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Multimodal Mondays: Analyzing Rhetorical Power and Rhetorical Performance in “Amazing Grace”

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The other week I wrote about the murders in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and about the urgent need for writing teachers everywhere to engage students in both the active pursuit of understanding, peace, and justice—of making something good happen in the world through their own writing and speaking—and in rhetorical analysis of the context and discourses surrounding such events.

Then came the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and President Barack Obama’s eulogy, at the conclusion of which he sang “Amazing Grace.”


If you have not watched the funeral and the eulogy, I urge you to do so now. I expect that teachers and students will be watching this eulogy for a long time to come: it is arguably one of Obama’s most powerful orations ever.

And then came many commentaries on and responses to the President’s eulogy, including that of writer, journalist, and correspondent for The Atlantic James Fallows, with an analysis entitled “Obama’s Grace” (June 27, 2015).

Fallows’s analysis, along with President Obama’s eulogy, makes the beginnings of a terrific lesson in rhetorical power and rhetorical performance. As Fallows says, students need to watch and hear Obama’s oration rather than read it: here, the spoken word is crucial, allowing us to follow the oral rhythms, the pacing, the pauses, the crescendos, the depths and pinnacles of tone the President achieves. As they did in ancient Greece, the performative aspects of the eulogy—which are very strong and very instructive—link perfectly with the President’s message; in fact, they deliver that message as much as the words themselves, and perhaps even more.

As Fallows points out, Obama chooses grace as the unifying motif and theme of the eulogy, a “stroke of genius” on his part. In his analysis, Fallows traces the use of that word and allusions to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” showing how Obama carefully frames his remarks, even on policy, in light of that concept (rather than “justice” or “equity”). “We don’t earn grace,” said the President; “We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.”  Thus Obama gestures toward the act of forgiveness the survivors offered, rather than rate or hatred. “God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” (Indeed, Obama uses what comes after those words in the hymn—“but now I [or we] see”—as a drum beat throughout the eulogy.

Fallows also attends to the cadences of the President’s speech and especially to the way he switches registers, or code-switches between African American and white ways of speaking. As Fallows puts it, “Sometimes he spoke almost as if he were an A.M.E. preacher, . . . [and sometimes as a] neutrally professional-class-white-American,” shifts that “illustrated his own bridging potential” for bringing people together.

What I’d like to do is work with students to listen and respond to Obama’s eulogy; then to read and respond to Fallows’s essay; and then to go back to the speech, listen to it again, and carry out their own rhetorical analysis. They can begin by looking closely at the elements Fallows discusses: the theme of grace, the shifts in register, and the use of religion, which Fallows says may open even those who hate him the most to the “grace of such a presentation.” But as teachers of writing and rhetoric know, there is so much more to be noted in this speech: the use of anaphora and other figures of speech; the bringing together of emotional, logical, and ethical appeals in connecting not only to the congregation in the church but to people around the world; the power of orality/aurality throughout, and especially in the conclusion, as he pauses long—and then begins to sing, slowly, “Amazing Grace.”

So, out of the horror and tragedy inflicted on the Emanuel AME Church, the Black community of Charleston, and throughout the country, this eulogy offers students of writing and speaking an opportunity to see how an attempt to change the national discourse actually works, and to examine their own discourses as well. That is one of the ultimate gifts of rhetoric: the ability not only to analyze the words and acts of others but to turn that same analytical power on ourselves and use what we learn to become better writers, better speakers, better people.

1 Comment
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

Andrea, you've inspired me to create a cluster of activities around the eulogy and the analysis for my own FYW course this semester. I'm giddy. Thank you, thank you.


(Executive Editor, BSM, but also adjunct lecturer, Merrimack College)