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Firmin, Anténor

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Anténor Firmin was the author of a pioneering work in race and anthropology, De l’égalité des races humaines: Anthropologie positive (1885). He was perhaps the first anthropologist of African descent. Firmin was born into a working class family on October 18, 1850, in Cap Haitien in northern Haiti. His formal education was entirely in Haiti and included the study of the classics and exposure to the anthropological writings of European scholars. After studying law in Haiti, he became a successful advocate in Cap-Haitien; he later became a diplomat.

Firmin was a product of the third generation of post-independence Haitians who took justified pride in the heroic achievement of the world’s first black republic (Haiti became independent on January 1, 1804). While serving as a diplomat in Paris from 1884 to 1888, he was admitted to the Paris Anthropological Society, where he was one of three Haitians to observe their proceedings (though he was not encouraged to participate). In those years the Anthropology Society of Paris was dedicated primarily to racialist anthropometry and craniometry, and to racist interpretations of human physical data. In the preface to his book, Firmin wrote that he considered requesting a debate within the society on the issue of the division of the human species into superior and inferior races, “but I risked being perceived as an intruder and, being ill-disposed against me, my colleagues might have rejected my request without further thought. Common sense told me I was right to hesitate so it was then that I conceived the idea of writing this book”(2000, p. liv).

Anténor Firmin’s De l’égalité des races humaines was a general response to European racialist and racist thought in the nineteenth century. However, the title suggests that his scientific rebuttal was especially directed at the work of Arthur de Gobineau, whose four-volume work Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the human race) (1853–1855) asserted a hierarchical ranking of races from white to yellow to Negro, as well as the racial superiority of Aryan peoples. Now available in English, The Equality of the Human Races (2000) can be studied by a wider audience as a remarkable yet obscure work of anthropology and early critical-race thinking. This nineteenth-century work anticipated the eventual scope and breadth of anthropology beyond the narrow, racialist physical “science”that it critiqued.

Contrary to de Gobineau’s ideas of racial hierarchy and Negro inferiority, Firmin’s work affirmed the opposite, that “All men are endowed with the same qualities and the same faults, without distinction of color or anatomical form. The races are equal”(2000, p. 450). As Ashley Montagu noted, “It is a fact worth remarking that throughout the nineteenth century hardly more than a handful of scientific voices were raised against the notion of a hierarchy of races”(1997, p. 80). Subtitled Anthropologie Positive , Firmin was a committed positivist, and he argued that the empirical study of humanity would disprove speculative theories about the inequality of races.

De l’égalité des races humaines contained 662 pages of text with twenty chapter headings, some of which are “Anthropology as a Discipline”; “Monogenism and Polygenism”; “Criteria for Classifying the Human Races”; “Artificial Ranking of the Human Races”; “Comparison of the Human Races Based on their Physical Constitution”; “ Métissage and Equality of the Races”; “Egypt and Civilization”; “The Hindus and the Arya”; “European Solidarity”; “The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization”; “Religious Myths and Words of the Ancients”; and “Theories and their Logical Consequences.”

Firmin criticized the prevailing polygenist use of craniology and anthropometry espoused by Paul Broca and others (which came to be referred to as “scientific racism”). In fact, he used the craniometric tables devised by these scholars as a basis for their refutation. He critiqued their numeric tables of differential measures of cranial capacity, brain weight, nasal index, and stature, and he showed that the claims of European superiority based on these measures were arbitrary and lacking in logical consistency and scientific rigor. With his attack on the scientific misuse of racial craniometry, Firmin challenged anthropometry, which was the hallmark of nineteenth-century anthropology.

Firmin’s introductory chapter “Anthropology as a Discipline”may be one of the earliest statements outlining the new comprehensive science of anthropology, which he defined as “the study of Man in his physical, intellectual, and moral dimensions as he is found in any of the different races which constitute the human species”(2000, p. 10). He thus envisioned anthropology as an integrated study of humanity.

