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Race, Revolution, and Robespierre


The Black Count:

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

By Tom Reiss

Crown, $27, 414 pp.

Review by David Forsmark

It sounds like one of those goofy Black History Month blog posts put out by an activist — hey, did you know the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo was really black … and his name was Alexandre Dumas?

The first thought that crossed my mind while reading The Black Count — the fascinating new book by Tom Reiss — was "why the heck hadn’t anyone written a major biography of General Alex Dumas before 2012?" This was immediately followed by “why the heck do we have Black History Month if it’s not going to uncover and publicize this man’s story?”

First, to avoid any confusion, the book’s subject is not the 19th century author who penned such adventure classics as The Three Musketeers, The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Rather, this is the tale of the writer’s father, who is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be.

Reiss, author of The Orientalist, presents the story of the son of a French aristocrat and a Dominican slave who rose through the ranks of the French army through feats of incredible valor, only to be betrayed by racist backlash. In the process, Reiss offers a unique look at the first modern-style totalitarian government to be born of revolution.

The Black Count begins in the slave-trading world of colonial France, an oddly hybrid system where French legal protections for people of mixed race clashed with perhaps the most brutal form of European-sponsored slavery in the New World.

Alex enters the historical record at the age of 14, when his father, a rebellious French nobleman who disappeared into the Haitian wilds with his slave mistress, returns after a years-long absence to reclaim his inheritance. Alex, however, is his father’s sole companion when they return to France; his mother and sisters were sold off by his father before the journey. Alex, in fact, was recorded as his father’s slave upon their return.

Alex, however, was brought up as a nobleman’s son and grew into an intellectually and physically imposing figure. Still, he entered the French army as an enlisted dragoon, rather than taking advantage of his titles.