Moscow and the Harlem Renaissance: The LIT Podcast

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Es-pranza Humphrey is an MA student in American Studies at Columbia University studying early twentieth-century performance history with a concentration on Black showgirls during the interwar period. She is also an educator at the New-York Historical Society and works closely with the program coordinator in the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.

Emily Taing received her MA from the American Studies Program at Columbia University with a thesis called “The Continuum of Captivity: Judicial Genealogy of Cambodian Refugees in the United States.”

The LIT podcast, created within the framework of Jennifer Wilson’s seminar “Harlem and Moscow,” is a space to discuss specific pieces of literature in relation to current events and trends. The first three episodes focus on the intersection between Russian literature and contemporary topics, connecting American popular culture to the works of notable Russians. Each episode discusses a broad theme meant to spark conversations relating to academia and contemporary issues surrounding race, politics, gender, and much more.  Most importantly, the LIT podcast will introduce a broader public to important Russia-related scholarship and literature, for instance the works of Alexander Pushkin, inspiring interest in the interconnected nature of literature, history, and popular culture.

The first episode, “Blackface,” explores how pop culture and blackface influences the mass image of blackness in Russia and the United States. We discuss the Russian cartoon film Katerok [Little Boat] (1970), which features a visit to the pseudo-African locale of “Chunga-Changa,” using it to frame a conversation about the use of token black characteristics as a means of perpetuating stereotypes and caricatures and reinforcing a racial hierarchy in which the Black image is controlled by non-Black racial groups. 

The second episode, “Colorism,” asks the question: “Was Alexander Pushkin Black and why does it matter?” We investigate this question through a discussion of Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch’s article “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution,” which describes the ways Maoism influenced many Black radical movements and individuals. We then consider case studies related to the topic of colorism, for instance the contemporary history of African immigration to China. 

The last episode, “Tokenism,” connects Alexander Pushkin’s The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) with the concept of a “token character” in US-based culture. We consider Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Ludmilla A. Trigos’ descriptions of “Russian noble families [acquiring] black servants as a way of keeping up with the fashion for the exotic even a century after Peter’s reign” and the implications for an American culture in which businesses, news outlets, and entertainment industries continue to tokenize people of color.