We love books! They provide solace and great company, provoke thought, and, if you’re fortunate, you can gain a bit of scholarship and infinite wisdom to help along with life. Throughout the course of history, books have proven to be instrumental to DE&I. Retrospectives of authors who created literary gems do
wonders for illuminating the impact of their works. Just the thought of the backdrop in which authors — Jane Austen, Mahatma Gandhi, James Baldwin, and so many others — had to live their lives evidences their intrepidity and brilliance.
For Black History Month, we have selected an author whose literary genius was so impactful that his work prevailed over stigmas of race and class. His imagination and creative storytelling were so powerful that they captured the spirit of transformative thoughts and ideas and changed the world.
The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have always been deemed “classics” and were, once upon a time, even required reading for us as children. These works precede the name “Alexandre Dumas” as it relates to any element of literary recognition. And yet, these books and others he wrote have left an indelible mark in literature and in the world in general. Alexandre Dumas was a French literary titan who, despite being constantly confronted with discrimination, became a household name of the 19th century.
Take a moment, if you will, and contemplate a mixed-race child of African and Haitian/French ancestry emerging as one of the foremost authors of all time!
Thomas-Alexandre was born in the French colony of Saint Dominique (now known as Haiti). He was the son of Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman of “mixed” Haitian ancestry, and Marie-Cessette Dumas, an African slave.
Alexandre-Antoine Davy brought the teenage Thomas-Alexandre to France, where he was educated in military schools. He entered the military shortly after his schooling, and it was there that he actually took on the last name Dumas (the last name of his paternal grandmother) and the pen name of Alexandre Dumas.
The military tours of both Dumas and his father are romantic stories in and of themselves. Alexandre-Antoine Davy, Dumas’s father, rose to the rank of General in the French army under Napoleon, which at the time was the highest rank of any person of color in any European army. Although well-renowned under Napoleon, the relationship soured. Davy got into a spat with Napoleon, resulting in his exile and imprisonment in Italy. Dumas’s military career was illustrious as well. However, the matter of his father butting heads with Napoleon ultimately resulted in him having to leave France and take up residence in other European countries — first Belgium, then Russia and Italy before returning to France after Napoleon was ousted.
Like so many authors, Dumas was not afforded the time to write through some generous patronage of the arts. He worked initially as a notary and then as a Secretary to the Duke of Orleans, who later became French King Louis Phillipe. Simultaneously, Dumas immersed himself in literature and literary circles. His prolific career started with writing a number of plays — both comedies and dramas. He wrote for magazines and wrote a vast collection of travel books and cookbooks. From there, Dumas’s career flourished, and he is credited with well over 40 novels.
Since the early 20th century, Dumas’s novels have been adapted into nearly 200 films and translated into more than 100 languages. Strangely, perhaps the greatest recognition of Alexandre Dumas as a celebrated writer came in 2002 (the bicentenary date of his birth) when French President Jacques Chirac held a ceremony honoring the author by having his ashes interred at the mausoleum of the Pantheon, where
numerous other French luminaries are buried. This ceremony was performed with great pomp and circumstance — an exquisite coffin draped in a blue velvet cloth and carried on a caisson flanked by four mounted Republican Guards, thus symbolizing the four Musketeers; and the event was nationally televised. During the ceremony, President Chirac acknowledged for the first time the racism that Dumas had to contend with, and that continues to exist in France.