Tom Reiss (Crown Books)

(The Root) — In the recently released biography The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, author Tom Reiss introduces us to an 18th-century unsung black hero. With a biracial identity like that of re-elected President Barack Obama, General Alexandre Dumas had a major impact during the French Revolution. Yet he's not often the focus of history lessons taught in school.

The son of a black slave mother and a white French nobleman, Dumas' real-life triumphs inspired classic fictional tales such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, written by his son, Alexandre Dumas. During the height of slavery, he fought his way through the French Revolution as Napoleon's leading swordsman. "He's a black man who rose to be a four-star general — the highest rank for a man of color in an all-white army before Colin Powell," Reiss told The Root. Over the last decade, Reiss, 48, has worked to unpack the lost legacy of Dumas through in-depth international research, with often surprising results.

Advertisement

"Batman descended directly from The Count of Monte Cristo. He is completely inspired by that man who was inspired by General Alexandre Dumas," Reiss added. "Batman and a lot of our superheroes were inspired by a black man." He recently sat down with The Root to discuss why Dumas has been largely ignored and what motivated his obsession to cover him in his new book.

The Root: Why is Dumas' story so important to know?

Tom Reiss: It realigns the story of race and racism in the West. It makes you realize it's not what we think it is. Great things were done before by black people, and it's not all just happening now. Those great things can be suppressed and written out of history.

Advertisement

A painting in the 18th century was a way to celebrate public figures. So a great painter was to paint an incident in Dumas' career — one of the many acts of great heroism — when he saved the French army. But Napoleon gave an order to the painter to paint Dumas over with blonde hair and blue eyes. That painting still exists. It makes me wonder how many other important black and mixed-raced figures were swept under the rug.

TR: What intrigued you most about his life?

Reiss: He was very resourceful, finding his own inner resources when other people would give up. He was always the black man in a white man's world. As a kid he would have just been someone's property. But during his lifetime he finds opportunity no matter how impossible a situation looks.

During the wars, he got his first big order to go to one of the highest mountains in Europe. He commands 50,000 poorly supplied troops on this glacier who aren't dressed properly — they are all freezing. They have to fight these forces at the top of these mountains that have all the advantages. Dumas finds a way. He figures out how to teach his men to get warm clothing by trapping furs. That also gives them practice with their rifles because they are untrained.

He rose to the same rank as Colin Powell, which is mind-blowing. He never marched behind his soldiers. So if he was going to send guys in to do something impossible and dangerous, he would always go first in order to complete their mission. Everyone was surprised by this black man in a French uniform.

TR: Why do you think that he has been largely erased from history?

Reiss: The French wrote him out of history because the truth would be too uncomfortable and painful to confront. Why would they want to suppress somebody who would show that in fact their country for a time struck this great blow against racism and gave this wonderful man a chance to rise? You would think that they'd be proud of that. They don't want to admit that the guy who was the red, white and blue hero of the French revolution was black. The glory of his life reveals the pathetic and evil tragedy of how his life was undone. It makes them have to confront the hypocrisy of their history.

Advertisement

TR: In your acknowledgments, you say your mother Luce, a French victim of the Nazis, read a 1938 edition of The Count of Monte Cristo in an orphan's home after the war. That book is still in your parents' library. Is that what motivated you to write this account? 

Reiss: My theme throughout my work is trying to understand injustice. Because of my mother's Holocaust background and oppression, I feel a deep connection. Oppression and injustice were always at the forefront of my mind growing up. I always feel for a minority group who is being victimized.

Lathleen Ade-Brown is a freelance writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.