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Abstract

This dissertation studies the critical contribution of Haitian social thought and literature to the field of French anthropology. Specifically, it looks at the works of a generation of Haitian intellectuals: Louis Joseph Janvier (1855-1911), Anténor Firmin (1850-1911), and Frédéric Marcelin (1848-1917)—all men of African descent who challenged the theories and discourses of biological racism and the “civilizing mission” championed by members of the prestigious Société d’anthropologie de Paris. As members of the Société themselves, Janvier and Firmin experienced firsthand the racial prejudices of their (white) peers. In order to advance their antiracist and anticolonial agenda, they confronted their interlocutors with tangible evidence of the cognitive potential of African-descended people by promoting the literary achievements of their fellow countrymen in both Haiti and France. Marcelin, on the other hand, remained outside of the sphere of anthropology proper, choosing instead to depict Haitian mores and customs in a project of fictional autoethnography which marked the birth of the Realist novel in Haiti. By mapping their transatlantic experiences and analyzing their scientific, political, and literary writings, I show how Janvier, Firmin, and Marcelin not only enacted an early decolonization of the language and ideas of anthropology, but also propounded a radical reinvention of its objects, practices, and purposes. Bluntly put, I argue that their use of literature as a source and medium of anthropological knowledge allowed them to push against institutional and epistemological boundaries to reconstruct the field as a space of racial vindication, national affirmation, and cultural celebration.

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