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Creating a local black identity in a global context: the French writer Alexandre Dumas as an African American lieu de mémoire

  • Eric Martone (a1)

Western expansion and domination through colonial systems served as a form of globalization, spreading white hegemony across the globe. While whites retained the monopoly on ‘modernity’ as the exclusive writers of historical progress, ‘backward’ African Americans were perceived as ‘outside’ Western culture and history. As a result, there were no African American individuals perceived as succeeding in Western terms in the arts, humanities, and sciences. In response, African American intellectuals forged a counter-global bloc that challenged globalization conceived as hegemonic Western domination. They sought to insert African Americans as a whole into the history of America, (re)creating a local black American history ‘forgotten’ because of slavery and Western power. African American intellectuals thus created a ‘usable past’, or counter-memory, to reconstitute history through the inclusion of African Americans, countering Western myths of black inferiority. The devastating legacy of slavery was posited as the cause of the African Americans’ lack of Western cultural acclivity. Due to the lack of nationally recognized African American figures of Western cultural achievement, intellectuals constructed Dumas as a lieu de mémoire as part of wider efforts to appropriate historical individuals of black descent from across the globe within a transnational community produced by the Atlantic slave trade. Since all blacks were perceived as having a uniting ‘essence’, Dumas’ achievements meant that all blacks had the same potential. Such identification efforts demonstrated African Americans’ social and cultural suitability in Western terms and the resulting right to be included in American society. In this process, African Americans expressed a new, local black identity by expanding an ‘African American’ identity to a wider range of individuals than was commonly applied. While constructing a usable past, African Americans redefined ‘America’ beyond the current hegemonic usage (which generally restricted the term geographically to the US) to encompass an ‘Atlantic’ world – a world in which the Dumas of memory was re-imagined as an integral component with strong connections to slavery and colonialism.

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1 Albert P. Southwick, ‘Alexandre Dumas père’, The Galaxy, November 1870, pp. 691, 694.

2 Betty Gilbert Gubert, ‘Delmonico’s’, in Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., Encyclopedia of New York City, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995, p. 325; Jacques Lucas-Dubreton, The fourth musketeer, trans. Maida Casteltun Darnton, New York: Coward-McCann, 1928, p. 271

3 ‘Works of Alexandre Dumas’, North American Review, January 1843, p. 115.

4 ‘Review of The memoirs of a physician by Alexandre Dumas’, United States Democratic Review, January 1849, p. 90.

5 ‘Mes mémoires’, in Frank Wild Reed, A bibliography of Alexandre Dumas père, Pinner Hill, Middlesex: J.A. Neuhuys, 1933. For a review of the full translation, see George Hellman, ‘The memoirs of Alexandre Dumas: lively reminiscences of the French novelist whose life synchronized with thrilling historic events’, New York Times, 12 October 1907.

6 David James, Who is black? One nation’s definition, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1991; Lawrence Wright, ‘One drop of blood’, New Yorker, 25 July 1994, pp. 46–55; Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: black American writers in France, 1840–1980, Urbana, IL and Chicago, IL: Illini Books/University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 1, 19–20.

7 ‘Review of the autobiography of Alexandre Dumas’, Littell’s Living Age, December 1852, p. 587.

8 Michel Fabre, ‘International beacons of African-American memory: Alexandre Dumas père, Henry O. Tanner, and Josephine Baker as examples of recognition’, in Geneviève Fabre and Robert O’Meally, eds., History and memory in African-American culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 125.

9 Journal entry for 12 October 1878, in Richard Brodhead, ed., The Journals of Charles Chestnutt, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 92.

10 Fabre, From Harlem, pp. 1, 19–20.

11 See Thomas Hamilton, ed., The Anglo-African Magazine, New York: Arno Press/New York Times, 1968.

12 Pierre Nora, ‘Introduction: between memory and history’, in Pierre Nora and Lawrence Kritzman, eds., Realms of memory: the construction of the French past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, vol. 1, p. xvii.

