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How a Poster Launched a Life


Silver Spring.-- It's fascinating what a mere poster can do.

Allison Blakely saw that poster at a Berkeley (Calif.) book store during his student days in the 1960s. It showed head sketches of a young black man by the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.

"I saw this face. And in a way it was like looking into a mirror," he recalls. He became haunted.

nTC Like many other African-Americans, he had little certitude about his roots beyond his family's history as Alabama sharecroppers. The Rubens sketches provided him a sudden 16th-century mystery relative.

The poster ushered the University of California student into foreign cultures. His activism in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee shifted into preoccupation with populism and industrialization in pre-revolutionary Russia.

"I'm a peasant," Allison Blakely explains, referring to his rural beginnings. "I always felt a kinship."

Today, Dr. Blakely, 53, is a professor of European history and comparative history at Howard University in Washington. He no longer is vexed by the burning questions of his youth -- "Who am I? Where do I come from?"

But the Rubens poster remains an inspiration: "My interest in history came initially from a very selfish or self-centered perspective: Where do I fit in the scheme of totality?"

That search has now produced a complex book, "Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society" (Indiana University Press). It is an attempt to explain the development of color prejudice in a country -- the country of Rubens' sketches! -- that is predominantly white but had centuries of colonial involvement.

Dr. Blakely became intrigued with the subject after observing how a mass influx of Surinamese in the early 1970s quickly hardened the country's previously liberal racial attitudes. How did this happen?

After reviewing the Dutch worldview, folklore, art, literature, religious traditions and the black presence over the centuries, Dr. Blakely concludes that prejudice in the Netherlands does not depend on the presence of racial conflict or even on a significant "colored" population.

"Bias becomes manifest when and where it becomes convenient or expedient," he suggests, likening a society's potential for racism to "a pathological virus."

Dr. Blakely bumped into this subject matter while in the Netherlands researching his "Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought."

The work, published by the Howard University Press, won the American Book Award in 1988.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many offspring of that country's small African-American community have moved to the United States. Some have written books, but none approaches Dr. Blakely's in historic sweep, comprehensiveness or painstaking scholarship.

I make this statement, having interviewed several of those black Russians in the 1980s. The original immigrants who had gone to the Soviet Union in search of a utopia had died away. Their children and grandchildren, by and large, appeared both ignorant and uninterested about their families' history.

The black presence in Russia predated the arrival of the African-American utopians of the 1920s by some 200 years.

The most prominent early black, an Ethiopian servant boy named Abram, arrived in Russia around 1700. He was a favorite of Peter the Great. Trained in France and Russia, he became known as Hannibal and ascended to the rank of a general in the Russian army.

Hannibal was the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian language literature. In poems throughout his life, Pushkin referred to his own African ancestry. (His fictionalized biography of Hannibal was never completed).

In contrast, the origin of some other early Russian blacks has never been conclusively proved. Among them are residents of a number of old "Negro" villages that existed along the Black Sea coast until World War II dispersal.

Dr. Blakely keeps updating his files on black Russians. But he has moved on -- to work on a book about democratic tradition in Russia.

Such a tradition existed in pre-revolutionary Russia, Dr. Blakely contends, even though later stereotyping would suggest otherwise.

"The Cold War mentality tended to blind most Americans to the possibility that there was this strain in Russian history," he says.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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