Theories of Race

Anténor Firmin

  • Anténor Firmin's portrait

    Anténor Firmin



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The first scholar of African descent to write an extended and systematic work of anthropological theory, Anténor Firmin was remarkable in many other ways as well. Born into the Haitian working class, he acquired and taught Greek, Latin, and French. He studied law and became a successful advocate. He founded a liberal newspaper, became known to influential people in Haiti, and in 1883 began serving as a diplomat in Paris. There, he was admitted into the Anthropological Society of Paris founded by Paul Broca and at that time headed by Paul Topinard.

In Paris, Firmin became aware of Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of human races, 1853-55). His response, six hundred and sixty pages composed in eighteen months, was published in 1885 with the defiant title of De l'égalité des races humaines (anthropologie positive) (The equality of the human races [positive anthropology]). In the course of attacking Gobineau, Firmin produced a comprehensive indictment of the current intellectual milieu, with detailed critiques of Blumenbach, Bory de St. Vincent [see Cuvier], Renan, Camper, Darwin, Morton, Haeckel, Kant, Quatrefages de Bréau, and many others. While attacking many of the premises and methods of contemporary anthropology, drawing attention in particular to the inability of the leading lights of the field to define the basic terms species and race, he also introduced as a normative statement one of the earliest accounts of modern anthropology: “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.” This was a direct and combative response to those such as Topinard and Quatrefages who saw anthropology as a method for studying human beings “monographically, as a zoologist studies an animal” (10). Firmin’s first chapter, “Anthropology as a Discipline,” is, while dated by contemporary standards, a landmark in the history of the discipline, and stakes out the position that the discipline is properly oriented not to the study of racial categories but to Man considered as a whole, with racial groups constituting variations on a “single blueprint.”

Firmin attacked Gobineau, whom he described bluntly as “a sick mind,” on two fronts, one of them widely accepted and the other still controversial in the twenty-first century (439). The first focused on Gobineau’s understanding of the science of race, beginning with his respect for the measurement-based practice of anthropometry in general and craniology in particular. After Broca’s death in 1880 and the ascension of Topinard, enthusiasm for the statistical approach to race waned, if it did not disappear altogether. Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, the same was true in the United States. Attacking the use of skull and other measurements as indicators of racial difference, Firmin was speaking in support of a growing consensus, leaning on a wall that was about to fall of its own weight.

The second and more controversial argument deployed by Firmin centered on actual contributions that Black people had made to world civilization. Firmin argued both that the culture of ancient Greece to which Europeans proudly traced their cultural and intellectual origin was Egyptian and that Pharaonic Egypt was essentially a Black African creation, with no distinction between Egyptians and Ethiopians. Rejecting the contention of Samuel George Morton that the ancient Egyptians were “Caucasoid,” Firmin declared that they were “members of the Black race” (245). Widely disputed at the time, similar claims, presented with greater historical detail by more recent writers such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Martin Bernal, continue to represent a minority position in the twenty-first century.*

When Firmin published his work in 1885, the pro-slavery forces in the United States had been defeated and German interest in Gobineau as a Nazi thinker avant la lettre had not yet begun to emerge. Interest in Gobineau was at a low ebb, and Firmin’s work may have seemed, like his attack on anthropometry, to be an assault on a helpless and inconsequential target. L’égalité des races humaines received little attention at the time of publication, and soon fell out of print even in Haiti, where it was not reissued until 1968. When the book was translated into English for the first time in 2000, it came as a revelation to many who had never heard of the author.

There is no indication that the Paris Anthropological Society ever conducted any discussion or consideration of Firmin’s book. It may have been difficult for Parisian intellectuals to take seriously a huge manuscript produced by a young Haitian diplomat, especially a manuscript that was unsparing in its criticism of virtually all European scholarship in several fields. The Society may have felt itself under direct attack in passages such as those in Chapter 6, “Artificial Ranking of the Human Races,” where Firmin declared that “we must put the skull aside” in favor of the brain, the study of which would reveal quite different conclusions than the ones that made Broca’s reputation in the field. Firmin’s style is as distinctive and unconventional as his argument:

If science, before which I always bow, finally reveals to me the cabalistic word to pronounce in order to make nature speak, then should my deepest convictions be shaken by what I hear, I will listen, disconcerted and painfully disillusioned, but resigned. On the other hand, if, despite my good will, I find it impossible to penetrate the arcana of anthropology; if, like a capricious courtesan it withdraws its favors from me to bestow them upon such illustrious men as Morton, Renan, Broca, Carus, de Quatrefages, Buchner, and De Gobineau, the whole proud and arrogant phalanx of those who proclaim that the Black man is destined to serve as a stepping stone for the White man in his quest for power; then I will have the right to say of this lying anthropology that it is not a science (156).

