Journal of Global History

Articles

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

Eric Martonea1

a1 Department of History, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Social and Behavioral Sciences Building, Stony Brook, NY 11794–4348, USA E-mail: emartone@netscape.net

Abstract

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.

Eric Martone teaches history in the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of blacks in European history and culture (Greenwood Press, 2009) and the forthcoming The black musketeer: reevaluating Alexandre Dumas within the francophone world (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). He also received a 2010 Indiana University West European Studies National Resource Center Curriculum Grant to create a lesson unit for secondary schools using Dumas as a way to explore diversity and how it has impacted Western society for distribution through the Center’s outreach services.