During his three years at the northeast boarding school, Phillips Academy, Frank Mercer '21 became a passionate student of Russian language and literature.
However, it was a conversation this year with Mr. Elbert Watson, NA's Dance Master, that introduced Mercer to a notable and surprising fact about Alexander Pushkin, a man widely considered to be Russia's greatest poet and the founding father of the modern Russian language. Pushkin was Black, the great-grandson of an African enslaved man, Abram Hannibal, who was raised in the court of the emperor, Peter the Great, and went on to become a Russian general.
Mercer offered a chapel talk on Pushkin on Friday, February 26, as an effort to expand the scope of the teaching about Black history and achievement.
“In light of our current socio-political climate, the need for unconventional Black stories to be integrated into our history lessons is at its highest," he said. “We need to dismantle the idea that the only thing people of color have been doing for the past few centuries is fighting for their basic human rights and protesting white patriarchy. People of color are much more than that. It's important for us to tell other Black stories because hearing Black stories not only sparks inspiration in the minds of Black students, but it imbues a sense of pride in our history."
Pushkin's life story is one of nearly unsurpassed literary achievement, yet one that is little known to many Americans, despite numerous monuments and even museums dedicated to him in Russia. Pushkin, who lived from 1799 to 1837 -- he died at a tragically early age as the result of a duel -- used his writing to advocate for freedom and human rights. His poems were often read to African immigrants who arrived in Russia, signaling the country's acceptance, Mercer said. Pushkin's emphasis on freedom permeated his works, as Mercer demonstrated with lines from a poem: “There is no happiness in this world/Only peace and freedom."
Pushkin took great pride in his great grandfather's achievements and wrote a 30-page novel, The Negro of Peter the Great (also rendered in English as The Moor of Peter the Great), in which he modeled the main character upon Abram Hannibal. That novel talked “about his experiences as a Black man in Russia and dissected how his great grandfather's legacy was crucial to his poetry," Mercer said.
Mercer exhorted the faculty and classmates to view Black History Month as a reminder to continue engaging with Black history beyond the confines of a single month, and to continue “learning from and about Black leaders and their accomplishments."
He closed by reading in Russian a few lines from Pushkin's masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, a novel written in verse. After reciting in Russian, he provided a translation:
Sad that our finest aspiration
Our freshest dreams and meditations,
In swift succession should decay,
Like Autumn leaves that rot away.