Nor were anthropologists his only targets. Firmin also dismissed all disciplines that purported to possess criteria for classifying human beings, reserving particular contempt for the prestigious tradition of German philological scholarship that was thought by many to represent both the apogee of professional erudition and the most sophisticated approach to race (Chapter 5, “Criteria for Classifying the Human Races”). On occasion, his indictment could become comprehensive. “White reason,” he argued, was a hugely destructive phantom, and could even be considered the central problem associated with modernity

Unlike many of his colleagues in the Anthropology Society, Firmin insisted on the underlying unity of all races. In an account similar to that first ventured by Kant and reformulated by Darwin, he contended that races appeared when groups of primitive men migrated to different areas, where the climate and the environment, coupled with isolation, produced in time the differences now characterized as races. These differences were legitimate objects of study—but not for the anthropologist. It was rather the ethnologist who should be tasked with the project of developing information about racial groups. The anthropologist could then take this information to a higher level, considering Man in the abstract, the level at which the unity of humankind would be regained. Rejecting Broca’s conclusions about the infertility of hybrids, Firmin said that the vigor of New World “métissage” or racial mixtures constituted effective proof of the ultimate equality and identity of all human races (see Chapter 8, “Métissage and Equality of the Races”). “All men are brothers,” Firmin wrote, and “once they acknowledge they are equal, the races will be able to support and love one another. . . . human beings everywhere are endowed with the same qualities and defects, without distinctions based on color or anatomical shape. The races are equal” (448-50).

This was not merely a theoretical position staked out in a scholarly debate. Sprinkled throughout Firmin’s “scientific rebuttal” are warnings about the consequences of rejecting human unity and equality. “When political and civic equality, equality before the law, is not spontaneously granted,” he wrote, “there are Negroes who will simply use force to take it” (271).

The reference to “positive anthropology” in Firmin’s title signaled his commitment both to scientific fact as opposed to theory or to philosophy and to a theory of historical progress associated with August Comte’s “positivism.” Comte, a sociologist, stressed the progressive modification of human life; Firmin eagerly appropriated this theory from sociology and advanced it as a premise for anthropology, the law to which all humans were summoned. His example of what he called human “perfectibility” was Caribbean Blacks, and Haitians in particular, who had demonstrated to the world that Black people in a non-African environment could advance with great rapidity. “The ineluctable destiny of all human societies, he wrote, “is to go forward, to persevere on the road to progress once the first step has been taken” (“Preface,” lvii).

The strongest statements of Firmin’s position came in the final chapter, on “Theories and their Logical Consequences,” where he connected the abstractions and ostensibly neutral practices of scientific measurement to the ideology of white supremacy that legitimated colonial oppression and economic exploitation. As an accredited scientist and a citizen of a once-colonized nation whose independence was established by a slave revolt, Firmin was well positioned to analyze the ways in which theories or concepts about white supremacy that were developed in one domain—academic anthropology—could be applied in the world at large. He sought in his book not just to protest the injustice of the application but to discredit the theory, depriving colonial or imperial practices of the oxygen of scientific validation.

By combining scientific reasoning and moral, philosophical, or political statements, Firmin may have compromised the intellectual integrity of his argument in the eyes of some, but his approach mirrored Gobineau’s, and drew attention to the source of Gobineau’s considerable appeal beyond the scientific community. Indeed, from an historical perspective we can say that the indifference that greeted Firmin’s arguments threw into high relief the role played by cultural biases and preferences in the reception and understanding of the scientific discourse on race. The same Western audiences that had greeted with enthusiasm Gobineau’s arguments about European cultural superiority and the evils of race-mixing greeted Firmin with silence or hostility. It is difficult not to suspect that Gobineau was well received, at least by some, not because he had a superior scientific mind or a firmer evidentiary base but because his biases and frame of reference were far closer to theirs than Firmin’s.

