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Rhetorical Analysis of “Some Thoughts on Mercy”

Ross Gay’s article “Some Thoughts On Mercy” is an account of an African American’s experiences in America’s racist society. The story begins in an ordinary setting in the author’s garden. However, he remembers being profiled because of his color and this sparks the journey into his experiences as an African American. The story highlights the author’s experiences and those of other African Americans from the Jim Crow days as they grapple with a society designed to discriminate against them. It reveals the horrors of racism and its adverse physical, societal, emotional, and psychological effects. In the end, the author implores the audience to imagine a society where race did not determine how its members are treated. The author understands that racism is a complicated and thorny subject particularly for Americans who are the article’s target audience. The author thus employs various rhetorical strategies to improve the appeal of the article and ensure that it realizes its purpose of urging Americans to rise above racism. Ross Gay uses ethos, pathos, and logos to appeal to the audience and successfully relays the message that Americans need to rise above racism.

The author uses various devices of ethos to affirm his character, credibility, and reliability to advance the ethical appeal of the article. Gay introduces himself as an African American teacher of creative writing at the Indiana University in Bloomington. With this self-disclosure, Gay affirms his credentials as an African American whose experiences he intends to discuss in the text, and as a writer meaning, he understands the medium with which he intends to communicate with. The author goes on further to narrate experiences of his life as an African American. Gay narrates his experience with overt racism such as when someone yelled at him, “Don’t come around here with white girls, nigger!” or covert racism such as when his football teammates defined him by his racial stereotypes (Gay). Gay uses similar personal anecdotes about his life as an African American in the United States to demonstrate that his appeal for Americans to introspect and rid themselves of the racist ideas emerges from his experiences with racism. This makes him and the message of his article more reliable and hence more convincing to the reader.

Other than mentioning the author’s race and academic credentials, the text promotes the character of the author to promote its ethical appeal. When the audience approves of the character of the author, then they are similarly likely to approve the message of the text. Throughout the text, the author is keen to remind the audience of his upstanding character as an American. The author first begins by presenting himself in a normal situation as he works on his garden with a house he owns and his bills paid. Later on, the text mentions that the author is “generally law-abiding,” pays his taxes, and “good-natured” among others (Gay). Using these descriptions, the image of the typical upstanding American is painted. Given that the target audience of the text is Americans, the ethical appeal of the text is promoted since the author is a person they identify with or aspire to be. Additionally, by affirming promoting the author’s character, the article demystifies the stereotypes that underpin the racist criminalization of Black people. By establishing a common ground with the audience through the character of the author, the text succeeds in affirming the ethicality of its message.

The author further advances the reliability and credibility of the text by using quotes and historical events of manifestations of racism in American society. The author for example quotes Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness when discussing how phenomena such as Reagan’s war on drugs and “stop-and-frisk programs” have been used to criminalize African Americans. The text quotes Michelle Alexander’s boon because it is an authority on the manifestations of racism in America. Similarly, citing the war on drugs and stop and frisk programs, “the Rodney King beating” and the “Central Park Five” among others which many Americans witnessed shows that the message of the text about the criminalization of Black Americans is founded not just on the author’s experiences, but also on reliable sources and historical events that are relevant to most Americans. The use of reliable sources to advance the argument of the text adds to the reliability and credibility of the text.

The article also uses logos to argue against racism and urge the audience to work towards ending racial biases in America. The article uses structures that invoke the audience’s inductive reasoning. For example, the article details an anecdote about the teacher discussing drugs with a class of mostly black kids, and one child admitted to using weed. The author then writes uses the example to show how American society has conditioned African Americans to think that they are “different from white people” while people of “all races use drugs” (Gay). The article repeatedly uses this model of building a logical argument whereby a real-life African American experience is used to reveal how racism manifests in America. The audience is first roped into the story and while they think about what the anecdote means in the general context of the article, the author reveals the forces of racism that lead to these African American experiences. The article guides the audience to reason and thinks about the issue of racism at a deeper level by immersing them into personal experiences which logically reveal the ugly racist side of America as a society.

