18 October 2020 marks the 170th anniversary of the birth of Haitian scholar and public intellectual Joseph August Anténor Firmin1.  Firmin was variously a diplomat, Pan-Caribbean and Pan-African organizer, candidate for the presidency of Haiti, and self-taught anthropologist.  In 1884, while living in Paris, he was elected to membership in the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, founded by Paul Broca in 1859.  In Firmin’s day the Society was much taken up with discussion of craniology and the measurement of purported physical and intellectual differences across human races, all of which took for granted the superiority of white Europeans.  (Broca’s research locating a language center in the left frontal convolution of the human brain—on which his fame among linguists rests—was something of a side project [Lorch 2011].)  Until 1888 when Firmin returned to Haiti to take up a ministerial position in the young republic, he regularly attended the Society’s meetings.

          As a cosmopolitan and highly-educated man of African descent, Firmin apparently sat through years of debates that presupposed the global inferiority of Blacks relative to Whites.  The record shows he only twice intervened publicly to object (Bernasconi 2008: 369).  However, during that first year of his membership in the Society, Firmin privately composed an extraordinary 662-page text, De l’egalité des races humaines.  It comprises a many-sided rebuttal challenging the racist assumptions that were common currency among late nineteenth-century anthropologists and scientists, among them polygenism; the purported infertility of people of multiracial ancestry; the asserted links between humans’ physical and intellectual traits; and ‘scientific’ criteria for classifying humans into races, ranked relative to each other.  The details of these ideas were debated in the 1880s, but they took place against the backdrop of an unquestioned commitment to white superiority.  Firmin’s work seemed to have had little effect: the minutes of the Society on 1 October 1885 merely acknowledged its publication without comment.  A hundred and fifty years later, American scholar Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban brought the book to light in an English translation by Asselin Charles entitled The equality of the human races (Firmin 2000; Fluehr-Lobban 2000a, 2000b).  It was subsequently re-published in the original French (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004).  The renewed availability of Firmin’s text has stimulated commentary and analysis by modern scholars (Magloire-Danton 2005; Bernasconi 2008; Beckett 2017; see also the Journal of Pan African Studies, Issue 7.2 [August 2014]).

          Firmin writes ornate prose at a leisurely pace, in the high 19th-century style, replete with circuitous organization, quotations from Latin, and multiple rhetorical questions posed in first-person plural (‘So how do we explain…?  [S]hould we not examine the premises…?  Should we not put before the reader…?’ [2000: 88]).  Much of the text is taken up with a studious review of classical European scholarship, as if to establish the author’s credentials, followed by respectful but blunt critique of Firmin’s peers—perhaps materializing what Firmin was inhibited from asserting aloud at meetings of the Society.  Writing about the same period in which Firmin worked, an essay by Stepan and Gilman (1991) analyzes how outsiders to the established ‘scientific racism’ of the day had to appropriate its terms in order to defend themselves against it while, nonetheless, their continued exclusion ‘was part of the very process of the construction of the sciences of difference and inequality’ (p. 74).

          The relevance of The equality of the human races to the study of language is twofold.  The text includes a brief treatment of language issues in a chapter on ‘Criteria for classifying the human races’.  Firmin debunks the then-popular association of specific races with morphological types (i.e., isolating, agglutinating, inflecting), citing Black speakers of inflecting languages, and White speakers of agglutinating languages.  He then narrates several centuries of speculation about the origin of language, from Plato to Condillac to Ernest Renan (1823–1892), a contemporary Semitic philologist and race ideologue (Leopold 2010).  Firmin speculates about culture, typology, and language change (along the way, evincing skepticism about the existence of an Indo-European language family [p. 129–130]), to conclude that language cannot be used as a criterion for classifying human races.  Nowhere in his text does Firmin advert to Haitian Creole, although at the time he was writing, an indigenous literature in that language was emerging among writers such as Oswald Durand (1840–1906), and New Orleans scholar Alfred Mercier had already published an appreciative analysis of the integrity and creativity of Louisiana Creole (1880)—characteristics that Firmin certainly recognized in Haitian culture.

