Equality of the Human Races: A Review
By Baruti KMT
Sunday, 31 December 2006 - 12:00 PM

The Equality of the Human Races, by Joseph Antenor Firmin , (Garland Reference Library of Social Science) (Hardcover), Routledge, 2000, 470pp.

Equality of the Human RacesJoseph Antenor Firmin (1850-1911) published The Equality of the Human Races , his "positivist" tome, in 1885 as a scientific rebuttal to Arthur de Gobineau's "Inequality of the Human Races." De Gobineau and other architects of "scientific" racism of the 19th century served as the targets of Firmin's address to their problematic perceptions of Africans/Blacks the world over. Recognizing that such propositions by highly regarded but equally ill-informed "men of science" held sway in the minds of many, Firmin opted to pen a work that would serve as his comment on the subject that fueled many heated debates in the Paris Anthropological Society. Inducted into the Society in 1884, Firmin came to be regarded as one of the premier scholars within the bourgeoning field of anthropology, yet many European members of the society sought to regard Firmin and the only other member of African descent, Louis-Joseph Janvier, as exceptions that did not invalidate the rule of African/Black inferiority. Firmin understood that in order to do the subject the justice it deserved, a clear and unequivocal response to such marginalizing tactics was of great import. In this vein, Firmin employed multiple strands of evidence and reasoning to address the European held perspective on the inferiority of African peoples the globe over; notions which led to the "Inequality of the Human Races" thesis as proffered by de Gobineau and supported by his many European colleagues. In contradistinction to de Gobineau's work, Firmin choose to title his work "The Equality of the Human Races."

This is a book that must be read and digested fully to comprehend the impact such a work will have on the mind of the reader. Approached openly and with regard for the social and historical context within which it was written, "The Equality of the Human Races" provides the basis for vigorous discussion among academics and non-academics alike. With that in mind, this review will briefly examine three areas believed to be of considerable significance to this reviewer: (1) Firmin's analysis of the social construct of race; (2) the ethnic/phenotypical characteristics of the inhabitants of "ancient Egypt," and (3) the role of African people in the development of civilizations across time and space (contrary to popular perceptions, the progeny of Africa have produced many great civilizations and equally notable systems of thought).

With respect to the construct of race, Firmin does an admirable job of outlining and supplanting dominant thoughts on the issue of the inferiority of African people. In several chapters with titles such as, "Monogenism and Polygenism," "Criteria for Classifying the Human Races," "Artificial Ranking of the Human Races," and "Comparison of the Human Races Based on Their Physical Constitution," Firmin uproots commonly held "truths" of the 19th Century and demonstrates their untenability. Firmin's work is so replete with supporting evidence for his claims that I will leave it to the reader to discover for themselves the weight of his arguments against de Gobineau's thesis. In so doing, he replaces such notions with arguments that seem today to be taken-for-granted assumptions.

In examining the region of Ancient Kemet (currently referred to as "Ancient Egypt" - another discussion for another time), Firmin presents incontrovertible historical evidence supporting his and earlier writers' accounts that the inhabitants of the region were black, a term that over time has acquired greater social significance than in the past. In providing copious research on the region, particularly the journal entries of early visitors, Herodotus among them, Firmin soundly situates the origins of the peoples of the region in Upper Kemet/Egypt, i.e. in the interior or black Africa. Interestingly, his argument regarding the African/Black phenotype of the ancient Kemites/Egyptians predates assertions made by Afrocentric scholars by nearly a century. Such a position by a scholar from the 19th century, from Haiti no less, allows for the removal of defaming designations applied to today's Afrocentric scholars who are often viewed as scholarly extremists and historical revisionists.

In Chapter 17, "The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization," Firmin documents many facts that have withstood the great procession of time and today remain intact as they relate to the significant contributions of African people to the development of math, science, architecture, literature, language, and philosophy. Given the existence of the Pyramids at the Giza Plateau, Olmec Heads in Central America, and the documents recently unearthed at the Timbuktu University in Mali, not to mention the work of independent scholars like Runoko Rashidi, Firmin's work allows readers to observe for themselves the social and historical contributions of African people the world over. This being the case, this reviewer asks that the reader peruse the multiple examples - supplied by Firmin and other great thinkers both then and now - that serve to dislodge notions of African absence within the building of historic civilizations.

As with writings from Selena Sloan Butler, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Martin R. Delany, all from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and more contemporarily, those of Drs. Cheikh Anta Diop, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, and John Henrik Clarke, the resurrection of Joseph Antenor Firmin and his work "The Equality of the Human Races" is yet another horn in the clarion call for continued research, reclamation, preservation, and presentation of works by African scholars and thinkers alike. As global society makes its trek toward the next phase of human beingness, works such as "The Equality of the Human Races" serve as a striking hammer against the lynch-pin that holds together pernicious notions regarding African people both on the continent and in the Diaspora.

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