Contesting Inequality. Joseph Anténor Firmin’s De l’égalité des races humaines, 133 years on

Gudrun Rath,University of Art and Design, Linz:

Methods of comparison have been a central element in the construction of different races and the modeling of scientific racism, such as Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853). Nevertheless, these racist ideologies didn’t remain uncontested, and it was especially the intellectual legacy of the Haitian Revolution that played a key role in shaping what has recently been referred to as “Haitian Atlantic humanism” (M. Daut). However, 19th century Haitian diasporic intellectuals have frequently been omitted from international research tracing an intellectual history of the Atlantic sphere in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. Publications by intellectuals like Louis Joseph Janvier and Joseph Anténor Firmin, both Haitians residing in Paris in the second half of the 19th century, have too easily been discarded for their embracement of nationalism or their ‘imitation’ of French forms. Only recently has research highlighted their importance in thinking a “hemispheric crossculturality” (M. Dash) as well as for pan-African and pan-American thought. In publications such as De l’égalité des races humaines (1885), 19th century Haitian diasporic intellectual Joseph Anténor Firmin contested anthropological methods of comparison which provided a basis for racist ideologies. Similarly, Haitian intellectual Louis Joseph Janvier, who was trained as a medical doctor and anthropologist in France and author of Un people noir devant les blancs (1883), contributed to the modeling of an Atlantic humanism. As members of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris and French literary circles, both of them were acknowledged members of intellectual communities in the French capital, while at the same time being in continuous exchange with intellectual leaders of independence in the Americas, such as Ramón Emeterio Betances and José Martí. This essay discusses how methods of comparative anthropology were contested by Haitian-diasporic writer Anténor Firmin. It argues that Haitian diasporic thinkers not only put their birthplace and the legacy of the Haitian Revolution at the center of their work, but also actively shaped intellectual circles on the European continent. It thereby foregrounds a permanent, and also permanently neglected, entanglement between ‘Europe’ and the Americas.

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