Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In this peculiar age of ours, when Neo-Nazis are apparently getting a new and sympathetic hearing, it’s worth remembering those remarkable individuals, even national icons, who were not the race we typically think of them. There will be more posts like this one coming up.
Let’s begin with Alexandre Dumas, pere, the most popular French novelist of his time and author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils, the great French writer and playwright.
He was black.
More precisely, he was a “quadroon,” what people used to call someone who was one quarter black and three quarters white.
And the fact is that, other than Tom Reiss’s excellent 2012 Pulitzer-winning book, The Black Count, history has largely chosen to forget the remarkable half-black man who was Dumas’s father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, known as Alex Dumas. So much so that we still call the novelist Dumas pere, when he should’ve been Dumas Jr., and his son Dumas III.
Dumas Sr., the real Dumas Sr., was born in Haiti in 1762, at that time a French colony, to a ne’er-do-well French nobleman and his Haitian slave. When he was 14, his own father sold him into slavery before repurchasing him several months later and sending him to France.
In Paris, Dumas received an aristocratic education according to his father’s rank. And then in the uncommonly liberal atmosphere of the French Revolution — liberté, égalité, fraternité, and all that — he rose up through the ranks of the army of the French Republic as one of its bravest and best soldiers, a man whose remarkable exploits of strength and courage almost defied belief. At 24 he had entered the army as a private, the lowest rank. By 31 he was the General-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps.
But on the French expedition to Egypt, Dumas clashed with the new dictator, Napoleon. Sailing back from North Africa, his ship began to sink, and Dumas was forced to enter enemy harbor in the Kingdom of Naples in Italy. He was imprisoned for over two years.
By the time Dumas got back to France, Napoleon, who was always jealous of Dumas's abilities, had declared himself emperor. The age of liberalism, when one’s race did not matter, had ended. New Napoleonic laws made interracial marriages illegal, including Dumas’s marriage with his wife, the novelist’s white mother. Technically he was not even allowed to live in his own house; it was too close to Paris legally to accommodate a black man. And Neapolitan imprisonment had ruined his health. He died at the age of 43. No black man would achieve as high a rank as he did in a white man’s army until Colin Powell earned his fourth star.
His son, Dumas Jr., grew up in poverty. But he was raised on his mother’s stories of his father’s incredible feats. He knew where he came from. He knew his legacy. Dumas Jr. would come to base The Count of Monte Cristo on his father’s imprisonment in Naples.
And despite his fame, despite his contributions to French literature, despite the aristocratic rank he inherited from his father and grandfather, Dumas the novelist never escaped racial discrimination. I sympathize. In our own age, though, when white supremacy seems on the rise again, it's worth remembering what has been mostly forgotten: That both France's greatest novelist and France's greatest soldier were black.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."