Anténor Firmin challenged anthropology’s racist roots 150 years ago

The Haitian scholar showed that science didn’t support white supremacy

A photo of Anténor Firmin in black and white overlayed on a tan background.

When Anténor Firmin joined one of the first anthropological societies in Europe, racist views had become foundational to the field.

History and Art Collection/Alamy

At the end of the 19th century, one of the hottest debates among anthropologists was whether human beings originated from a single ancestor or many (the answer: just one). Members of both camps, though, largely agreed that whatever their origins, some races were superior to others. Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin knew that premise to be false.

“Human beings everywhere are endowed with the same qualities and defects, without distinctions based on color or anatomical shape,” Firmin wrote in French in his 1885 book, The Equality of the Human Races. “The races are equal.”

Firmin was ahead of his time. Today, genetic research confirms that human populations cannot be divided into distinct racial groups.

But few scholars in the nascent field of anthropology, or any other contemporaries, read his treatise. Instead, leaders in the field were deeply influenced by the French white supremacist Arthur de Gobineau’s four-volume Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, published in the 1850s. Against that backdrop, in 1859, Paul Broca, a French physician and brain researcher interested in the study of human origins, founded the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, one of the first anthropological societies in Europe. Broca believed he could use skull measurements to identify human populations, which could then be categorized into a racial hierarchy. When Firmin joined that society in the 1880s, such racist views had become foundational to anthropology.

Few anthropologists outside of Firmin’s native Haiti have heard of The Equality of the Human Races, anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban of Rhode Island College in Providence wrote in American Anthropologist in 2000. “This is hardly surprising since most of the early [Black] pioneers of anthropology have only recently been brought to light.”

Those leaders include many other Haitians, such as doctor and writer Louis-Joseph Janvier, who wrote The Equality of Races in 1884, and politician Hannibal Price, who wrote On the Rehabilitation of the Black Race by the Republic of Haiti in 1900. American abolitionist Martin Delany wrote Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color in 1879.

Firmin would probably still be languishing in near-total obscurity if not for an English translation of his book that came out in 2000. Following that publication, a small number of anthropologists and other social scientists began calling for Firmin to be recognized as a founding father of anthropology. His arguments, after all, predated by several decades similar arguments by the German-American scholar Franz Boas, often considered the father of modern anthropology. Like Firmin, Boas argued that race was a cultural construct.

Firmin was among the first to view anthropology as the study of all humankind, rather than the more divisive approach common in his day, says Fluehr-Lobban, who wrote the introduction to the English translation.

Firmin also brought to his book a deep scientific rigor that was not yet common in the field. His highest priority was that “the case be made on the facts,” Fluehr-Lobban says.  

No evidence for racial hierarchies

Firmin was born in the northern town of Cap-Haitien in 1850 to a working-class family. He grew up at a time of tremendous national pride. Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804, making it the first free Black republic in the world and the first independent nation in the Caribbean. 

An image of a large group Haitian soldiers fighting against a group of French soldiers with rifles and bayonets.
After a revolution spanning more than a decade, Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804, making it the first free Black republic in the world.Auguste Raffet

As a young adult, Firmin studied law, which led to a career in politics. He served as the inspector of schools in Cap-Haitien and as a Haitian government official in Caracas, Venezuela. He married his neighbor, Rosa Salnave, in 1881. In 1883, Firmin became Haiti’s diplomat for France and moved to Paris.

Firmin, like many scholars of his day, read across fields, Fluehr-Lobban says. That led him to become interested in the study of humankind. While in Paris, Firmin spoke of this interest with French physician Ernest Aubertin, who invited him to join the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris.

It did not take long for Firmin to question his membership in a group openly hostile to people who looked like him. Faced with such a tough environment, Firmin remained silent at meetings. He acknowledges this reluctance to strike up a debate with other society members in his book’s preface: “I risked being perceived as an intruder and, being ill-disposed against me, my colleagues might have rejected my request without further thought.”  

Instead, Firmin penned his 451-page rebuttal, using a title that clearly contradicted de Gobineau’s influential work.

On a general level, Firmin takes aim at the nonscientific tenor of many society members’ arguments. “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,” Firmin writes in a chapter devoted to dismantling the then-popular classification of races using cranial measurements.

Firmin uses the bulk of the book, though, to flesh out his argument in precise detail. For instance, Firmin conducts a thorough analysis of the physical factors that were purported to separate the races, such as height, size, muscularity and cranium shape. He then painstakingly combs through the data to debunk prevalent theories of racial hierarchies.

“What can we conclude here from these observations? Can we find here any indication of hierarchy at all?” he queries at one point in reference to a chart on brain volume. The question is rhetorical. The measurements of supposedly distinct racial groups instead often overlap. Nor do the measurements conform to established racial hierarchies. “It is all so very anarchic,” he concludes.  

The power of Firmin’s writings stem from his deep commitment to following the evidence, says Niccolo Caldararo, an anthropologist at San Francisco State University. “His criticism of European, especially French scientists, was so careful, was so precise, was so perfectly defined that he undermined their practice as bias rather than empiricism.”

Firmin’s modern-day relevance

The translation of Firmin’s text came out of a chance encounter between Fluehr-Lobban and a Haitian student in her Race and Racism class in 1988. That student approached Fluehr-Lobban and asked if she had ever heard of Firmin. She had not but was intrigued.

In collaboration with Asselin Charles, a Haitian-born literary scholar then at neighboring Brown University, the duo set out to find a copy of the book. That turned out to be no easy feat. “There were three copies in the United States,” Fluehr-Lobban says. “One of them was in the Library of Congress.”

To Fluehr-Lobban’s surprise, upon receiving her request, library staffers sent her the book. Charles served as translator. “As a result of this book coming out in English, it had a whole new life,” Fluehr-Lobban says. Still, she adds, the book has yet to get its due: “It has not gotten into the canon of anthropology.”

Fluehr-Lobban hopes that will change, especially given the book’s modern-day relevance. Despite clear evidence that race has no biological basis, some scientists still use the concept as an organizing principle. And racism remains prevalent.

“This was a critical race theory book [written] in 1885,” Fluehr-Lobban says.

Firmin, however, remained optimistic that science would eventually get the last word. “Truth is like light: one may hide it for as long as human intelligence can conceive, it will still shine in the cellar where it has been related; at the least opportunity, its rays will pierce the darkness and, as it shines for all, it will compel the most rebellious minds to bend before its laws,” he wrote. “Science owes all its prestige only to this power, to this intransigence of the truth.”  

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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