Sidney Mintz’s Long, Sweet Legacy

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Merleaux_profileApril Merleaux is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Florida International University. She is the author of Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015, winner of the Myrna Bernath book prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 2010, and holds an M.S. in Nutrition Science and Policy from Tufts University. Her current research explores the environmental aspects of the war on drugs in  twentieth-century United States and Latin America.

I was greatly saddened to hear of Sidney Mintz’s passing in December. By all accounts he was a generous mentor and friend, and he will be greatly missed. The author of dozens of works, Mintz has inspired a generation of scholars working on Caribbean society, plantation agriculture, food history, commodities, consumer culture, and capitalism. An anthropologist by training, he was a truly interdisciplinary thinker and writer and his influence is widely evident among historians. Those outside of Latin American and Caribbean history are most likely to know Mintz through his popular Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), which is an exemplar of interdisciplinary, transregional history and creative synthesis. For all its flaws, the work is still regularly taught in undergraduate and graduate courses, and it graces the shelves of academics and non-academics alike. Having myself just published a book on the politics of sugar production and consumption in the United States and its empire, I had long imagined that I would someday sit down and have a nice chat with him. I am sorry that I missed the chance.

Though I never met Mintz, his work has influenced me at nearly every stage of my career. I have read Sweetness and Power from cover to cover at least five times over the last twenty-two years, and each reading has repaid my effort. I owe him a tremendous intellectual debt, not just as a fellow historian of sugar, but also as someone who cares deeply about food and power.

I first read Sweetness and Power more than twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate in a course on the history of consumer culture in the United States. Not even a decade old at the time, the book had already made its mark, transforming the way people thought about the connections among slavery, industrialization, and food consumption. Mintz collapsed the physical and psychological distance between the working classes in English factories and enslaved Africans on Caribbean plantations. He showed that the experiences of each group were as tightly bound by the sinews of global capitalism as if they were laboring right next door to one another. In the same course I read for the first time Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, and, notably, Lizbeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal—scholars who, much like Mintz, complicated an older view of mass consumer culture as apolitical or reactionary. We began to understand in much clearer and more specific historical terms how consumer politics could enable potentially liberatory producer politics.

Book

The author’s copy of Sweetness and Power.

Sweetness and Power was utterly mind-blowing for me as a starry-eyed undergraduate. Mintz’s argument immediately struck me as a profoundly ethical one—people living and working at great distances nonetheless exist in close, almost alchemical relationship with one another. Captivating turns of phrase certainly helped: “Slave and proletarian together powered the imperial economic system that kept the one supplied with manacles and the other with sugar and rum.” If, as he argued, people invisible to each other nonetheless exist as part of the same system, we bear intrinsic responsibility for each other. This opened for me a radical way of imagining ethical consumption and dignified labor.

I graduated from college weary of too many hours alone in the library, and eager to get my hands dirty. I boxed up my dog-eared copy of Sweetness and Power, setting off in search of a more direct encounter with the politics of production and consumption. For nearly seven years I worked on food and farming justice issues, managing an organic farm, doing environmental education with children, and advocating for food policy reform. I don’t recall rereading Mintz in those years, but the book nonetheless moved with me from Oregon to California to New Hampshire to Massachusetts. This was a period in which the ethical consumption movement really came into its own—most obviously in the contentious public debate over the federal organic standards in 1997, culminating in the 2002 National Organic Program, but also in the Fair Trade movement. At the time, we believed these movements could reduce the distances between producer and consumer. In hindsight, the hope that we could buy our way out of an exploitative food system seems to me a logical, and somewhat naïve, result of my earlier reading of Mintz. Now organic food can seem like little more than window dressing for elite shoppers.