13 For examples of anecdotes on Dumas and the US, see A. Craig Bell, Alexandre Dumas: a biography and study, London: Cassell and Company, 1950, pp. 345–6; Henri Clouard, Alexandre Dumas, Paris: Albin Michel, 1955, p. 394; F.W. Hemmings, Alexandre Dumas: the king of romance, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 203, 204, 205.

14 For example, Fabre mentions Dumas throughout From Harlem, but no reference is longer than a few sentences. Fabre’s article ‘International beacons’ rehashes his earlier comments about Dumas in From Harlem, but collects them in a few pages to establish that Dumas was an idealized figure among African Americans (see pp. 122–6). The historian Tyler Stovall makes a note on Dumas in his study on African Americans in Paris: Paris noir: African Americans in the city of light, New York: Mariner Books, 1996, pp. 56–7.

15 Fabre, ‘International beacons’, pp. 122–8.

16 See Gong G. W., The standard of ‘civilization’ in international society, Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

17 Soma Hewa and Darwin H. Stapleton, ‘Introduction: structure and process of global integration’, in Soma Hewa and Darwin H. Stapleton, eds., Globalization, philanthropy, and civil society: toward a new political culture in the twenty-first century, New York: Springer, 2005, p. 4.

18 Richard W. Mansbach, The global puzzle: issues and actors in world politics, 2nd edn, Boston, MA and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997, p. 29.

19 Du Bois W. E. B., ‘The white world’, in Dusk of dawn: an essay toward an autobiography of a race concept, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1940; reprinted New York: Schocken Books, 1970, pp. 143–5. Du Bois continued, ‘there has been absolutely no proof that the white race has any larger share of the gifted strains of human heritage than the black race or the yellow race’; the birth of ‘Dumas from a black beast of burden’ was provided as proof.

20 Diop Cheikh Anta, The African origin of civilization: myth or reality, Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 1974, p. 26. See also Bright Molande, ‘Rewriting memory: ideology of difference in the desire and demand for whiteness’, European Journal of American Culture, 27, 3, 2008, p. 175.

21 David Featherstone, ‘The spatial politics of the past unbound: transnational networks and the making of political identities’, Global Networks, 7, 4, 2007, pp. 432, 435, 447, 448.

22 Ibid., pp. 432, 436, 447–9.

23 Scholte Jan Aart, Globalization: a critical introduction, 2nd edn, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 236–7, 249–50.

24 Featherstone, ‘Spatial politics’, p. 435.

25 Scholte, Globalization, pp. 226, 252.

26 Featherstone, ‘Spatial politics’, p. 448.

27 Gilroy Paul, The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 30, 120; W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘Blacks in France’, The Crisis, March 1922. See also W. F. Feuser, ‘Afro-American literature and negritude’, Comparative Literature, 28, 4, 1976, p. 292.

28 Susan Koshy, ‘Morphing race into ethnicity: Asian Americans and critical transformations of whiteness’, boundary 2, 28, 1, 2001, p. 168. See also Hale Grace Elizabeth, Making whiteness: the culture of segregation in the South, 1890–1940, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998; Alexander Saxton, The rise and fall of the white republic: class politics and mass culture in nineteenth-century America, New York: Verso, 1990; Valerie Melissa Babb, Whiteness visible: the meaning of whiteness in American literature and culture, New York: New York University Press, 1998; Ian Haney López, White by law: the legal construction of race, New York: New York University Press, 1996; Charmaine Nelson, ‘Hiram Powers’s America: shackles, slaves, and the racial limits of nineteenth-century national identity’, Canadian Review of American Studies, 34, 2, 2004, pp. 167–83.

29 African American intellectuals have maintained the view that ‘American means white’ well into the contemporary era. See Toni Morrison, Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 8.

