Khanga, Yelena 1962–
Yelena Khanga 1962–
The story of journalist Yelena Khanga and her family is stranger than many that appear in the pages of novels. A citizen of the former Soviet Union since her birth in 1962, Khanga can trace her roots to Poland, Tanzania, Mississippi, and several large American cities. Khanga’s attempts to track her tangled ancestry—and her discoveries about racism in both Russia and the United States—have formed the subject matter of her writings and have made her a minor celebrity on American shores. She is the author of Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family, 1865-1992, as well as numerous newspaper articles that detail her experiences in her native land and abroad. Chicago Tribune correspondent Dana Micucci wrote of Khanga: “Her layered heritage, a curiosity to others, to her is the most natural thing in the world.”
Many observers note that Khanga’s family history would make a good feature film. Her grandparents were devoted Communists who emigrated to the Soviet Union to escape American racism. Her mother was a Soviet tennis star and a scholar who married an African nationalist and was widowed shortly after Khanga was born. The author herself was the first female recipient of an important Soviet award that allowed her to spend several years working as an exchange journalist with the Christian Science Monitor. Khanga’s opportunities to travel the globe have brought her full circle back to her family’s roots and have given her a wider world view than she could have dreamed possible as a schoolgirl in Moscow. “In my country we are all Russians, no matter whether Jewish or Tartar,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Here [in America] it is fascinating; you have black American culture, and it is a whole different world, and I go and I feel myself at home. Then I feel comfortable with white people, so one day I can change this hat three or four times and appreciate everything. My life is three times richer than it was before.”
Yelena Khanga’s singular history began in the 1920s in New York City. Her grandfather, Oliver Golden, had moved there with a college degree in agronomy from the Tuskegee Institute but was unable to find any work in his field. In fact, like many other educated blacks, he found himself settling for menial jobs such as janitorial work and serving as a porter on a train. Khanga told Elle magazine that her grandfather—the son of a prosperous black landholder in Mississippi—”got involved in the American Communist movement when the first white man to shake his hand, a Communist, explained to him that there was no racism in the Communist party.”
Surname is pronounced Han-ga; born in 1962 in Moscow, former Soviet Union; daughter of Abdulla (onetime vice president of Zanzibar) and Lily (a historian and educator; maiden name, Golden) Khanga. Education: Moscow State University, B.A., 1984.
Journalist and writer, 1984—. Worked several years for Moscow World News; exchange journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, beginning 1987; lecturer in the U.S., 1992—.
Addresses: c/o W. W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110.
Khanga’s grandparents met in jail. They had both been arrested during a union demonstration in Manhattan, and they struck up a conversation in the holding cell while awaiting bail offers. Khanga’s grandmother, Bertha Bialek, was the daughter of Polish immigrants and was Jewish. When Bertha’s family came to bail her out, she pleaded with them to pay Golden’s bail as well—introducing him as her “new friend.” Her shocked parents refused. Later, as love blossomed between the black Mississippian and the white Jewish New Yorker, Bertha Bialek’s family disowned her. The couple married in the 1920s and found that they faced racism on all sides. They spent more and more time engaged in Communist party activities.
Khanga told Elle: “It was very hard for them to live in New York. In Harlem, they had to pay twice the rent because they were an interracial couple. My grandparents were dreaming about a land where there was no racism and nobody would have an opinion about them.… My grandfather was a specialist in agriculture but he couldn’t find a job in his profession because he was black. He knew that in Russia there were thousands of white Americans working. My grandfather thought that if white Americans can go there, earn lots of money, and build a new society, why can’t blacks do the same thing? He decided to get a group of African-American specialists in agriculture to go there and try to build a new society where everybody is equal—and he’d be able to use his skills.”
All told, sixteen American blacks traveled to Russia with Khanga’s grandfather in 1931. The group was sent to the city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, near the Afghanistan border. There they were accorded privileges in keeping with their status as visiting scholars as they introduced techniques for growing improved crops for consumption and import. Soviet historians now credit this group of black agronomists with introducing an important new strain of cotton to the country. Today in Tashkent, Khanga’s grandfather is still called “the Cotton King.” Members of the group had signed three-year contracts to serve in the Soviet Union. At the end of those three years—with Stalin’s grip tightening over the fledgling Communist nation—most of the black Americans returned home. But Khanga’s grandparents stayed.
Khanga told the Chicago Tribune: “My grandparents intended to return from Russia, but decided to stay after my mother was born to protect her from the racism she would have faced in America. That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union. But there my family experienced more discrimination for their Jewish and American roots than for being black, especially during the Stalin era.” After Khanga’s grandfather died in 1940, her grandmother and mother moved to Moscow. There they were shadowed by the KGB (an acronym for the Russian secret police) but managed to live comfortably on the grandmother’s salary as a college professor. Any time the talk turned to America, the final decision rested upon memories of racism: Khanga’s grandmother felt that opportunities for her child would be better in Russia than they ever might be in the country she had left behind.
