By Gershom Williams
NNPA Guest Columnist
Perhaps because Antenor Firmin wrote in French and not English, or perhaps because he was Haitian and not French, his work was ignored, became obscure and was out of print even in Haiti until 1968.
Professor of Anthropology
Rhode Island College
For several generations, leading historians, scholars and intellectuals have often times quoted and recited the following almost prophetic words written by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in his classic The Souls of Black Folks (1903: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.” The book had its greatest impact in the United States among Black and White Americans, but its influence also extended beyond America’s shores to the Caribbean islands and continental Africa.
According to an illuminating essay authored by Playthell Benjamin in Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk (2002), French-speaking Black intellectuals such as the Haitian scholar Jean Price-Mars, the poet Leon Damas of Cayenne, and the poet/statesman Leopold Sedar Senghor who along with Damas is a founder of the “Negritude” literary movement testified to having been inspired and influenced by The Souls of Black Folk. In short, it can easily be seen as the most influential of the early texts that forged a sense of racial consciousness for African descendants in the diaspora.
But now, thanks to the deep persistent dedication and scholarly rigor of two academics, Carolyn Lobban and Asselin Charles, we have knowledge about another landmark and groundbreaking book written in 1885 by Haitian intellectual and anthropologist Joseph Antenor Firmin.
Firmin’s little known but masterful treatise, The Equality of the Human Races; Positivist Anthropology, was basically researched and published by the author to intellectually defeat scientific racism, racist writings and stereotypical views about modern racial humanity during the closing years of the 19th century.
Firmin’s pioneering and revolutionary book was written, in essence, to intellectually challenge and refute the pseudo-scientific claims of the so-called father of modern racism/White supremacy, Arthur DeGobineau, who’s four-volume work, The Inequality of the Human Races, was also written in French between 1853-1855.
Firmin’s scientific rebuttal was especially directed at the racist theoretical writings of DeGobineau whose work was the first to assert the racial superiority of Aryan peoples. It was also one of the earliest of the many influential texts to support and reinforce dangerous ideas about purported inherent Black inferiority. In The Equality of the Human Races, Firmin’s magnum opus, he powerfully and positively affirmed just the opposite idea. He wrote, “All men are endowed with the same qualities and the same faults, without distinction of color or anatomical form. The races are equal.”
As anthropologist Ashley Montagu, author of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, has 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.”
Fortunately, for all of humanity past, present and future, Joseph Antenor Firmin was such a voice courageously raised in a herculean effort to eliminate negative racist ideology and mythology, and to bring racial healing and harmony to the global human family.
It is only fitting that as we inaugurate President Barack Obama, who happens to be another brilliant son of Africa, that we recall a prophetic prediction made by Antenor Firmin in his profoundly provocative book more than a century ago.
“Appearance to the contrary, this big country is destined to strike the first blow against the theory of the inequality of the human races. Indeed, at this very moment, Blacks in the great Federal Republic have begun to play a prominent role in the politics of the various states of the American Union. It seems quite possible that, in less than a century from now, a Black man might be called to head the government of Washington and manage the affairs of the most progressive country on earth….”
Antenor Firmin was indeed an intellectual trailblazer in the long line of scholars who have become part of what has been called the vindicationist school of great African thinkers.
Gershom Williams is currently editing a special edition of the Journal of Pan African Studies celebrating the intellectual life and scholarly legacy of J. Antenor Firmin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.