Mintz on Haiti

Huon Wardle has posted a memoir by Sidney Mintz, Remembering Haiti: lessons from the field, on two Group threads devoted to that country, here and here. Both threads are worth visiting, not least for the stunning artwork that Huon has assembled on one of them.

There is a lot to be said about Sidney Mintz's style of living and writing as an anthropologist. The most obvious quality is his humanity, a quality of kindness, of being able to treat others as you would like to be yourself. The apparent simplicity of his crafted prose is at one with this ethic. We often think of ethnography as being grounded in local particulars, as it must be. But there is also a universality in the approach that has echoes of the teachings of the great religions.

I am not a Christian, but I have long pondered the anthropological significance of the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul writes:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (my italics).

Charity does not mean here the modern version of alms-giving it has since become. For the early church it was a theological virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one's neighbours as objects of God's love. It was with ideas like this that Christianity undermined a Roman Empire based on slavery.

I read into this passage a profound justification for ethnographic method. We normally see the world through the distorting mirror of racism, a dark projection of our fears and anxieties onto others whom we demonize. Paul envisages a time when we will be able to meet strangers face-to-face, to get to know ourselves fully, by being open to knowing others and them us. Isn't this what fieldwork at its best can be?

We enter all social relations on conditions of inequality. The best we can hope for is to contrive a measure of human equality from those initial conditions. This requires us to be open to our own common humanity and to dispense temporarily with the arbitrary divisions that structure our normal relations.

Read Sidney Mintz's memoir of fieldwork, remembering the context in which it was written, an appalling national disaster which called forth a deluge of cultural prejudice from the media, military, politicians and NGOs. Ponder on this passage, not only for what it says, but for how it is written:

Kids would gather in front of Ti-dè’s place. They had no money at all, but for them, that café brought the aroma of the wider world. Truckers everywhere are envied by rural youth, and Haiti is no exception. Ti-dè had put two benches in front, for idlers. The kids were almost wholly illiterate; they came from peasant families nearby, and the only work they knew was how to hoe and pick coffee. But they knew about movies and Europe, and they were all wonderful actors, who would fall into a pose and recite a bit of garbled classical verse in an instant. Their antics delighted each other, and they certainly delighted me. After eating I would go home, light my lamp, and work on my notes before turning in."

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