Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Race and Geopolitics in the Work of Anténor Firmin

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Race and Geopolitics in the Work of Anténor Firmin

Article excerpt

Newly arrived in the United States from Hong Kong, the protagonist of David Henry Hwang's seriocomic play FOB anxiously asks his mocking interlocutor, "Tell me, how do people think of Gwan Gung in America? Do they shout my name while rushing into battle, or is it too sacred to be used in such ostentatious display" (17)? Like Steve fretting about the fate of his eponymous culture hero, the Chinese god of war and literature, in a new land, we too have sometimes felt minor pangs of anxiety about the journey to the United States of that near mythic personage from the Haitian motherland, the great ideological warrior and homme de lettres, Anténor Firmin. Ever since the publication of the English translation of his masterwork The Equality of the Human Races (2000), we have wondered on occasion, how do people think of Firmin in America? Do they shout his name while rushing into social and political battle, or is it so sacred that it must be confined to the tranquil groves of academe? It would be a pity, we think, if the words and deeds of this Caribbean Gwan Gung, this man of thought and action who fought so tirelessly for the dignity of his compatriots, of African peoples, and of humanity, were to remain the private reserve of intellectuals and scholars. Indeed, Anténor Firmin's legacy to the world, exemplified in his rich life of public service and political commitment and encapsulated in a diverse body of writings encompassing anthropology, political theory, philosophy, economics, sociology, literary criticism, and history, is worth trumpeting beyond the walls of the academy.

Thanks to the release of the English version of De l'égalité des races humaines ten years ago, followed by the publication of the original 1885 French text in France (2004) and in Canada (2005), and the more recent edition of a Spanish translation of the book in Cuba (2011), Firmin is known today in the global intellectual oecumene primarily for his irrefutable demonstration of the equality of the human races in response to the racialism of late nineteenth-century anthropologists and other advocates of White European supremacy, particularly the Comte de Gobineau, author of Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (1853-1855). The scientific rigor of Firmin's argumentum leaves his readers with the impression that The Equality of the Human Races disposed of the notion of a race hierarchy in such a convincing manner that the concept ought to have been thrown onto the ash heap of intellectual history then and there. The subject of the book therefore should have been obsolete today, irrelevant to our times, if it had all depended on Firmin's successful deconstruction of race and racism. That the arguments presented in the work still resonate with us is a sure indication of its continuing relevance to today's socio- political realities. As for Firmin's other important writings, such as Diplomate et Diplomatie (1898), M. Roosevelt, Président des Etats-Unis et la République d'Haiti (1905), Lettres de Saint-Thomas (1910), and L'Effort dans le mal (1911), they appear to be essentially topical works, interesting political texts often with a memoirist's perspective, but concerned with the issues of the times and of interest mostly to historians and biographers.

Yet, like The Equality of the Human Races, those works appeal today not only to Caribbeanists and scholars interested in the history of ideas, but to thoughtful readers concerned by current socio-political realities and their underpinning ideologies. Thus the state of the world today paradoxically imbues the century-old Firminist canon with great appositeness. Indeed, Firmin's passionate engagement with the issues facing Haiti and the world between the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth moves us in this second decade of the twenty-first century as it did his contemporaries. Our world, wracked like Firmin's by Darwinian conflicts among polities and marked by rapports of domination and submission among peoples and nations, sorely needs to revisit the essential idea that traverses the statesman-scholar's entire oeuvre: the absolute equality of all human collectivities beyond the contingencies of race and nationality as a foundation of a just and harmonious world order based on the peaceful coexistence of peoples in their racial and cultural diversity. …

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