My next encounter with Sweetness and Power was during the liminal period when I was deciding whether to rejoin academia after my stint in the soil. In 2001 I took Deborah Fitzgerald’s marvelous Food and Power graduate class at MIT. Sweetness and Power still seemed fresh and provocative, and together with newer works in agrarian history revitalized my love of the interdisciplinary study of food and commodities. Several years later—after I had given in to the siren call of doctoral study—I read Sweetness and Power a third time in Jean-Christophe Agnew’s Capitalism and Culture course at Yale. This was fitting, since Agnew himself has been a key interlocutor for historians of the United States as we grapple with questions of power and consumer culture. Though my love of the book had hardly diminished, I began to assemble a clearer picture of how Mintz was conceptualizing capitalism and world systems, and to see the limits of those framings.

I read parts of the book again in 2005 as I wrote a seminar paper comparing it to Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, a book which preceded Mintz’s by four decades and which bore obvious—though curiously unacknowledged—influence on Sweetness and Power. The juxtaposition with Ortiz (and with Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery) shows the extent to which race as a category of analysis is a lacuna in Sweetness and Power. I realized then that I could productively put commodity studies in conversation with the newer approaches to racial formations of U.S. empire coming out of American Studies. A dissertation was born.

I barely looked at Sweetness and Power while I researched and wrote my dissertation. In fact, I lived for a time in utter denial that I would ever have to seriously reckon with it again. Who wants to face the giant on whose shoulders one stands? The academic job search quickly disabused me of this fantasy. The very first question I got in my very first campus interview was, of course, “how do you position your work in relation to Mintz?” In retrospect, one of the richest aspects of revising and expanding the dissertation into a book was reengaging Mintz, who remains a great thinking companion.

After twenty-two years, five rereadings, and a book of my own, I am finally ready to venture a critique of Sweetness and Power. Mintz, as I now read him, overdrew the distinction between production and consumption. He conceptualized those activities as taking place in distinct geographies; consumers belonged in the metropole while producers were in the periphery. This formulation forecloses analysis of a crucial circuit of power—the fuzzy slippage between the category of producer and consumer when production and consumption take place in precisely the same location. What I have found is that when we pay attention to what sugar workers themselves were eating, we see the inner machinations of imperial capitalism in new ways. The messy edges show up, and easy models no longer hold.

I have also finally realized that Mintz—and by extension, Sweetness and Power—was himself a product of the history I describe in Sugar and Civilization, which covers the period between the Spanish American War and the end of the New Deal. Mintz was born in 1922. He was a child in the 1920s, a period when, I argue, U.S. American children were central to a rhetoric of race and consumption that linked empire with sweetness in transformative ways. He came of age during the late New Deal and World War, doing his early anthropological field work in Puerto Rico at the tail end of wartime demobilization on the island in 1948. The patterns of production and consumption he witnessed were a direct outcome of five decades of U.S. imperial political economy. In Mintz’s view, the hallmark of capitalist transformation was for workers to be severed from the production of their own food. The fact that Puerto Rican workers were consumers of goods produced elsewhere—their “import dependence”—was a concern transmitted directly from colonial administrators in the 1930s and 1940s. But, as I show, import dependence was not nearly as straightforward as Mintz or his New Deal predecessors would have us believe. The times when Puerto Ricans ate more of what they produced locally were almost always hard times, brought on by colonial policy decisions or the vagaries of the international sugar market. Puerto Ricans bought imported food when business was booming. Mintz’s schematic explanation of capitalist dynamics had its roots in New Deal critiques of consumer politics, politics which took a crumbling sugar empire and rebuilt a hierarchical sugar market favoring the mainland.

It did not occur to me until fairly recently that when I wrote Sugar and Civilization, I was writing a piece of the history of Sweetness and Power itself. It makes sense to me that we should be unearthing the remains of the New Deal in our scholarly apparatus. If, as I argue in my book, the New Deal remade sugar politics in the model of a new, liberal empire, then perhaps it is indeed time to consider the analyses of production and consumption we have inherited from the era. The irony is that I could never have understood these limits without Mintz himself. Long live Sweetness and Power!

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