Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 83: Which famous 19th-century French author had African ancestry?
When I was a teenager falling in love with books, had anyone told me that three of the most beloved characters in world literature, The Three Musketeers, had sprung from the pen of a black man, I would have said, Get out of town. And when I heard rumors about the author’s ancestry in college, I wondered whether it was more legend than fact, akin to the myth that Beethoven was black. It turns out that this happens to be true: Alexandre Dumas was both a Frenchman and a black man, and retelling his story reinforces the more important point that imagination should not be shackled by skin color.
Recall, earlier in this series we read about Napoleon’s “Black Devil,” Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the black man born to a French nobleman and a slave who ascended to the highest ranks of the French military during that country’s revolution only to end up in an Italian dungeon and a poor man’s grave. I mentioned then that Gen. Dumas would have the last laugh, thanks to his son, Alexandre Dumas père (meaning “father,” sort of like “senior” in English to distinguish from a “junior” of the same name). And that son would become one of the most influential writers in history.
Dumas’ most popular works, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, have engrossed readers and actors for years. Yet many literary historians simply chose to erase his racial origins, leaving most readers, until recently, to assume the default: that the author of those works had to be white in order to write so vividly about white people, even though his race was anything but a secret during his own lifetime. In fact, when I mention Dumas and Russian writer Alexander Pushkin in the introductory lecture to a course I teach at Harvard University with Lawrence Bobo, our students appear shocked to learn that both had black ancestry.
Alexandre Dumas père was born in Villers-Cotterêts, France, on July 24, 1802, to parents Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Marie-Louise Laboruet. He was one-quarter black, as Richard Stowe, author of the 1976 biography Alexandre Dumas père, recounts. Dumas’ godfather was supposed to have been Napoleon Bonaparte, but, as Dumas told it, the arrangement was dropped after his father and the future French emperor became enemies. Gen. Dumas died in 1806, yet through his absence, he loomed even larger in his son’s mind. “I adored my father,” Dumas is quoted as saying in Tom Reiss’ 2012 book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. “Perhaps, at so early an age, the feeling which today I call love was only a naïve astonishment at that Herculean stature and that gigantic strength I’d seen him display on so many occasions; perhaps it was nothing more than a childish pride and admiration. … But, in spite of all that, even today the memory of my father, in every detail of his body, in every feature of his face, is as present to me as if I had lost him yesterday.”
The general’s death hurt in other ways, for despite his high military rank, his pension was withheld. Dumas, growing up in poverty, also was convinced that the vengeful Napoleon had blocked his admission to any military school or civilian college, according to Reiss.
The Beginnings of a Literary Career
Dumas’ mother, a widow and single parent, “exercised little authority over [her son], rearing him with abundant affection but almost in spite of herself letting him do whatever he wished,” Stowe writes, so that “Dumas at seventeen or eighteen was as learned in the ways of the woods as he was little schooled.” The seeds of Dumas’ literary ambitions were planted around age 16, when he met Adolphe de Leuven, the teenage son of a Swedish nobleman, on vacation in Villers–Cotterêts. Dumas, whose résumé at that point was still thin, as a notary’s apprentice, was captivated by de Leuven’s tales of Parisian life.