I don't read too many biographies but I was excited to read The Black Russian because of its title and star Frederick Bruce Thomas. Although I hadn't heard anything about Thomas, my interest in a black Russian trumped his notoriety or lack thereof. The Black Russian tells the story of a man born in 1872 to freed slaves. His parents Lewis and India's farm in the Delta, became very prosperous. Of course, this didn't sit well with the times and their family was taken advantage of by a rich landowner. They fled their home in Mississippi to Memphis. It is because of these very circumstances that as an adult Frederick Thomas sought refuge in Europe.
After criscrossing and learning very useful trades in Europe, Thomas decides to go to Russia. In 1899 he makes the voyage and the rest is history... but not really. Alexandrov could have easily written this without Thomas, but the use of Thomas makes the story real and relatable. Thomas initially went to Europe to escape America but not for criminal reasons. He left because he wanted to be able to live like any human should be able to: Free. He chose not to live in Mississippi and risk getting lynched or in the poverty of the Chicago and New York slums. He wanted more and found that going to Europe would be his best bet.
Once arriving, the heavy cloak of his skin color was not the same burden as it was in America. His skin color was merely a way to describe his physical attributes. I love this! The hate he felt from Americans on account of his skin being black, did not exist in the countries he traveled to throughout Europe. In Russia and Constantinople, it was the same case. I should stop here because I don't want to give away the whole biography, which is powerful in it's own right.
Alexandrov helps the reader who isn't familiar with Russian history get a grasp of what was happening around Thomas during his time in Russia. The most detailed era is during the Russian Revolution of 1917. I noticed the strong cultural messages in this biography that are extremely relevant even today. There was mention of America's irony and how they abhorred the Russian's anti-semiticism (and rightfully so) but at that point in history, 1905-, the use of Jim Crow laws and the treatment of Chinese citizenship being blocked by racist laws proved just how hypocritical American's can be. How can America be such a huge beacon of light for the world when they won't change the problems they have?
Ultimately this is a biography worth reading of a man from humble beginnings who went to Europe and became successful. And then the Russian Revolution changed the rules dramatically. A man who was ousted because of his race was once more ousted because of his class. I think many will find this well researched biography an entertaining read. I couldn't help but be interested in this man's life. A black Russian is a rare thing and I'm glad the interest in wanting to know their experience, led me to this title. ****