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  • The Anthropology of Ourselves:An Interview with Sidney W. Mintz
  • Charles V. Carnegie (bio) and Sidney W. Mintz


Sidney Mintz has been a leading figure in anthropology and a preeminent scholar of the Antilles for more than fifty years and his writings foundational to a coherent regional conception of the Caribbean. Indeed, Mintz has in many respects made it possible to know and to think the Caribbean in the social sciences and humanities: at variance with imperial narratives and against the authorizing nationalist discourse and insularities that prevailed over the second half of the twentieth century. If pressed to summarize in a sentence the central preoccupation of his wide-ranging corpus, especially as it relates to the Caribbean, one might say he has been wrestling with the question of how a dominant system of power and knowledge—one in which the Caribbean has been appropriated, partitioned, overlooked, and misrecognized—might be understood and contested.1

Mintz's Caribbean retains distinctive freshness and relevance because it has always been framed in world-historical terms, not in service of, or as footnote to, conquest and imperial domination. Rather, for Mintz the Caribbean offers a privileged point of vantage for understanding Europe and the world-transforming enterprise brought on by its colonial expansion. Squatting comfortably at one of Legba's crossroads, he has looked searchingly in multiple directions: paying keen attention to the extraordinary capacities, labor, and accomplishments of Antilleans and their enslaved forebears; seeking to understand the powerful external forces that shape and constrain lives lived, as he once put it, "in the path of the world system." He has been equally concerned with making plain the obscured but intimate ways in which Caribbean labor has made [End Page 106] present-day Europe and North America possible (not simply by adding to the metropole's store of wealth, as Eric Williams had earlier argued), but also by sustaining industrial workers in the North Atlantic, transforming their habits of consumption, and altering their most basic sense of occasion and propriety as expressed through the routine temporal events and symbols that give meaning to social life. Sidney Mintz, then, was finding a way to make a global anthropology possible—one that was attentive to everyday life while at the same time spatially multisited and temporally historicized—long before most of his colleagues in the discipline began to seek out ways to relate the precious insights gleaned from ethnography to wider global processes. In recent years, as anthropology has set out in frenzied pursuit of the transnational, Mintz has urged the need for a tacking back towards the local.2

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Figure 1.

Sidney Mintz in the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince.
Photo courtesy of Sidney Mintz

Indeed, Mintz's work is distinctive for its locally grounded character and the fidelity with which he interprets the histories and experiences of ordinary people. Worker in the Cane opens with a striking photograph of Taso Zayas's work-worn, honest hands resting on his crossed legs.3 Taso's [End Page 107] face and shoulders are cropped out of the photograph, but the poise of the seated figure dressed in clean white shirt and dark trousers make evident a deep sense of dignity and self-respect. The narrative that follows conveys with caring intimacy the skills, intelligence, and circumspection that have taken Taso to middle age in the corporate plantation fields of south-central Puerto Rico. "In my growing friendship with Don Taso, and probably for the first time in my life," Mintz comments, "I learned to look down the corridor of time through which a man had walked. I found myself deeply stirred by what I could dimly understand."4 That early interest has sustained a career of probing search. Other than Taso, we rarely encounter named, speaking subjects in Mintz's published work, so relentlessly concerned is it with the patterned properties of the social order, the inner workings of local, regional, and global systems, and the processes through which they come into being and change. He describes the organization of the modern corporate plantation, small farm peasant agriculture and its interdependent market system, patterns of Caribbean...