North Port, Florida - It would be a serious act of omission not to wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day. Some individuals complain that this Holiday of Love became too commercialized, but please, someone tell me, which holiday is not?
Happy Valentine’s Day to all, young and young at heart, both here and in Ukraine, which did not observe Valentine’s Day during the years while it was occupied by Communist Russia but now is celebrating and enjoying it.
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This being a month of African-American culture, my memory brings up an interesting aspect of my early education.
During my pre-teen and early teenage years growing up in Ukraine I never saw a person of African descent, because there were none in the area of Ukraine where I was born and grew up.
However, as soon as I mustered the art of reading, I became enamored by both poetry and life history of Taras Shevchenko, an individual born a serf who rose to the professorship of the Academy of Fine Arts in the imperial city of St. Petersburg in addition to being considered the most popular and most honored Ukrainian who ever lived.
Shevchenko had many admirers and friends during his brief life (he died at the age of 47), but my attention was directed to one particular friend, a renowned interpreter of Shakespearean tragedy on the European stage, African-American actor Ira Aldridge.
He was the first person of African heritage I got to know and like.
Having been born in New York and starting to act in plays during his teens, Ira soon realized that America was not the best place for a black actor. He made his way to England where he ended up spending years touring England. He was playing the title role in such works of Shakespeare as Othello, Macbeth and Richard III. His break came when a key actor in a London theater died and Ira was called to take over for the actor. He continued to perform Shakespeare’s works.
In 1852, Ira went on his first European tour where he earned great acclaim for his performances.
While performing in St. Petersburg, capital of Russia at that time, he met several writers and artists, including Taras Shevchenko, who were moved by his performances despite not understanding a word of the original English spoken by Aldridge. Soon Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko became very close friends. Both were born slave (Ira) and serf (Taras), both lost their mothers at the age of nine, and both commiserated about lack of freedom of their people.
During their meetings they had to use interpreters, but they sang together many songs, and eventually Shevchenko drew Ira’s portrait, and it was signed by both men. The portrait is now owned by the Shevchenko Museums in Kyiv where it can be seen.
Ira Aldridge died on August 7, 1867 in Lodz, Poland, where he was laid to rest.
I hope that some wealthy African-Americans will get together and arrange for the remains of the great actor Ira Aldridge to be moved from the foreign cemetery in Lodz, Poland, and laid to rest in one of the New York City’s cemeteries, for example, Frederick Douglas Cemetery of Staten Island.
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