. (This is where the line about Great Kings and Queens in Africa goes.) I needed that at some point -- which is how my middle name came to be Swahili as opposed to "Anthony." But live long enough and you inevitably come to the conclusion that the world is actually bigger than a cotton field.

In the thirteen years I've been teaching African American history, the common theme has been the way in which the black experience has stood outside of, and therefore defined, American democracy. But from the first day in my classroom at Moscow State University, the unintentional theme was the common threads of the past and its weight in the present. Paul Robeson once said that of all the places he'd visited, Russians reminded him the most of Negroes. He had a point.

Russia's serfs were freed just two years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In addressing the question of what was to be done with the ex-slave population, the radical Republican Charles Sumner argued that the country should look to the example of the former Russian serfs who were being given their own small plots of land to farm (an inspiration for that failed 40 acres and a mule idea).

In the 20th century, black leaders from Marcus Garvey to A. Philip Randolph looked at the Russian Revolution as a hopeful sign believing that if the ridiculed and rejected Russians could rise up and throw off the yoke of corrupt tsars there was hope for black people suffering under Jim Crow and colonialism.

During World War II somewhere between 20-25 million Soviet citizens were killed, meaning on its most basic terms, that they lost more people in four years than died in the entire course of the Transatlantic slave trade. I've always believed it to be a moral felony to compare tragedies by stacking one set of casualties against another. Those comparisons invariably dismiss the suffering of one group and death after all can only be understood in individual terms. But in Moscow that staggering number served a different purpose, as a reminder of mutual threads.

Moscow is a hard place. A diplomat I spoke to pointed to the life span of Russian men being 57 years (roughly 11 years shorter than black men in America), the divorce rate of nearly 60% and the problems of alcoholism and crime that are in some way a legacy of the recent past. But at the same time I have never been in a place with people more fiercely proud of their culture. The random cab driver can quote Pushkin. People consistently asked me how much Americans knew about the classics of Russian literature and music.

I traveled 7000 miles and found myself immersed in a culture that was defined, but not destroyed by brutal history, whose people bore the mark of that past even as they took pride in the fact that other people might not have survived such trials. Familiar.

One of the high points of the semester came when students took me to hear a Russian blues band perform. They took the stage and boldly announced that the audience would hear the real blues that night. I was the only black person in the audience, in the building, in the neighborhood. And no, I don't play an instrument.

In short, I was reminded of that blues truth that suffering doesn't recede into the past, it gets handed down through history like an inheritance. What one chooses to do with that inheritance is ultimately the only thing that matters.

So no, we aren't the only people. And the only problem comes with needing to be.