30 Jennifer Hurstfield, ‘The educational experiences of Mexican Americans: “cultural pluralism” or “internal colonialism”?’ Oxford Review of Education, 1, 2, 1975, p. 138; Hacker Andrew, Two nations, New York: Macmillan, 1992, p. 4; Lionel A. Maldonado, ‘Internal colonialism and triangulation: a research example’, Social Service Review, 53, 3, 1979, p. 466.

31 Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt, eds., Postcolonial theory and the United States, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000, p. 5.

32 See Susan Willis, ‘Memory and mass culture’, in Fabre and O’Meally, History, pp. 178–87.

33 Arthur A. Schomburg, ‘The negro digs up his past’, in Alain Locke, ed., The new negro: voices of the Harlem renaissance, first published 1925; reprinted New York: Touchstone, 1997, p. 237.

34 Ibid.

35 ‘Pot pourri’, Opportunity, December 1923.

36 See Savannah Tribune, 23 September 1911.

37 A prime example of this type of chronicle is Progress of a race, or, the remarkable advancement of the American negro, attributed to the African American scholar William Crogman and many collaborators during its various editions beginning in the 1890s. Others include P. Thomas Stanford, The tragedy of the negro in America: a condensed history of the enslavement, sufferings, emancipation, present condition and progress of the negro race, Boston, MA: C. A. Wasto, 1897; Mary Helm, From darkness to light: the story of negro progress, New York and Chicago, IL: F. H. Revell, 1909; and W. D. Weatherford, Present forces in negro progress, New York: Association Press, 1912.

38 New York Times, 22 September 1912; Independent, 19 September 1912; New York Times, 6 February 1910.

39 David W. Blight, ‘W. E. B. Du Bois and the struggle for American historical memory’, in Fabre and O’Meally, History, p. 46.

40 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, first published 1935; reprinted New York: The Free Press, 1998, pp. 725–6; Blight, ‘W. E. B. Du Bois’, pp. 45–71.

41 As a result, the historian Nathan Huggins has suggested that fully incorporating African American history would change the tone and meaning of American history. See Huggins Nathan, Black odyssey: the African-American ordeal in slavery, New York: Vintage, 1990.

42 J. A. Rogers, World’s great men of color, volume II: Europe, South and Central America, the West Indies, and the United States, first published 1947; reprinted New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 117.

43 Wilson J. Moses, ‘Dark forests and barbarian vigor: paradox, conflict, and Africanity in black writing before 1914’, American Literary History, 1, 3, 1989, p. 639.

44 Frederick Douglass, ‘The life and times of Frederick Douglass’, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, ed., Frederick Douglass: autobiographies, New York: Library of America College Editions, 1996, p. 938.

45 Woodson Carter G., The mis-education of the negro, Radford, VA: Wilder Press, 2008, p. 13.

46 W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘Negro art and literature’, in The gift of black folks, Boston, MA: The Stratford Co., 1924, excerpts in Eric. J. Sundquist, ed., The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 319–20.

47 W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater, first published 1920; reprinted New York: Washington Square Press, 2004, p. 155.

48 As Schomburg argued: ‘it is the social damage of slavery that the present … must repair and offset’ (‘The negro’, p. 231).

49 Dickinson D. Bruce, The origins of African American literature, 1680–1865, Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001, p. 228.

50 ‘Mixed blood aided white geniuses: startling statement by colored Atlanta University professor’, New York Times, 18 February 1907.

51 Rogers, World’s great men, p. 117.

52 ‘About the world’, Scribner’s Magazine, May 1896, p. 659. See also J. Brander Mathews, ‘The dramas of the elder Dumas’, Atlantic Monthly, September 1881, p. 383.

53 Southwick, ‘Alexandre Dumas père’, pp. 696, 697.

54 ‘Mixed blood’.

55 ‘Editor’s literary record’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1871, p. 620.

56 ‘The mosaic and the melting pot’, New York Times, 23 September 1991.

57 B. Phillips, ‘A reminiscence of Alexandre Dumas’, The Galaxy, October 1871, p. 508; ‘Editor’s literary record’, p. 620.