Although the concept of race had already shaped nineteenth-century scholarship, Firmin questioned the underlying biological premise of race. He critiqued the racial mythology of his day, and he was one of only a few black scholars addressing the subject. “Observing that human beings have always interbred whenever they have come in contact with one another,”he maintained, “the very notion of pure races becomes questionable”(p. 64). Firmin noted that classification by race led to theories of difference that ultimately led science away from the unitary view of the human species and spawned ideas of separate evolution and development of the races. Firmin was among the first to insist that racial typologies are not only flawed as individual isolates—Ethiopian/black or Caucasian/white—but that these “inclusive”types fail to acknowledge or account for the vigor and achievements of New World hybrid populations. The failure of the racial classifiers to include in their typologies the mixed races ( métis )—not only in the New World, but in other parts of the globe as well—made him even more skeptical about any “science”of racial types.

Firmin stressed the scientific basis for the constitutional unity of the human species arguing that all groups retain the primordial constitutional imprint of the species, bearing the same intellectual and moral traits inscribed in the original common human blueprint. He discussed the multiple factors of climate and geography that affect skin color (as well as physical form), and he was among the first scholars to state the scientific basis for skin pigmentation— the substance melanin in the epithelial cells of the dermis. Responding to the claim of the French naturalist Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages that black people sweat less than whites, Firmin responded with the voice of authority of a black man: “I am Black and nothing distinguishes me anatomically from the purest Sudanese. However, I transpire abundantly enough to be able to have some idea of the facts. My congeners are not beyond the laws of nature”(2000, p. 60). Firmin also dismissed the racist myth about black odor: “I shall not bother to discuss the issue of a putative sui generis odor that is supposedly a particular characteristic of the Negro race. The idea is more comical than scientific”(p. 62–63).

As a student of African antiquity, Firmin read and cited the leading Egyptologists of the day, including the Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, from whom he took the Egyptian hieroglyphic word Retous , meaning “real humans,”which he adopted as a general term for the original African people. He recognized the historical ties in the Nile Valley between Nubia and Egypt as distinctive African civilizations. He saluted African history in the Nile Valley from “Memphis to Meroë,”thus including the Sudanese civilizations of Kush-Meroë, referred to as “Ethiopia”in Greek texts. This stands in sharp contrast to Samuel Morton’s “Caucasoid Egyptians”and the “Hamitic Myth,”which denied the ability of black Africans to create civilizations. His analysis of the nonracist images of blacks in the classical European civilizations of Greece and Rome presaged comparable findings in the latter half of the twentieth century. His critique about skin color and myth—including the biblical myth of the “Curse of Ham”; the plethora of associations of blackness with evil and the devil in Europe; and Shakespeare’s choice of a dark Moor for Othello—all have a thoroughly modern resonance with postcolonial literary criticism.

Among the early writers to view Egyptian civilization as the fountainhead from which sprang the Greek and Roman cultures, he saw the development of their culture as resting upon an African foundation. Not only was the ancient past an affirmation of the equality of the black race, but the modern example of Haiti proved the essential thesis once again. As a symbol of black regeneration, it was not surprising that Haitians would play a role in the Pan-African movement that began in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Firmin attended the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, along with W.E.B. Du Bois of the United States, Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad, and delegates from Abssyinia, Liberia, South Africa, Sierre Leone, Gold Coast, and Canada.

While critical of race classifications and racial hierarchies, Firmin did not reject the concept of race. Too much was vested in the concept by late nineteenth-century scholars for him to dismiss race, and he made liberal use of the proclamation of black racial pride. Pan-Africanism and the link between Haiti, black people in the diaspora, and the greatness of African antiquity depended upon the race concept, as is still largely true in the early twenty-first century.

Firmin believed that positivist science would lead to an acceptance of the doctrine of the equality of the human races. But he was also a humanist. He believed this doctrine to be a regenerative force for the harmonious development of humankind. The last words of his 1885 tome invoke Victor Hugo’s famous quote—“Every man is man”—and implore every human simply to “Love one another”(2000, p. 451).

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