          Perhaps more important to the study of language, and as Charity-Hudley, Mallinson, and Bucholtz (in press) point out in passing, Firmin’s 1885 book predated by more than 25 years anthropologist Franz Boas’s (1858–1942) first challenges to the anthropometric basis of ‘scientific racism’ (Boas 1911, 1940).  Boas’s research on Native American languages, which deeply influenced the conceptualization and methodology of linguistics in the United States, was integral to his lifelong campaign against race discrimination.  Boas and Firmin both defied conventional racial prejudices, writing as they did out of different experiences, wielding different tools, with differing results; but it is salient that Boas’s contribution has been lionized (Gossett 1997: 418–426; cf. Bernasconi 2019), and Firmin’s ignored.

-- Margaret Thomas, LSA Archivist, Boston College

For an archive of all essays in this series, please visit this page.



Beckett, Greg.  (2017).  ‘The abolition of all privilege: Race, equality, and freedom in the work of Anténor Firmin’.  Critique of Anthropology 37.2: 160–178.

Bernasconi, Robert.  (2008).  ‘A Haitian in Paris: Anténor Firmin as a philosopher against racism’.  Patterns of Prejudice 42.4–5: 365–383.

Bernasconi, Robert.  (2019).  ‘A most dangerous myth’.  Angelaki 24.2: 92–103.

Boas, Franz.  (1911).  Mind of primitive man.  New York: Macmillan.

Boas, Franz.  (1940).  Race, language and culture.  New York: Macmillan.

Charity-Hudley, Anne H., Christine Mallinson, & Mary Bucholtz.  (In press).  ‘Toward racial justice in linguistics: Interdisciplinary insights into theorizing race in the discipline and diversifying the profession’.  Language 96.4.  To appear December 2020.

Firmin, Anténor.  (2000).  The equality of the human races (Positivist anthropology) (Asselin Charles, trans., with an Introduction by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban).  New York: Garland Press. Reprinted 2002, Champaign-Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press.  (Original work published 1885)

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn.  (2000a).  ‘Introduction’.  In Anténor Firmin, The equality of the human races (Positivist anthropology) (Asselin Charles, trans), pp. xi–xlvi.  New York: Garland Press.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn.  (2000b).  ‘Anténor Firmin: Haitian pioneer of anthropology’.  American Anthropologist 102.3: 449–466.

Gossett, Thomas.  (1997).  Race: The history of an idea in America.  New York: Oxford University.  (Original work published 1963)

Leopold, Joan.  (2010).  ‘Ernest Renan: (1823–1892): From linguistics and psychology to racial ideology’ (1840s to 1860s)’.  Historiographia Linguistica 37.1–2: 31–61.

Lorch, Marjorie.  (2011).  ‘Re-examining Paul Broca’s initial presentation of M. LeBorgne: Understanding the impetus for brain and language research’.  Cortex 47.10: 1228–1235.

Magloire-Danton, Gérarde.  (2005).  ‘Anténor Firmin and Jean-Price Mars: Revolution, memory, and humanism’.  Small Axe 9.2 (Vol. 18): 150–170.

Mercier, Alfred.  (1880).  ‘Étude sur la langue créole en Louisiane’.  Comptes Rendus de l’Athénée Louisianais (New Orleans).

Price-Mars, Jean. (1978). Anténor Firmin  .Port-au-Prince: Séminarie adventiste https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/00/09/59/47/0000/Mars_Firmin.pdf             

Stepan, Nancy Leys and Sander Gilman.  (1991).  ‘Appropriating the idioms of science: The rejection of scientific racism’.  In Dominick Capra (Ed.), The bounds of race, pp. 72–103.    Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


End Notes

1 Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, among others, cites Firmin’s birthday as 27 November 1880.  However, a biography of Firmin by Haitian scholar and political figure Jean Price-Mars (1876–1969) (1978:14–15), ‘Firmin’s intellectual heir’ (Magloire-Danton 2005: 156), asserts that Firmin’s parents entered his birth into public records on 27 November; his actual birthdate was 18 October.