58 Schomburg, ‘The negro’, pp. 231, 232.

59 Alyssa Sepinwall Goldstein, ‘Abbé Grégoire’, in Eric Martone, ed., Encyclopedia of blacks in European history and culture, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009, pp. 253–4.

60 Such collections include William Wells Brown, The black man, his antecedents, his genius, his achievements, NewYork: T. Hamilton, 1863; Rogers, World’s great men of color; Marion Jackson Pryde and Beatrice Jackson Fleming, Distinguished negroes abroad, Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1946; and Russell Adams, Great negroes past and present, Chicago: Afro-Am Pub. Co., 1963.

61 ‘Alexandre Dumas’, The Crisis, October 1921.

62 See Gilroy, Black Atlantic, p. 26.

63 See Fabre, From Harlem, pp. 12, 17.

64 See J. John Perret, ‘Victor Séjour: black French playwright from Louisiana’, French Review, 57, 2, 1983, pp. 187–93; Charles E. O’Neill, Séjour: Parisian playwright from Louisiana, Lafayette, LA: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1995; Fabre, From Harlem, pp. 14, 15, 16.

65 The three include the Dumas Company of Louisville, Kentucky (which staged productions of The Rough Diamond and Above the Clouds in 1886); the Dumas Dramatic Club of St. Louis, Missouri (which staged a production of Bound by an Oath in 1902); and the Dumas Players of Cleveland (although the troupe changed its name in 1922 to the Gilpin Players). See Hill Errol G. and Hatch James V., A history of African American theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 86, 226, 228.

66 See Tad Bennicoff, ‘African Americans and Princeton University: a brief history’, 11 March 2005, (consulted 12 June 2009).

67 William Wells Brown, Black man, 4th edn, Boston, MA: Robert F. Wallcut, 1865; reprinted Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publications, 1969, pp. 128–31. Du Bois quoted Brown’s description of Dumas in his later essays; for an example, see ‘Phillis Wheatley and African American culture (1941)’, in Sundquist, Du Bois reader, p. 335.

68 Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The roots of African-American identity: memory and history in antebellum free communities, Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997, p. 183.

69 W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘My evolving program for negro freedom’, excerpts in David Levering Lewis, ed., W. E. B. Du Bois: a reader, New York: Henry Holt, 1995, p. 615. Du Bois made the same argument in ‘President Harding and social equality’, The Crisis, December 1921.

70 Eugène de Mirecourt, Fabrique de romans: Maison Alexandre Dumas et compagnie, Paris: Hauquelin et Bautruche, 1845.

71 ‘The literary leviathan’, Littell’s Living Age, 12 July 1856, p. 87.

72 Brown, Black man, p. 131.

73 See Nelson Emmanuel Sampath, African American dramatists: an A to Z guide, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, p. 366.

74 Dumas’ novel Georges (1843), which does concern slavery and race, and has a biracial hero, was largely ignored in the US in general and by African Americans in particular, even though it was translated into an American English edition in 1849. The reasons why remain unclear.

75 Phillips, ‘A reminiscence’, p. 508.

76 Du Bois later phrased the realization of black consciousness as knowing ‘the call of the blood when it came and listened and answered’ (Du Bois, Darkwater, p. 155).

77 See Martin Waldo E., Jr, The mind of Frederick Douglass, Charlotte, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, p. 93.

78 McFeely William S., Frederick Douglass, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991, p. 328.

79 Cahiers Alexandre Dumas, 29, 2002, p. 308, n. 1. See also Harry A. Spurr, The life and writings of Alexandre Dumas, 1802–1870, first published 1902, reprinted Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2003, p. 117.

80 Alexandre Dumas, ‘Lettre à Abraham Lincoln’, 15 June 1864, in Le Petit Journal, 30 September 1864, reproduced in Cahiers Alexandre Dumas, 29, 2002, pp. 307–8. See also Bell, Alexandre Dumas, p. 346. On the French press’s perceptions of the American Civil War, see Dominique A. Laurent, ‘The American Civil War in the French press’, in William L. Chew, ed., National stereotypes in perspective: Americans in France, Frenchmen in America, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001, pp. 187–208.

