If Alexandre Dumas were alive today we would probably consider him to be a black man. In photographs we can clearly see he has light brown skin and bushy, curly hair. 19th-century French society would have classified the great novelist as a quadroon—that is, someone who is one-fourth African and three-fourths European.
Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, was the great-grandson of an African man who had been accepted into the court of Peter the Great. The Tsar was quite fond of his handsome and intelligent "negro" and chose a wife for him from among the Russian aristocracy. Since Pushkin died two years before commercial photography was introduced, we rely on paintings for an idea of his appearance. He is generally depicted as a Caucasian with curly dark locks of hair but it is unclear if this is because he could fully pass for white or if the European painters of the time were hesitant to depict him as mixed-race. Pushkin would have been labeled an octoroon—a European with one-eighth African ancestry.
While both men experienced discrimination, Pushkin seems to have had a harder time of things. He thought himself to have ugly features, an insecurity probably exacerbated by insults targeting his heritage. Though Pushkin was primarily known as a poet, his first novel (unfinished), Peter the Great's Negro, is based on the life of his great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal. It is easy to see how Pushkin's own experiences and complex ideas on race informed the prose.
People generally regarded the young Moor as a freak, and, surrounding him, overwhelmed him with compliments and questions; this curiosity, although concealed beneath an air of graciousness, offended his vanity. The delightful attention of women, almost the sole aim of man's exertions, not only gave him no pleasure, but even filled his heart with bitterness and indignation. He felt that for them he was a kind of rare beast, an exceptional and strange creation, accidentally transferred to their world, and possessing nothing in common with them. He even envied those who remained unnoticed and considered them to be fortunate in their insignificance.
Pushkin's insecurities would eventually lead to his death. After he and his wife met the handsome and dashing French nobleman, George D’Anthès, rumors began to circulate throughout Petersburg that the poet's wife had been seduced by D'Anthes. A nasty letter welcoming Pushkin into "The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds" circulated among the nobility, much to his embarrassment. This massive affront to his manhood and honor led Pushkin to challenge D’Anthès, an accomplished soldier, to a duel. Pushkin didn't stand a chance and was mortally shot in the abdomen on February 8th, 1837. He died two days later.
Alexandre Dumas' father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was born in Haiti in 1762 to a French nobleman and his African concubine slave, with whom he had three children. Thomas's father treated his mixed-children as if they were legitimate. When Thomas was fourteen, he was brought to France, where he instantly became a free man. In Paris he lived a luxurious lifestyle, was well educated and entered military service at a time in which people of African heritage were treated as subhuman across much of the continent. He had an accomplished military career and was well respected by Napoleon, serving as a general in the French army throughout the Revolutionary Period. He died in 1806 at the age of 43 when Dumas was only two years old and most likely would have been quite surprised to learn that his son would go on to become one of the greatest writers in French history.
Dumas also wrote a novel dealing with race. Georges chronicles the exploits of the son of a wealthy mulatto plantation owner who travels to Europe to be educated and manages to successfully ingratiate himself into Parisian society. As with Pushkin's novel, it has many parallels with the life of Dumas' black ancestor and served as a vehicle for the writer to discuss his views on racial intolerance in European society.
Dumas was widely read during his lifetime and achieved celebrity status in France. Still, despite his stature as a literary luminary, he too encountered racism. Of course, one should probably express caution when insulting a prolific novelist. Dumas famously destroyed one bigot who publicly mocked him with this retort:
"My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."
When he died in 1870, Dumas was buried at his birthplace of Villers-Cotterêts, instead of the National Pantheon of Paris, where other literary giants of France are interred. This too can probably be attributed to the racism of the time. It wasn't until 2002 that his remains were moved to the Pantheon, where he now rests in peace alongside other great French writers such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.