Khanga’s mother, Lily Golden, studied at the prestigious Moscow University, earning the Russian equivalent of a Ph.D. in African music. She was also a nationally-ranked tennis star. Khanga told the Chicago Tribune of her mother: “I’m not sure she would have had the same opportunity here [in America], being a black woman.” In 1960, Lily Golden married a diplomat from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) named Abdulla Khanga. One daughter, Yelena, was born in 1962. By then Abdulla Khanga had returned to Zanzibar as vice president for a short-lived regime. He was assassinated when Yelena was two.
Khanga grew up in the company of her mother and grandmother, knowing little of her African roots and even less about her white Jewish relatives in America. She told the Christian Science Monitor that as a young student in Moscow, she “was never made to feel less intelligent, less capable, less likely to achieve than my white schoolmates.” Nevertheless, she did feel different and realized that her special cultural heritage made her an outsider. Like her mother she was adept at tennis, and during her teen years she traveled the Soviet Union as a member of the Army tennis team. After finishing public school she attended Moscow State University, where she majored in journalism. She graduated in 1984.
In 1987, after several years with the Moscow World News, Khanga was selected to participate in a Soviet journalist exchange with an American newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor. She was the first female journalist ever to be so honored by the Soviet system, and she has since said that Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (“openness”) helped her career significantly. At any rate, she quickly became a celebrity as her story began to unfold in the American press. She was profiled on the television news show 20-20 and was interviewed by reporters from many major urban newspapers. It was then that Yelena Khanga began to find her long lost family.
First, a cousin of her late grandfather recognized his picture in the 20-20 segment. Connections began to be established between Khanga and the Golden clan, which had scattered from Mississippi to Chicago and elsewhere in America. Khanga decided to research her family tree, and she was helped to do so by a grant from the Rockefeller foundation. At first she was unwilling to try to contact her grandmother’s white relatives, fearing further rejection from the family that had disowned her ancestor. She overcame her reluctance, however, and in 1991 many of her grandparents’ relations—black and white, Jewish and Christian—gathered at an immense family reunion in her honor. It was a high point in Khanga’s life.
“It was shocking,” she remembered in Elle. “There were more than 100 guests. We had a Jewish rabbi and a black minister. The musicians included a black band—a Mississippi blues band—and a Jewish band. At the end, blacks were dancing Jewish dances and the Jewish people were doing the electric slide. We ate kosher chitlins! I don’t know where else you would see so many black and white people dancing together.” In the days that followed, Khanga journeyed to Mississippi to visit the farm her great-grandfather had owned there. She took a jar of earth from the spot for her return trip to Moscow.
The Rockefeller grant also accorded Khanga the opportunity to meet her father’s family in Tanzania. She discovered that her paternal grandfather had been an iman, or Muslim holy man. She told Elle that while in Tanzania, she met her father’s mother for the first time. “It was very moving,” she recalled. “She was 96 years old, and she never, ever thought she’d see me. She doesn’t speak Russian, she doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Swahili, so it was hard to talk at first. But guess what her first question was: ‘So, are you married?’…When I first met my Jewish relatives in Los Angeles, they said, ‘So, Yelena, are you married?’ No matter if you’re Muslim or Baptist, the first question is, ‘Are you married?’”
Khanga collected her impressions of her family history, her own history, and her upbringing as a black Russian in Soul to Soul, which was published in 1992. Washington Post Book World contributor Gary Lee wrote of the book: “While Soul to Soul is not the definitive tale of race relations in Russia … it is one of the richest and most emotional personal stories to come out of Russia in the last few years. It is richly authentic, full of anecdotes that only someone with Khanga’s perspective could tell.…The ultimate value of this book does not rest on the author’s observations about race, however, but on her narrative of how she—and her mother and grandparents before her—juggled their existences on the vast and often wobbly bridge between the Russian and American continents and emerged from the experience successfully. At a time when East and West are groping for a common language, there is an important message here for readers of any nationality or race.”
Today both Khanga and her mother are living in America. Khanga has received a study fellowship to Harvard University and is supporting herself as a writer and lecturer. Her mother teaches in Chicago. From her widely divergent family heritage—and her upbringing in the Soviet Union—Khanga has come to feel both at home everywhere and slightly different from everyone she meets. Before a New York audience at an authors’ luncheon in 1993, she drew cheers when she concluded: “Who am I? I am a citizen of the world.”
Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family, 1865-1992, Norton, 1992.
Work has appeared in the Moscow World News, the Christian Science Monitor, and other periodicals in the United States and abroad.
Boston Globe, November 30, 1992, p. 52.
Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1990, p. 1; November 1, 1992, p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 1992, p. 11.
Elle, February 1993, p. 64-66.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), October 11, 1992, p. 36; May 13, 1993, p. 106.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1993, p. B-l.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1992, p. 19.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 1993, p. 3.
Washington Post Book World, December 20, 1992, p. 2.
—Anne Janette Johnson