Feast of Life: A Tribute to Anthropologist Sidney Mintz
January 14, 2016
I’ll never forget meeting Sid Mintz, who passed away last month. I was a young(ish) book editor at Beacon Press, hoping to develop our anthropology list. Why not start at the top? Years earlier, Sid had transformed the fields of both history and anthropology with the publication of Sweetness and Power, which was no less than a retelling of the rise of capitalism through the story of sugar. Sid invited me to lunch at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I was nervous.
Before that meeting, I had only talked with Sid by phone. He had agreed to write a new introduction to the Beacon classic, Melville J. Herskovits’s The Myth of the Negro Past (1944) which argued—against the grain in its time—for the cultural resilience of enslaved Africans in the Americas.
As we walked to lunch from Sid’s office at Johns Hopkins, he took a detour off the main path on the museum grounds so he could skip over the stepping stones in a reflection pool. I followed him and we continued on our way, but not before he had put me completely at ease. Then he schooled me on what was worth publishing and why.
That lunch resulted in several wonderful projects. First, Sid brought my attention to a scholarly essay he had written with his colleague, Richard Price, two decades earlier. Always modest, Sid was not one to resurrect his past work, but he did wonder if this particular long essay deserved a second look. (It did. And Beacon published it as a paperback original, The Birth of African-American Culture, the next year.) I recall reading the essay after my return to Boston. It is a stunningly beautiful essay that describes how, even on the slave ships, Africans from different tribes began to create culture together with whatever meager supplies they had. In the authors’ telling, they used pieces of broken glass to shave stars and half-moons into each other’s hair.
Such life-affirming acts, despite unimaginable hardship, are what Sid brought to light throughout his career: the genius and creativity of ordinary people on whose backs the modern world was built.
Sid had an eye for others scholars who reached out of the academy, and he helped me identify other promising work to publish. During that same trip to Baltimore, Sid suggested I meet two people: his former student, the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and another colleague, Ashraf Ghani. Rolph ended up writing an important book for Beacon, Silencing the Past, about Haiti, power, and how history is told. Ashraf Ghani did not write for Beacon, but he has gone on to put the lessons of power into action: he is currently the president of Afghanistan.
And then there was the second book with Sid, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, which collected the best of Sid’s scholarship as an anthropologist of food. He was tickled when the New York Times Sunday Magazine used the occasion of the book’s publication to feature him in their food column with Molly O’Neill.
Sid was a delight. At that first lunch and as always, his huge heart, devilish wit, and sparkling and critical eye were on display. He surely did not need my advice to write a good book or essay, but he indulged my ideas nonetheless. It was a sheer pleasure to work with him, a brilliant thinker who didn’t suffer fools but extended extraordinary generosity to those he loved—especially his “subjects,” the unschooled men and women who he would say taught him so much.
Thank you, Sid Mintz, for everything.
About the Author
Deborah Chasman is an editor at Boston Review. Follow her on Twitter at @DebChasman.