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Anténor Firmin

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Anténor Firmin

Anténor Firmin (October 18, 1850 – September 19, 1911) was a Haitian scholar, anthropologist, and philosopher. He is famous for writing De l’égalité des races humaines (English: The Equality of the Human Races) and his Pan-African activism. In his work, Firmin opposed the racialist anthropology of the nineteenth century and rejected the idea of racial hierarchy.[1]

Anténor Firmin was born on October 18, 1850, to a working-class family in northern Haiti. Firmin completed all of his education in Haiti. As a student, he studied classical languages and civilizations of Europe; read anthropological writings of European scholars. Later he studied law.

In 1881 Firmin married his neighbor Rosa Salnave, the daughter of the ex-president of Haiti Sylvain Salnave. She had lighter skin, and other people saw their marriage as a “mismatch” because of the tension between black people and mulattos in Haitian society at that time.[2]

In 1883 he came to Paris as a Haitian diplomat. The next year he joined the Society of Anthropology of Paris, where he began writing De l’égalité des races humaines. In 1888 Firmin returned to Haiti and became Minister of Finance, Commerce, and Foreign Relations.[1]

The Equality of the Human Races

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His major anthropological work, De l’égalité des races humaines, was published in 1884. At that time, Western scholars did not pay attention to it. One possible explanation is that Firmin wrote in French. His work became widely known only in 2000 when it was published in English under The Equality of the Human Races. Today it is one of the most important works in anthropology.[3]

In The Equality of the Human Races, Firmin contradicted the ideas of racialist physical anthropology that were very popular at that time. He chose the title of his work in response to a famous essay by French diplomat and writer Arthur de GobineauEssai sur L'inegalite des Races Humaines (English: Essay on the Inequality of Human Races). Gobineau’s essay was the first to promote white superiority over Black people. Firmin had the opposite opinion. He believed that all people have the same qualities and weaknesses and that all races are equal. Firmin gained inspiration from August Comte, and gave his book a subtitle Anthropologie Positive (English: Positive Anthropology). As a positivist, Firmin believed that a new science of anthropology, positive anthropology, should study physical and intellectual characteristics of the human species without categorizing them into races.[4] He supported a broader approach in anthropology without too much focus on the physical measurement of human racial differences.

Race Concept

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Anténor Firmin was against any hierarchy of races and believed that racial typing was non-scientific. He disagreed with the existing racial types, for example, Ethiopian/Black or Caucasian/White, because they did not include mixed races. Firmin also challenged the anthropologists who used the method of anthropometry (measurement of the human body).[5] A physician, anatomist, and anthropologist Paul Broca was one of his main intellectual opponents. Broca was a dominant figure in French anthropology in the 19th century.

Monogenism versus Polygenism

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There are two major views on the origin of the human races. Those who support monogenism believe that the races developed from common roots. Polygenists think that they originated from separate roots. Anténor Firmin did not have a clear position on that topic; he thought each view had its advantages and disadvantages. But by today’s standards, he could be called a monogenist.[1]


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Firmin was an activist in the early Pan-African movement. He studied African antiquity as a student and praised the accomplishments of African peoples. He was one of the first to state that Egyptian civilization gave origin to the Greek and Roman cultures.[6] Although unknown in the field of anthropology, Firmin’s The Equality of the Human Races became a significant work of Pan-Africanism.[7]


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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn (2000). "Anténor Firmin: Haitian Pioneer of Anthropology". American Anthropologist. 102 (3): 449–466. doi:10.1525/aa.2000.102.3.449. ISSN 0002-7294. JSTOR 683404.
  2. Trouillot, Michel Rolph (1994). "Culture, color, and politics in Haiti". In Race, Edited by Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek.: 146–174 – via New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  3. Firmin, Anténor. "UI Press | Anténor Firmin | The Equality of the Human Races". www.press.uillinois.edu. Retrieved 2022-11-29.
  4. Firmin, Anténor (1850-1911) Auteur du texte (1885). De l'égalité des races humaines : anthropologie positive / par A. Firmin,...{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. Kirby, John B. (1972-07-01). "John S. Haller, Jr., Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859-1900". The Journal of Negro History. 57 (3): 297–299. doi:10.2307/2717346. ISSN 0022-2992. JSTOR 2717346.
  6. Nicholls, David (1979). From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Geiss, Immanuel (1976). "The Pan-African Movement: A History of Pan-Africanism in America, Europe and Africa". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 9 (4): 730–733. doi:10.2307/217048. JSTOR 217048.