The article also employs patterns that evoke the audience’s deductive reasoning to enhance the logical appeal of the article. On numerous occasions, the article makes sweeping statements and follows up reasons for these statements. For example, when discussing the issue of stop and frisk programs, the paragraph begins with “I shudder at the emotional and psychic burden we’ve laid on the young black and brown New Yorkers — so many of them children” (Gay). When reading this statement, the audience is immediately shocked and begins to think about how stop and frisk programs are causing psychological and emotional burdens. Once the audience’s attention is captured, the article goes on to narrate how some New York teenagers have been stopped “at least sixty to seventy times” (Gay). The author goes on to detail how racial epithets are used during these stop-and-frisk events and how the statistics reveal that “eighty-seven percent of stop-and-frisk targets are black or Latino” (Gay). The paragraph then concludes with a question that appeals to the audience to wonder how such teenagers who have been unbelievably criminalized can avoid believing that they are indeed criminals. In this way, the reality of the adverse effects of racist programs such as stop and frisk are laid bare for the audience by appealing to their sense of reason.

The author also uses pathos to evoke the emotions of the audience and persuade them to heed the article’s message. One strategy that the article uses is the use of anecdotes detailing the experiences of African Americans and other groups that experience racism. The author narrates how his football teammates once tried to explain to him the difference between a “black person” and a “nigger” (Gay). Gay’s teammates differentiate the two terms in such a dehumanizing manner that Gay falls ill in what he thinks was his “body’s revolt” to the statement (Gay). This anecdote is an example of the pain that callous racist behavior metes upon these victims. The article repeats these anecdotes of racial stereotyping, racial bias, and racial slurs and forces the audience to interact with them closely. The anecdotes are intentionally upsetting and the author ensures that he includes the various forms of racist behavior he has had to endure throughout his 38 years. The audience is forced to empathize or sympathize with the plight of the author and by extension other victims of racism in America. The audience’s emotions are appealed to the message of the article sinks in further.

The article also uses questions and repetition to appeal to the audience’s emotions. While the author uses a variety of punctuation marks in the article, the question mark is one of the most commonly used, and one of the most impactful. For instance, when discussing the criminalization of African Americans, the author asks, “isn’t it, for them, for us, a gargantuan task not to imagine that everyone is imagining us as a criminal?” (Gay). Through this question, the article is forcing an answer out of the audience. While it encourages reason, the question places the reader in the shoes of grappling with racism. The reader has to involve their emotions and reason to answer this question. Consequently, the adverse effect of racism is not just abstract it becomes real and personal to the reader. The article also uses the repetition of some words to evoke the emotions of the reader. The author states that all the stories he heard had about black people were themed with “criminal, criminal, criminal” (Gay). In another paragraph discussing the “ramifications of the corruption of the imagination,” the word “murderable” is repeated. The words “criminal” and “murderable” are intentionally repeated because they intonate violence, death, and destruction. Through repetition, the message that racism is synonymous with death and destruction is etched into the reader’s mind. The reader’s emotions are evoked and the anti-racist message of the article is permanently imprinted in the audience’s mind.

The article “Some Thoughts On Mercy” uses ethos, pathos, and logos to appeal to the audience and strengthen the argument that America needs to deal with racism. The author uses his credentials as a professor, his experiences as an African American, quotes, and citations from racism-related events, and upstanding character to affirm the credibility and ethicality of his argument. Additionally, writing patterns that invoke the audience’s inductive and deductive reasoning implores the audience to think logically about racism, its adverse effects, and the need to eradicate it. Furthermore, the author uses anecdotes, repetition, and questions that highlight the emotional effects of racism hence advancing the article’s emotional appeal. Using these rhetorical strategies, the article succeeds in revealing the ugliness of racism and urging the audience to introspect and work towards ending racism in America.

Works Cited

Gay, Ross. “Some Thoughts On Mercy.” The Sun Magazine,


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