After the publication of his book, Firmin continued to work on a project he had begun while living in Haiti, a Caribbean Confederation in which Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico were united into a single political entity. He served for several months in 1889 as the Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, and Worship, in which capacity he met with Frederick Douglass, then the ambassador to Haiti for the United States. And he organized the first pan-African congress in London in 1900, for which W. E. B. Du Bois wrote the official report. The Pan-African movement continued, but Firmin’s involvement diminished. Disapproving of the government in power in Haiti, Firmin returned in 1902 at the head of what became known as the Firminist Insurgency. Defeated, he was forced into exile on the island of St. Thomas, where he died in 1911 at the age of 61 following the failure of a second attempted insurrection.

Following the rediscovery and translation of his book, new attention was paid to Firmin’s political and intellectual career. He began to be identified as a possible influence on a number of movements and individuals, including the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s and 30s, the anti-colonialist Négritude movement in Africa at the same time, and the subsequent “Afrocentrism” of Diop and Molefi Kete Asante among others. Others have, however, pointed out that the racial essentialism that characterizes these movements contradicts Firmin’s understanding of race.** A more direct connection has been established between Firmin and subsequent ethnology and anthropology through Firmin’s biographer Jean Price-Mars, widely considered the founder of Haitian ethnology. Firmin is also linked with anthropologists Franz Boas and Melville Herskovits, whose Life in a Haitian Valley, with its rich descriptions of voodoo practices, appeared in 1937.

 *See Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization:  Myth or Reality, trans. Mercer Cook (Paris:  Présence Africaine, 1967); and Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, three volumes (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1987-2006).  Firmin was not the first Haitian to be interested in ancient Egypt as the source of Western culture.  See Martin Delaney in Further Reading.  

** See Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1987); Michael J. Dash, “Nineteenth-Century Haiti and the Archipelago of the Americas: Anténor Firmin’s Letters from St. Thomas,” Research in African Literatures 35 (2004) 2: 44-53.

The Equality of The Human Races 


Chapter 1. Anthropology as a Discipline

Anthropology, the discipline which studies this complex being [Man], takes on a real importance among the different sciences. Born only yesterday, this science was promoted with such vigor from the very beginning that it seems already old, so burdened it is with formulas, doctrines, independent methodologies, the whole adding up to an imposing but cumbersome apparatus. All the other sciences gradually become its tributaries. (3)

For my part, in asserting that the anthropologist must study not only Man’s physical characteristics but also his moral and intellectual dimensions, I put ethnography in its appropriate place. I consider ethnography a branch of the cosmological sciences, for it is inevitably present in any attempt at studying the universe. . . . Ethnography can thus be distinguished from ethnology, which does not stop at the mere description of peoples but in addition divides them into distinct races, studies their different organic constitutions, considers their typical variations (long, pointed or round heads; jutting or straight jaws; aquiline, straight or flat noses, etc.), and finally tries to discover where these are factors that might explain aptitudes which seem particular to each human group. In a word, as the etymology of the terms clearly suggests, ethnography is the description of peoples, whereas ethnology is the systematic study of these same peoples considered from the perspective of race. . . .

The anthropologist comes in when the ethnographer and the ethnologist have completed their work. The anthropologist compares Man to other animals in order to separate the subject of his study from all the surrounding subjects. More particularly, the anthropologist seeks answers to the following questions: What is the true nature of Man? To what extent and under what conditions does he develop his potential? Are all the human races capable or not to rise to the same intellectual and moral level? If not, which races seem more particularly endowed for a higher development of the mind, and what are the biological traits which ensure such superiority? (12-13)

Section 7. Constitutional Unity of the Species

Let us now sum up the various logical conclusions that arise from the preceding discussions. The human species, with its unique original constitution and organic uniformity, which results from the fact that it is based on a single blueprint, appeared in various parts of the world, under strictly identical conditions, at a certain point in the evolution of life on this planet. However, the species later diversified into distinct peoples and races as soon as the climate began to affect markedly the various environments in the different ways it usually does. Primitive man, the first prototype of the species, was but the rough product of animal evolution, upward from the protozoan but still a far distance from his subsequent achievements. . . . He was simply a bestial creature.

Man had to go through a series of evolutionary steps before he could develop these attractive features that make of him not only the most elevated being in creation, but also the most beautiful product of nature. Whatever transformations the different human groups have undergone under various influences, they all retain the primordial, constitutional, imprint of the species, bearing the same intellectual and moral traits inscribed in the original common human blueprint. . . .

