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A little more than a decade ago, a man by the name Barack Obama gave a speech called “A More Perfect Union” to clarify controversial remarks made by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. The speech was delivered during the primaries of the election making his primary audience American voters and his secondary audiences, the entire American nation. Obama’s speech addresses racial differences, white privilege and racial inequality in the United States. Throughout the speech Obama uses various literary and rhetorical devices to convince his audience of moving past racial differences and move forward as a nation.
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In the beginning of his speech Obama establishes ethos by sharing his personal background and how it ties with todays current racial issues. This ethos is supported by Obama’s statement that he has, “gone to some of the best schools in America” giving the idea that he does have the authority and knowledge to make these statements. Obama continues to establish his ethos by revealing his cultural background and stating, “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas… I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners…I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents”. This proves to his audience that when he speaks of racial issues it is because he was born into them. By revealing his own personal history to the audience, he forms a connection with them, making the audience more inclined to trust Obama if they feel they can relate to him on a personal level.
In this speech, Obama uses historical evidence to make his audience reminisce on past racial differences that caused a division between black and white Americans. He initially addresses the country’s history of slavery and the events that led up to the battle for equal rights, promised originally by the Constitution. Obama uses repetition as an advantage in this portion of the speech by forming a sense of unity through the use of language such as “we,” “together,” and “us.” By using this language Obama unites everyone listening to his speech by a single common characteristic: being an American citizen. Obama is careful to only ever address the audience or the country as “we,” by doing so he convinces the listener that they are united under the Constitution and everyone around them despite skin tone, history, or beliefs, must act as one “towards a better future for our children and grandchildren” (Obama).
Throughout his speech Obama establishes pathos by appealing to the audience’s feelings of empathy and compassion by specifying Wright’s character outside of what is presented by the media to justify his opinions and thoughts. Obama made sure to clarify that he completely opposed Wright’s statements, but then proceeds to give a deeper insight into where the pastor is coming from. Obama reveals that Wright “a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities […], and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by […] housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AID.” By stating this Obama brings his audience to comprehend that his relationship with Wright was not positioned around Wright’s controversial statements, but rather the good deeds Wright did. By portraying a favorable, reputable version of Wright, Obama shows that his association with Wright is justified since Wright’s actions prove that he is a good person despite the media’s portrayal of him. Obama claimed that he could not disown Wright no more than he could, “disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me […] but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Obama’s claim connects Wright with the audience by indicating that many people relate to having relatives with outdated and discriminatory beliefs, yet they still love them. Obama further implies that Wright is a symbol of the of the internal conflict within the black community. Obama appeals to the audience’s understanding and morality by arguing that it is not right to denounce someone simply because he or she is imperfect.
With the controversy topic explained, Obama moves on to his main goal of his speech: race relations. He transitions into this theme by saying, “I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork… But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” By contradicting the “politically safe” thing to do, Obama is appealing to ethos by demonstrating to his audience that he is not afraid to do the right thing when it is needed. Obama then moves on to appeal to logos, implying that the best thing for the country would be if this issue was resolved. Obama’s discussion of race relations is emphasized by a reference to the beginning of his speech, when he states that race issues are “… a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” The repetition of the phrase catches the audiences’ attention and implies that it is something that can be perfected.
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Obama goes on to talk about both white resentment and black anger from an educated and unbiassed point of view, using the appeal of logos to strengthen his intelligent and calm persona. By describing situations that relate to both sides of the issue, he dodges any claims of race bias, which were brought up because of the controversies with Reverend Wright. Obama hits appeals to pathos, by providing pictures of “those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future” or “the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”
Obama managed to take a controversial situation and turn it into a discussion about race relations in America. Obama’s skillful use of literary techniques and classical appeals helped him deflect the controversies surrounding him while using it to his advantage to steer his audience attention to a more serious issue. Throughout his speech Obama manages to relate to his audience by using universal experiences that a majority of individuals in the audience can relate to or have related to at some point in their life. It is easy to say that through the use of rhetorical devices Obama managed to convince his audience that he indeed didn’t not share the same controversial claims as his pastor, but understood where he came from, and others who shared his thoughts.
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