The Secrets of Life

Last weekend I found out, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, that Alexander Dumas was Black.

And that pisses me off.

White Male History

Dumas in 1855, six years before the Civil War
Dumas in 1855, six years before the Civil War

I thought about editing that for some of my my more genteel readers, but no, while I know many other words that are similar, none quite embraces the feeling of smoldering, visceral anger I had when I verified what a fictional character in the movie “Django” had asserted. Dumas’ grandmother had been a black slave, in fact. This was not a tremendously big deal at the time in France, where he lived. Issues of skin color were much less an issue in favor of the question of where you stood on Napoleon, and as Dumas’ father had been one of the Little Corporal’s generals, you can imagine why his imagination ran towards swordfights, loyalty to royalty and plots of revenge and more.

However, it is a big deal to me, because I like to think of myself as benefiting from a better-than-average integration of Black history as I grew up. My school was predominantly African-American, and we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday long before it was a federal holiday. I learned to respect and even revere people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and had the unforgettable experience of getting to shake Rosa Parks’ hand one day after a school assembly.

At the same time I was also benefiting from my parents’ greatest gift to me: a lifelong love of books. In particular, I loved swordfights, so the Three Musketeers was right up my alley. I of course watched movie versions (still love the Don Ameche version best, though Gene Kelly’s D’Artagnan is the most fun to watch) and “abridged” versions. I didn’t read the actual Count of Monte Cristo until I was in high school, and I remember marveling at the deep layers of intrigue and the way the whole story just clicked together at the end. It wasn’t just the stories I loved; I got my first real glimpse of the Author’s craft from that book.

But not one February did anyone mention “Alexander Dumas” when talking about great Black authors? No. Not once. Not to me, anyway. I checked with a Media & Culture Studies professor (who also happens to be Black) and she basically shrugged and said that she’d always thought of him as a Black author, but since he wasn’t directly involved in the civil rights struggle that fact was incidental at best. She pointed out that “history” tends to be the history of the White (mostly Male) culture, with things like “Black History”, “Women’s History”, and “Native American” history largely being the stories of how these other demographics impacted, conflicted, or were assimilated by the hegemonic White Male History that I, at least, was taught most of the time.

That’s a different problem for a different day (and, to be honest, a different blog than Love, Life, Practice). My point is this: that boy who was growing up immersed in Black culture, who loved the idea of All for One, One for All! would have preferred to know that Alexander Dumas was Black. A lot of people must have thought it was not important, that it didn’t need to be said – teachers, parents, even friends – but the fact is, it was important, and the only way I know this is that when I found out, the only word for how I felt was pissed off. How dare the world keep this secret from me?

1.5 Seconds of Genius

Speaking of secrets, I’ve been somewhat busy since 2007. I’ve enjoyed movies, and occasionally found TV series that I would watch in big chunks on DVD or on my computer (I have no patience for commercials). Honestly, I tend to enjoy dramas more than comedies, because so much comedy is based on stereotypes, assumptions, or glorifies problems in a way that makes them seem cool. That’s why I didn’t like Roseanne or Married With Children, because they seemed to reinforce the very unhealthy behaviors they were ridiculing.

rpslsnavy_fullpicHowever, I’ve recently been introduced to Big Bang Theory, and I find it really resonates (though, as Natasha can tell you, there are times I’ve come close to shutting it down for the same reasons stated above). I was almost a programming geek, I was a gaming and comic book geek, and many of the communities of people I’ve taught have people with the same idiosyncrasies as Walter, Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Penny. Plus, it’s cleverly written (if you’ve not tried to learn Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, you’re really missing out).

While watching it on DVD, I noticed at the end of each episode’s credits there was a brief flash of prose. Some quick remote-button-pushing revealed the existence of “Chuck Lorre’s Vanity Card”, which was what one of the writer/creators of the show put instead of his own logo. Some people put things like a zombie saying “Ergh, Argh” or a perky red automaton in a grassy field saying “Bad Robot!”, but Chuck, he does something different.

He writes a little short paragraph, or sentence, or even crafts an entire story in that space. Sometimes it is so intense that it is censored by the network (think about that: a network is afraid of 1.5 seconds of text). Other times it is a tribute picture, and if it’s #111, it’s because he couldn’t think of anything else.

There’s no reason for it. BBT is already a hit show, and you might have heard about another show he wrote, called Two and a Half Men. Chuck Lorre is not exactly a slacker in terms of creative output. But somehow he felt the need to include these little gems of writing, to the point where they’re archived on the internet. They’re really fun, and I find myself almost impatient to get through an episode so that I can see what Chuck has to say on the vanity card. It’s like eating through a box of cracker jacks because you are looking forward to the prize. Sure, it’s yummy, but it’s opening the package – or hitting the pause button – that’s the really big treat, because you never know what you’re going to get.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that Natasha – who introduced me to the series that I’ve been missing for the last six years – didn’t know about them. She’d never noticed them, in spite of watching the show almost religiously. So now, for her, re-watching them has its own frisson of excitement, a new secret compartment that nobody told her about and she never noticed.

The life lessons learned: That thing you like? Take a closer look at it, because odds are theres some aspect of it you haven’t noticed, some little secret characteristic that can make it that much more yummy.

And then make sure you tell people about it. Because even if you don’t think it’s important, they might want to know.

It’s not worth the risk of pissing them off.

1 thought on “The Secrets of Life”

  1. As far as Alex not being mentioned in Black History Month, I seem to recall a heavy emphasis on Black AMERICANS (Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela aside), that might be a reason. Not a good one, but an explanation nonetheless.

    Your post made me think of another French writer I’m fond of, Edmond Rostand, and check to see if they were around at the same time. Unfortunately, Edmond was born two years before Alexander died. Too bad, “Ed and Alex” would have made a great historical sitcom.

    (Seriously, browse thier respective Wiki entries. Ed was a devoted family man and known for his romantic works. Alex was a notorious womanizer known for his action works. Instant sitcom fodder!)

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