Caribbean

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.

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Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros

                                        I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.

(Omeros bk. 1 ch. 2 sec. 3)

Derek Walcott’s masterful Omeros is a palimpsest. As an epic poem, it is deeply indebted to Homer; as a portrait of St Lucia, it is bound to the daily rhythm of island life. It is this tension between rootedness in the Caribbean and participation in the “global republic” of English (to borrow from Paula Burnett) that Walcott explores in his imagination of a postcolonial world. Reading Omeros means inhabiting the contradictions inherent in the postcolonial condition. Walcott’s poetic work is an extraordinarily successful exploration of modern life, all accomplished in poignant and achingly beautiful lyric verse.

The poem is structured as an odyssey, shifting from the present-day Caribbean to modern-day Europe and seventeenth-century Africa before returning to Walcott’s home island. The narrative is divided into seven books that provide a structure for the 64 chapters, each of which comprises a handful of sections. Yet the plot, such as it is, can be roughly split in three. In the first part, Achille and Hector (two fishermen) are competing for the affections of Helen against the backdrop of modernizing St Lucia. The second part of Omeros shifts to a broader view of the world by considering Philoctete and Ma Kilman. Their connections with Africa are visceral, spiritual, and deeply allegorical; in the case of Philoctete’s wound, the legacy of slavery quite literally bleeds into the present. The narrator dwells both on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the contradictions of the contemporary metropole before returning to the St Lucian town of Gros-Ilet in the concluding section. To end, the narrator turns away from history to instead depict the tourists who flood St Lucia’s beaches today: “barefoot Americans strolling into the banks— / there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects / who, at least, were natives” (1.10.3). In this third and final section, Hector dies driving these same tourists from the airport to a hotel, while Achille remains afloat as a fisherman. Continue reading