A Neglected Thinker of the Black Atlantic

Anténor Firmin in 1889. Photograph by C. Liebert.

Too few people today know of Anténor Firmin, a Haitian writer, anthropologist, and politician. He is important not just as an early anticolonial figure, but also as a thinker of what he himself termed an anthropologie positive. Firmin wrote his most famous work in 1885, De l’égalité des races humaines, a refutation of the classic 1855 racist tract by Arthur de Gobineau entitled De l’inégalité des races humaines. Firmin’s work is truly remarkable for its rigor and forethought. Scholarship over the past two decades has brought to light many of Firmin’s qualities, not least by issuing new editions of Firmin’s book and its first translation into English. Recent articles have also highlighted his surprising relationship to then-nascent Egyptology; his place in contemporary debates over Darwinism and polygenesis; and his philosophical heritage as traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The earliest of these was Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban 2002 article in the American Anthropologist, where she notes that Firmin provides a coherent challenge to race-thinking in anthropology decades before Boas. I want to delve a little deeper into Firmin’s work by highlighting a few passages that I think are particularly exceptional.

At almost 700 pages, Firmin’s book is truly monumental. The first thing you notice when opening the book is the portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture that faces the title page. The second is the touching dedication:

May readers of this book meditate on its content, and may it help to accelerate the movement of regeneration in which my race is engaged under the limpid blue skies of the Caribbean [sous le ciel bleu et clair des Antilles]!

May it inspire in all the children of the Black race [la race noire] around this big world [sur l’orbe immense de la terre] the love of progress, justice, and liberty. In dedicating this book to Haiti, I bear them all in mind, both the downtrodden of today [les déshérités du présent] and the giants of tomorrow. (li; v)

The 1877 engraving of a lost 1818 portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, used as a frontispiece for De l’égalité des races humaines. Source: an online exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library.

This is pan-Africanism or négritude avant la lettre; it is Derek Walcott, after all, who speaks so eloquently of the Antillean sky in his work a century later. The third thing one notices is the remarkably personal preface Firmin begins with. He writes:

There is an element of chance in all human endeavors. When I arrived in Paris, it never entered my mind [je fus loin de penser] to write a book such as this one. I am pre-disposed, both by my profession as a lawyer and by my studies [mes études ordinaires], to concern myself with questions pertaining to the moral and political sciences. I had no intention, then, of entering a field in which I could be considered a layman [un profane]. (liii; vii)

Through a number of acquaintances, Firmin began to read anthropology. What he read shocked him deeply: how could his friends espouse such virulently racist views?

In arguing the thesis at the core of this work, I wanted essentially to justify the warm welcome [l’accueil bienveillant] I had been given by the Société d’anthropologie de Paris. I hereby pay homage to each of its members, my honorable colleagues. I often happen to challenge [contredire] most anthropologists and to harbor opinions contrary to theirs, but I still respect and honor their great intellectual worth. I fervently hope [il m’est agréable de penser] that they will reflect on the various controversial points I have raised and that they will reconsider their opinions regarding the abilities of my race. (lv; xi)

Firmin sees his relationship with white scholars and activists as one of respect and cooperation. He approaches his French colleagues with an admirable mixture of respect, disgust, and cautious optimism. Firmin is genuinely hopeful that he will open up a dialog for anthropologists to revise their ideas of race.

Indeed, in general Firmin’s work is not just a critique; he does more than just call on his colleagues to address unchecked prejudice in anthropology. He is also offering an insightful positive vision of the field. He grounds this vision in a remarkable reading of German idealism. Thus, Firmin speaks of the

formal changes undergone by Kantian thought in its journey from the master to Hegel. The latter indeed has ruined the prestige of metaphysical speculations with his habit of making the clearest idea a subject of controversy. Still, Hegel has ventured into every field of human knowledge in a series of works which, however somewhat confused, sometimes yield brilliant insights [fulgurations brilliantes] through the thicket of an excessively arbitrary but always erudite terminology [une terminologie trop arbitraire pour être toujours savant]. (5; 6)

These words will resonate with anyone who has struggled through the works of Hegel. But Firmin does not give himself enough credit. He draws on resources from Hegel to offer a wonderful vision of what the study of man ought to look like:

the method used in natural history to study minerals, plants, and animals inferior to Man, is not always fruitful when it comes to the study of the last addition to creation. Whereas the inferior beings are programmed essentially for vegetative and animal life, Man is programmed for social life, which he ultimately always achieves by making his own history [celle de l’homme tend invinciblement à la vie sociale qu’il finit toujours par réaliser, en constituent sa propre histoire]. (6; 9)

This is the point Marx famously made in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he too looks to Hegel. I would even suggest that Firmin is anticipating some of Hannah Arendt’s insights. She speaks of how the world is created through action, through plurality; for her, philosophy talks of man — but “politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.” Perhaps this is not a strong enough bridge to stand on, but the kernel is there. Firmin, like Arendt, is re-reading German idealism to think through what it means to talk about man in society. Thus he writes that

Man is the only creature who cannot stand alone. … The fact is, Man needs Man in order to develop or even to know his individual personality [le perfectionnement et pour l’étude même de sa personnalité propre]. Goethe, joining the broad understanding of the poet to the naturalist’s science and the philosopher’s wisdom [à la science du naturaliste et du philosophe], says:

Der Mensch erkennt sich nur in Menschen, nur
Das Leben lernt Jedem was er sei!

Nothing could be truer. Man learns to know himself only by looking at his fellow Man [dans son semblable], and only through the intercourse [commerce] of everyday life does he learn his true value [sa propre valeur]. (7–8)

This is not to say that Firmin offers salvation. In his uptake of Hegel, Firmin also becomes invested in the hegemonic notion of progress — the teleology Hegel so famously peddles. Hence, Firmin’s radical equality of human races reifies both the idea of race and the idea of progress. Thus, he concludes his treatise as follows:

The races are equal; they are all capable of rising to the most noble virtues, of reaching the highest intellectual development; they are equally capable of falling into a state of total degeneration. … It seems that in order to prosper and grow human beings must take an interest in one another’s progress and happiness and cultivate those altruistic sentiments which are the greatest achievement [le plus bel épanouissement] of the human heart and mind. (450; 662)

This smacks of nothing less than the progress of the world spirit. But Firmin ends with a gesture towards the heavens:

The doctrine of the equality of the human races … evokes for us the most beautiful thought uttered by a great genius, “Every man is man,” and the sweetest divine instruction, “Love one another.” (450; 662)

To take Firmin seriously is not just to work against scientific racism in anthropology. It is to think differently about what anthropology does: that is, to think differently about Man. Firmin is not just a historical curiosity; as Leslie Péan puts it, “Firmin n’est pas du passé [of the past] et n’est pas dépassé [surpassed].” But I would push beyond this view of Firmin as someone who can “symboliser encore à nos yeux une voix [voice] et une voie [way] d’un renouveau national possible pour Haïti.” I would argue that Firmin is more than just a figure of national importance. His work, rooted in the Haitian experience, gestures towards the universal.

Let me know what you think!