To embrace the concept of the unity of the species involves, through the exercise of a great keenness of mind, rejecting all the false ideas that the existence of diverse races might inspire and seeing, instead, only the essential characteristics that make of all human beings a community of beings capable of understanding one another and of joining their individual destinies into a common destiny. That destiny is civilization, that is, the highest level of physical, moral, and intellectual achievement of the species. (82-83)

Naturalists, especially those with an expertise in zoology and botany, call races the varieties of a given species when these varieties have been fixed through reproduction, with particularities which are at first imprecise or idiosyncratic, but which later become constant and transmissible through heredity without violating the general laws of the species.

This definition of race had already been formulated by the time the science of anthropology became established. Unable to invent a better definition, anthropologies simply adopted the existing one verbatim. That was the wise thing to do . . . . there is a plethora of systems. They contain so many contradictions and the zootaxic principles adopted by the different authors diverge so much that one can rightly wonder whether anthropological science, a discipline to which we attribute so much importance and such noble goals, is not, instead, a simple amalgam of confused concepts, a field in which anyone is free to practice, without any fixed rules or methods. Indeed, a science whose most authoritative figures agree so little on the foundations on which to base theoretical deductions, will never radiate the prestige and authority that reassure interested but skeptical minds.

Such a confusion of ideas fosters or tolerates an imperfect terminology, the limitations of which are obvious to any conscientious scientist. “The most important technical terms in the science of man,” says De Rosny, “are among those that are subject to the most regrettable misunderstandings. If the very idea of the species, which is apparently such a rigorous concept in zoology, can have been challenged, indeed almost shattered by the theory of transformism, the idea of race, already less clear and less precise when applied to animals, becomes obscure, vague, deceitful, even fanciful at times, when applied to human beings.” [Compte rendu du Congrès international des sciences ethnographiques tenu à Paris en 1878, 750.]. Such words may seem quite rude and are likely to shatter the pride of many a scientist, but they are nonetheless true and appropriate.

So how do we explain the imprecision and lack of clarity which seem to afflict the minds of those whose occupation it is to study and classify the human races? Are the difficulties inherent in the science itself, or are they the result of these men’s adherence to preconceived systems in their efforts to make natural facts conform to certain theories inspired by prejudice? The answer is yes in both cases. On the one hand, there is a dearth of solid principles in anthropological science at this point; on the other hand, and precisely for this reason, its practitioners, with their methodical minds, are able to construct the most extravagant theories, from which they can draw the most absurd and pretentious conclusions. (87-88)

. . . It is now well known that the ancient inhabitants of the shores of the Nile were members of the Black race, and I have presented overabundant evidence in support of this fact. Let us now see what humanity owes to this race. . . .

As regards the intellectual development of humanity, there is no doubt whatsoever that we owe to Egypt all the rudiments which contributed to the elaboration of modern science. The only thing that might seem foreign to Egyptian civilization is the moral evolution of the Western peoples which started with Greek philosophy and continues today, with successive crises of varying lengths and disruptive effects. But the more we understand the meaning of the ancient hieroglyphs preserved on the resilient Egyptian papyrus manuscripts or chiselled into the ancient stelae and bas-reliefs, the more we become convinced of the high level of moral development achieved by the Nilotic populations of the era of the Pharaohs. . . .

The Greeks, who were, through the influence of Rome, Europe’s educators, must have taken from Egypt the most practical principles of their philosophy, just as they have taken from her all the sciences which they cultivated and later improved with a marvelous intelligence. This can hardly be doubted, especially as we know that all the great Greek philosophers, the leading thinkers, those we might call the masters of Hellenic thought, from Thales to Plato, habitually dipped their cups into the Egyptian springs . . . .

Beside the ancient Ethiopian-Egyptian race, is it possible to identify another Black nation, great or small, that has directly influence by its achievements the social evolution of the civilized peoples of Europe and America? Without succumbing to the temptation of chauvinism, I must once again return to the Black race of Haiti. (394-95)

Recognition of the equality of the races entails a definitive recognition of the equality of all social classes in every nation of the world. The moral principle underlying such a recognition thus acquires a universal import which reinforces and consolidates its authority. Wherever the struggle for democracy is being waged, wherever social inequality is still a cause of conflict, the doctrine of the equality of the races will be a salutary remedy. This will be the last blow struck against medieval ideas, the last step toward the abolition of privileges. . . . Can we say the same about the theory of the inequality of the races? To the contrary, because this theory entails exclusion, it necessarily leads to the idea that a small group of men, almost as powerful as gods, is destined to subjugate the rest of humanity. (438)

As we recapitulate the various objections raised in order to destroy the very foundations of every method used to rank the human races, we find that we are justified in asserting that all the races are naturally equal.

