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Anthropologist in the Cane

Published: 
Sunday, January 3, 2016

Last week one of the greats of North American anthropology, Prof Sidney Mintz, passed away. Mintz was 93 and spent his life from the 1950s forward studying modernity in the Caribbean. 

Much of what he learned here of Caribbean history, peoples and cultures and how they might best be understood had a lasting impact on the discipline. Many of the ideas he and others developed to understand the Caribbean have been appropriated to understand the mixing and blending of various peoples, cultures, and societies taking place under neo-colonial globalisation.

This is not surprising to those who know his work. Mintz noted well before most that: “Caribbean peoples are the first modernised peoples in world history. They were modernised by enslavement and forced transportation; by ‘seasoning’ and coercion on time-conscious export-oriented enterprises; by the reshuffling, redefinition and reduction of gender-based roles; by racial and status-based oppression; and by the need to reconstitute and maintain cultural forms of their own under implacable pressure. These were people wrenched from societies of a different sort, then thrust into remarkably industrial settings for their time and for their appearance, and kept under circumstances of extreme repression. Caribbean cultures had to develop under these unusual and, indeed, terrible conditions.” 

Aside from anthropology, Mintz is also known as a food historian for his brilliant 1985 study, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Sweetness and Power described the political-economic history and rise of the global sugar consumption. It tied plantation slavery, world capitalism, the socio-cultural development of taste, and Marxist anthropology into a single narrative able to illustrate capitalism as a cultural system.

With the growing need for us to buy local, his insights about the socio-cultural development of what constitutes “good food” are as relevant to today as ever. As his obit in the New York Times quotes him: “We appear to be capable of eating (and liking) just about anything that is not immediately toxic . . . What constitutes ‘good food,’ like what constitutes good weather, a good spouse or a fulfilling life, is a social, not a biological matter.” 

Mintz’s anthropological approach began during the late 1940s as a member of the Puerto Rico Project organised by Prof Julian Steward. The project is remembered by Caribbean anthropologists like Karla Slocum and Deborah Thomas for its “rich ethnographies of diverse rural Puerto Rico communities” and “examined the political, economic, and environmental context surrounding peoples’ lives, including how foreign investment in mechanisation on plantations transformed local lives; and also considered the various dimensions of social hierarchical arrangements in which peoples were positioned.”

Mintz’s fieldwork during the project became the 1960 ethnographic classic, Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. As an easily acccessible route into ethnography, the central research method of anthropology, many budding anthropologists encounter this work in their introductory courses. To this day anthropology students at the UWI read about Taso Zaya, Mintz’s cane worker, central gatekeeper and friend from this research.

The Puerto Rico Project was a watershed moment in the development of anthropology. Mintz and his student cohorts like Eric Wolf, Eleanor Leacock, Alexander Lesser and more marginalised African American anthropologists like John St Clair Drake and Allison Davis broke once and for all with the discipline’s canon that explicitly stated the world was a place of isolated cultures divided from one another, empty of contact.

In Puerto Rico, anthropological analysis and ethnography became far more interested in interconnection between the local and the global. Communities and individuals were situated within world history, political economy, and others areas like African diaspora, global migration, and the collision between colonial processes and capitalist production.

Another important contribution from Mintz’s work was his argument that the Caribbean is a “sociocultural area.” He noted specific social features to the region but stressed it was not a cohesive culture. To paraphrase Slocum and Thomas, he did not stress the commonalities across islands and nations, instead he emphasised the immense cultural heterogeneity of the region and was against scholarship suggesting one specific cultural model could explain and characterise the entire Caribbean. 

He noted the sheer number of societies in the Caribbean (each peculiar in historical development and the nature of contemporary life) defies any effort at a compact synthesis. So a holistic discussion of race and ethnicity in the Caribbean for example is always far too simplistic. Each island has specific stories to tell and any general discussion disguises the nuances of race relations in particular places.

From a Caribbean centre Mintz’s North American anthropology has issues of power relations to deal with. Some, for example, claim his ideas are ethnocentric or note the Caribbean has changed much since the Puerto Rico Project or Sweetness and Power. But this would be to miss the foundational impact of his work for Caribbean Anthropology today. 

As Mintz once said of the early anthropologist of African retentions, Professor Melville Herskovitz, we can now say of Mintz himself; no anthropologist of the Caribbean can claim to be uninfluenced by the work of Professor Sindy Mintz. 

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine

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