A Black Count Who Inspired a Legend
A biographer recounts the life of Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist.
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.
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.