How Race Played a Role in the Life and Work of Alexandre Dumas

Infatuated, half through conceit, half through love of my art, I achieve the impossible working as no one else ever works…” 

…once said Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was known for writing beloved adventure novels such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. He was also known for his driven, kind, and original personality. What most people don’t know, however, was that Alexandre Dumas was Black.

 

 

Born in France in 1802, Dumas was the son of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, one of the highest-ranking men of African descent to lead a European army. Dumas’s paternal grandparents were a French nobleman and an enslaved Haitian woman. He was a “quadroon,” or someone who was a 1/4th black.

 

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Because his family was of noble rank, Alexandre was able to begin working under the Duke of Orleans at the age of fourteen. While employed by the Duke, he began writing for various magazines and writing plays. Like his father before him, he took on his grandmother’s name Dumas. His first two plays, Henry III and his Courts and Christine, were both wildly successful, allowing him to pursue writing in his free time. He soon switched to writing novels, rewriting his play Le Capitaine Paul to be a serialized novel. His writing became known everywhere, being translated into English and several other languages. This success led to a lavish lifestyle of travel and excess. Unfortunately, Alexandre Dumas passed away from a heart attack in December 1870. He left behind a body of work and a legacy full of adventure.

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Despite his noble background and success as a writer, Dumas had faced discrimination and racism due to ancestry and race. He wrote the novel, Georges, in 1843, which was about the son of a biracial plantation owner who faces discrimination due to his ancestry, despite appearing to be white. When he finds out his brother is sailing a slave ship, he leads a slave revolt. The revolt fails, and he is condemned to death but is saved at the last minute by his friends. Other than this, Dumas rarely wrote about race but did not suffer racism lightly. When someone tried to mock his ancestry, Dumas replied with trademark wit:

“My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a negro, and my great-grandfather was a monkey. You see, sir, my family starts where yours ends.”

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Alexandre Dumas was known for his thrilling stories, his equally thrilling life, and his incredible body of work. Now he can be remembered as a part of Black History too.

Featured image courtesy of blackhistory.com