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In his speech “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin uses repetition and parallelism in the final paragraph in a number of different ways and with a number of different effects. These include the following:
- At one point, Balwin writes, “And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence . . . .” Here the phrasing emphasizes the key word “evidence” while also calling attention to, and emphasizing, the two specific kinds of evidence Baldwin has in mind.
- Later, Baldwin uses the phrase “backward society” – a phrase that echoes, and significantly modifies, his earlier reference to the single word “society.” Here again, as in the first example, Baldwin uses not only repetition but also modification and clarification.
- The same methods are used in the following phrase: “in this school, or any Negro school.”
- A bit later, Baldwin mentions “Negro children” and then emphasizes the key word “children” once more before the sentence ends. Baldwin never allows us to forget precisely what he is talking about. He carefully avoids ambiguous pronouns, such as “they” or “them.”
- Emphatic repetition is used once more in the phrase “I would try to teach them - I would try to make them know.” Baldwin teaches the teachers he is addressing by giving his prose a force and rhythm it would lack if he did not rely as much as he does on repetition and parallelism. By repeating phrases almost exactly but then changing one word (as he does here) Baldwin gives both the original word and the new word extra emphasis, so that we really notice them and pay attention.
- At one point, Baldwin uses the following list:
those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies.
Lists are extremely effective and economical ways of communicating information. They are often (as here) highly rhythmic and are often organized in patterns of increasing complexity. Notice, for example, how the nouns listed here change from a one single-syllable noun (“streets”) to two double-syllable nouns, with the accent on each first syllable (“houses,” “dangers”), to one three-syllable noun (“agonies”). The list would not be nearly as rhythmic if the order of these nouns had been reversed.
In short, Baldwin uses parallelism and repetition for purposes of emphasis and to demonstrate that he is in complete command of the language he employs.
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