December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

On arguing in the master’s language 

I always thought The Most Interesting Man in the World was Euro RSCG’s (one of the world’s largest mental real estate agencies) deliverable to its client Dos Equis. And that the agency’s rationale went something like:

He is a man rich in stories and experiences, much the way the audience hopes to be in the future. Rather than an embodiment of the brand, The Most Interesting Man is a voluntary brand spokesperson: he and Dos Equis share a point of view on life that it should be lived interestingly.

And that he challenged across categories and dueled across social media with Isaiah Mustafa’s manly purr, a former NFL wide receiver who switched to “playing defense for Old Spice against the Dove launch.”

There is a debate why The Man Your Man Could Smell Like supposedly never managed to move sales the way The Most Interesting Man did. Nivea did just as well without the purr, and Dos Equis helped more friends stay thirsty. At least that’s the word on the street.

What I never knew, however, is that The Most Interesting Man actually lived. And that he resembled Mustafa a bit more than Jonathan Goldsmith.

The world’s Most Interesting Man is a man who survived the Middle Passages. His name was Oladuah Equiano. He was born sometime around 1745 in a rural community somewhere within the confines of the Kingdom of Benin. At the tender age of eleven Equiano was kidnapped from his home and eventually sold to British slavers operating in the Bight of Biafra.

From whence he was conveyed first to Barbados.

Then to a plantation in colonial Virginia.

After spending much of the Seven Years’ War hauling gunpowder for the British frigate, he was promised his freedom, denied his freedom, sold to several owners – who regularly lied to him, promising his freedom, and then broke their word – until he passed into the hands of a Quaker merchant in Pennsylvania, who eventually allowed him to purchase his freedom.

Over the course of his later years he was to become a successful merchant in his own right, a best-selling author, an Arctic explorer, and eventually, one of the leading voices of English Abolitionism. His eloquence and the power of his life story played significant parts in the movement that led to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

Equiano’s further adventures – and there were many – are narrated in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudiah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789.

Readers of Equiano’s book are often troubled by once aspect of the story: that for most of his early life, he was not opposed to the institution of slavery. At one point, while saving money to buy his freedom, he even briefly took a job that involved purchasing slaves in Africa. Equiano only came around to an abolitionist position after converting to Methodism and falling in with religious activists against the trade. Surely, if anyone had reason to understand the evils of slavery, he did.

The answer seems, oddly, to lie in the man’s very integrity. One thing that comes through strikingly in the book is that this was not only a man of endless resourcefulness and determination, but above all, a man of honor. Yet this created a terrible dilemma. To be made a slave is to be stripped of any possible honor. Equiano wished above all else to regain what had been taken from him. The problem is that honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others. To be able to recover it, then, a slave must necessarily adopt the rules and standards of the society that surrounds him, and this means that, in practice at least, he cannot possibly reject the institutions that deprived him of his honor in the first place.

It strikes me that this experience – of only being able to restore one’s lost honor, to regain this ability to act with integrity by acting in accord with the terms of a system that one knows, through deeply traumatic personal experience, to be utterly unjust – is itself one of the most profoundly violent aspects of slavery. It is another example, perhaps, of the need to argue in the master’s language…*

Defending your humanity in front of the Master is always an exercise in Creole dialect of economese and legalese.

Let’s leave you with The Most Interesting Man’s 16 sec advice on your career:


*These passages are borrowed with no sense of debt from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years


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