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In the first two paragraphs of his speech “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin establishes his relationship with his audience – and also his own “ethos” (or character) – in a number of different ways, including the following:
- The very first word – “Let’s,” rather than “Let us” – immediately suggests a tone of informality. Baldwin instantly implies that he is not pretentious.
- The sixth word of the speech – “we” – implies that Baldwin identifies with his audience. He makes common cause with them; he doesn’t speak down to them.
- By ending the first sentence by asserting that he and his audience are living in a “very dangerous time,” Baldwin implies that he is a serious person who wants to speak frankly and forthrightly to his audience.
- The second sentence of the speech is as follows:
Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.
This sentence gives the audience credit for being intelligent, well informed, and concerned (just like Baldwin himself).
- In the following sentence, Baldwin shows that he is willing to be honest even if honesty is not a popular trait at the moment:
We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.
- By telling his audience that if they try to change society, they
will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance,
Baldwin implies that he is courageous (since he is trying to inspire such change) and that his audience can also be courageous (if they are willing to heed his inspiring call).
- The opening sentence of the second paragraph shows Baldwin’s modesty as well as his respect for his audience. He is deferential and politely asks the audience to allow him to proceed without possessing absolute expertise as a classroom teacher.
- By beginning the next sentence with the words “It would seem to me,” Baldwin implies that he is tentative and non-dogmatic; he is willing to change his mind if someone can convince him that he is wrong. “It seems to me” would have been a more forceful way of beginning this sentence; “I think” would have been even more forceful. Baldwin, however, wants to present himself as a thoughtful person with an open mind.
- At the same time, Baldwin shows that he is a man of convictions who relies on certain basic assumptions – assumptions with which few would disagree, as when he briefly declares: “Man is a social animal.”
In short, throughout these opening paragraphs, Baldwin demonstrates his skills as a rhetorician, partly by presenting an appealing image of his own character.
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