81 Rogers, World’s great men, p. 120.

82 Alexandre Dumas, ‘A Cyrille Charles Auguste Bissette, directeur de la Revue des colonies’, 10 March 1838, reproduced in Cahiers Alexandre Dumas, 29, 2002, pp. 74–5, emphasis added.

83 ‘Frederick Douglass to Friends Hayden and Watson’, 19 November 1886, in Philip S. Foner, The life and writings of Frederick Douglass, New York: International Publishers, 1950–1975, vol. 4, pp. 445–6. On the report being false, see Wilson J. Moses, Creative conflict in African American thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 56–7.

84 Douglass, ‘Life and times’, p. 995.

85 Carter G. Woodson, ‘Review of Five French negro authors by Mercer Cook’, Journal of Negro History, 28, 4, 1943, p. 496. For an analysis of the complicated relationship between African Americans and perceptions of race in France, see Stovall, Paris noir.

86 Harper Frances E. W., Iola Leroy, or shadows uplifted, first published 1892; reprinted New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 84.

87 Rogers, World’s great men, pp. 117, 120.

88 W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘The future of the negro race in America (1904)’, excerpts in Sundquist, Du Bois Reader, p. 372.

89 William Brief, ‘San Francisco correspondence’, Appeal (Carson City), 24 May 1865; Southwick, ‘Alexandre Dumas père’, p. 691.

90 Featherstone, ‘Spatial politics’, p. 440.

91 James M’Cune Smith, ‘Introduction (1855)’ to Frederick Douglass, ‘My bondage, my freedom’, in Gates, Frederick Douglass, pp. 136–7; George Ruffin, ‘Introduction (1881)’ to Douglass, ‘Life and times’, p. 473.

92 Mercer Cook, ‘The literary contribution of the French West Indian’, Journal of Negro History, 25, 4, 1940, p. 530; Rogers, World’s great men, p. 120.

93 ‘A Boston premier of the film: The three Dumas’, Boston Central, (consulted 3 June 2009).

94 See Bethel, Roots, p. 183.

95 In 1856, Littell’s Living Age even mocked Dumas’ claim to nobility through this association with slaves in the colonies: ‘Who has not heard of … the St. Domingan Marquis de la Pailleterie’ (‘Literary leviathan’, p. 87).

96 Brown, Black man, pp. 129–30.

97 Woodson, ‘Review’, p. 495.

98 See, for example, Finkelman Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of African American history, 1619–1895: from the colonial period to the age of Frederick Douglass, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 429–30.

99 Amistad Research Center, Mary McLeod Bethune, diary, 23 July 1927, Bethune file, box 2, pp. 11–12.

100 Fabre, From Harlem, p. 133.

101 Arna Bontemps was a childhood fan of Dumas: see ibid., p. 279.

102 Hughes Langston, The big sea: an autobiography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940; reprinted New York: Hill and Wang, 2001, pp. 61–2.

103 Schomburg Collection, Gwendolyn Bennett, unpublished journal, 23 August 1925, p. 31.

104 Gwendolyn Bennett, ‘Lines written on the grave of Alexandre Dumas’, Opportunity, June 1926.

105 Brodhead, Journals, p. 93.

106 W. E. B. Du Bois, The souls of black folk, first published 1903; reprinted New York: Penguin, 1989, p. 90.

107 Ibid., p. 5.

108 Blight, ‘Du Bois’, p. 46.

109 Fabre, ‘International beacons’, p. 122.

110 Memmi Albert, Portrait du colonisé, précédé du portrait du colonisateur, Paris: Gallimard, 1985, p. 92.

111 Wright Richard, White man, listen!, New York: Doubleday, 1957, p. 109.

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