This equality is upset only when one particular race benefits from favorable evolutionary circumstances to achieve a level of development and acquire certain aptitudes not yet attained by the others. But lest we forget that those now on the heights had to rise from an earlier stage of inferiority, we find both in the past and today, in various places around the globe, many of their congeners living in a stat obviously reminiscent of that of their ancestors.
In the beginning, all the human races on earth were equally ignorant, weak, immoral, and ugly, but they gradually evolved for the better, transferring to their descendants various faculties which successive generations would perfect. Physical and moral heredity fixes each acquisition in the family, the district, and the country. These acquisitions add up, and their cumulative effects raise to great heights creatures who started from the very ground. Each race reaches the heights by different itineraries and at different moments. Who can say, then, that one ethnic group is superior to another when we know how long it has taken the most civilized races to attain their current advanced stage and what serendipitous combination of environmental and historical factors has contributed to their development? . . .

Social evolution alone is responsible for the differences in the moral and intellectual constitution of the different segments of humanity. Perhaps it could be supposed that the physical and psychological make-up of certain races makes them superior to the others, giving then an evolutionary edge. But why make such a gratuitous supposition when such factors as climate and historical circumstances satisfactorily explain the fast evolutionary pace of these privileged races? The White nations of Europe, for example, did not all reach a similar level of development in the same historical period. We observe, to the contrary, that most of those nations formerly considered hopelessly backward now occupy a preeminent position, whereas others which enjoyed enormous power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have lost all their former status.

Looking at the facts with all the impartiality required by such a serious question, we have established that the Black race, which has been labeled inferior to the rest of humanity, is to the contrary as capable of intellectual and moral progress as any other race. Must some people persist in the errors of the past despite the light which modern science shines on the truth? Must the authority of a few scientists and scholars suffice to legitimize erroneous opinions that have survived over the centuries only through legends and prejudices of which one should be ashamed in this era of freedom and progress? The answer is, a thousand times no! (443-45)

My wish is that this book will enlighten minds, inspire a sense of justice in all, and compel one and all to face reality. Perhaps European scientists, who are still convinced of the superiority of their race, will stop, think, and realize that they have been the victims of an illusion. The current state of the world, the myths and legends which had shaped their thought as children, the traditions that had continuously fed their intelligence, everything necessarily led them to a doctrine, to a set of beliefs, which appearances seem to justify. But can they persevere in a proven error without renouncing the exercise of reason, the greatest endowment of humanity? . . . This cannot be, for reason shall always prevails.

. . . Throughout all the struggles that have afflicted, and still afflict, the existence of the entire species, one mysterious fact signals itself to our attention. It is the fact that an invisible chain links all the members of humanity in a common circle. It seems that in order to prosper and grow human beings must take an interest in one an other’s progress and happiness and cultivate those altruistic sentiments which are the greatest achievement of the human heart and mind.

The doctrine of the equality of the human races, which consecrates these rational ideas, thus becomes a regenerative doctrine, an eminently salutary doctrine for the harmonious development of the species. Ultimately, it evokes for us the most beautiful thought uttered by a great genius, “Every man is man,” and the sweetest divine instruction, “Love one another.” (450-51)

Robert Bernasconi, “A Haitian in Paris:  Anténor Firmin as a Philosopher against Racism,” Patterns of Prejudice 42 (2008) 4-5:  365-83.  

Asselin Charles, “Race and Geopolitics in the work of Anténor Firmin,” Journal of Pan African Studies, 7 (2014) 2.  [This issue of the journal is devoted to Firmin.] 

Martin Delaney, Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color (Philadelphia:  Harper and Brothers, 1879).  

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, “Introduction,” Anténor Firmin, The Equality of the Human Races, trans. Asselin Charles (Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2002; orig. pub., 2000), xi-l.    

Celucien L. Joseph, “Anténor Firmin, the ‘Egyptian Question,’ and Afrocentric Imagination,” Journal of Pan African Studies, 7 (August 2014) 2: 127-76.

Jean Price-Mars, Joseph Anténor Firmin (Port-au-Prince:  Imprint Séminaire, 1964).