Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Quixote and Caliban: A Different Look at Creolization

Sidney MintzOn April 4th, CLACS welcomed a visit and lecture by famed anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz. He was speaking as part of the Our America course and speakers series organized by Professors Aisha Khan and Millery Polyne.  Born in 1922 in New Jersey, Mintz received his BA from Brooklyn College in 1943, and his PhD from Columbia University’s Anthropology department.  Mintz’s work has influenced anthropology, history, and particularly Latin American / Caribbean studies.  His books Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past, and The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Approach among others, have established Mintz as a seminal figure in the study of on slavery, peasantry, labor, and food.  He is one of a group of prominent anthropologists from Columbia who developed under Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict, including Marvin Harris, Eric Wolf, Morton Fried, and Stanley Diamond.

Mintz’s lecture reflected the ongoing primacy of his subject matter, based upon field work he had begun in 1948. His continued engagement with issues of race, ethnicity, creolization, dislocation, linguistics, relationships of power and dominance, and the economies of colonialism are an integral to academic study across several disciplines. His delivery was pithy, witty and grounded in his competence as a life-long scholar, educator, sincere and honest human being.

Self-described as a ‘Think-piece’, “Quixote and Caliban: Another Way to Look at Creolization” relates to two literary constructions: the first, Cervantes protagonist, a hapless middle-aged gentleman whose alleged good intentions do harm to almost everyone he meets since he cannot separate the real world from his idealized views of it. The latter, Caliban, Prospero’s slave from Shakespeare’s Tempest has been described as dark, earthy and monstrous, the son of a shrewy-witch and the only actual native of the island in the play. Caliban is drawn riddled with ambiguities from savage and drunk to noble, sensitive and eloquent. His belief that the island should rightfully be his has been seen as a mirror for self determination of indigenous cultures, suppressed by European colonial societies.

In his lecture Mintz used these two characters as reflexive tropes for Hispanidad and blackness since the anagram for Caliban is cannibal and as often been wrongly ascribed to the Carib people. He detailed the genealogy of Caribbean colonialism and the economics of plantation agriculture referring to the specifics of the various commodity cultures, evolving from this period, sugar, coffee, tea and chocolate, which fostered the construction of rapid industrialization and creolized cultures.  He stressed how this is a region of many countries, ethnicities and languages with diverse and distinct colonial influences and cannot be seen as one monolithic culture. The archipelago was separated into three divisions, the more fertile Sugar islands, the Hispanophone and non-Hispanophone islands.

Race viewed phenotypically has located people into simplified categories which do not allow for the inclusion of cultural distinctions or interrogate historical evidence and issues heterogeneity. Labor divisions on the plantations, coupled with the ease or difficulty of adaptation of people dislocated from kinship and language groups, familial ties, associated skills, gendered separation and cultural traditions determined hierarchies and access in these new highly industrialized society.  Mintz detailed the associated definitions and nuances of ‘Creoles’, creolized languages and creolized cultures distinguishing between creole societies and societies which underwent a creolization process. Professor Mintz provided hefty themes for younger scholars to interrogate, and just cause for him to continue his inquiry sixty three years later.

Shortly after his presentation at NYU, he gave a similar talk in University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, which is you can view here.

Posted by: Desiree Barron, Scott A. Barton and Olga Arnaiz — students of “Our America: Cross Currents and Intimate Dialogues in the Making of a Hemisphere”

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