Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson both employ emotional connection in their work in order to create convincing arguments. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson focuses in on individual people and experiences, forcing us into close emotional proximity with race and injustice in America. Coates creates the same emotional effect in “The Case for Reparations,” telling us the personal stories of Clyde Ross, Billy Brooks, and other black Americans. Both Coates and Stevenson use this proximity to tug on our emotions, and then use that emotional vulnerability as a sort of emotional gateway into their larger arguments. Coates and Stevenson employ this strategy of creating an emotional gateway as a rhetorical tactic in winning their respective arguments. In America today, videos of police brutality have broiled our nation’s collective emotions, inspiring riots and movements; if we use this emotional uproar as a rhetorical emotional gateway like Coates and Stevenson, might we be able to begin throw off the shackles of our nation’s systemic racism?
Bryan Stevenson masterfully employs the use of the emotional gateway throughout Just Mercy. His central idea is that we need to temper our system of mass incarceration, which is driven by deep-seeded racism and poverty bias, among other things, with what he calls “some measure of unmerited grace” (Stevenson 18). But rather than create an overwhelmingly logical argument as so many Harvard Law graduates might, he creates an overwhelmingly emotional one. He uses Walter MacMillan’s case as his primary emotional gateway, taking us inside Death Row where Walter, an innocent man, is unjustly imprisoned. We’re given the details of Walter’s case and the horror of Walter’s conviction. After the emotionally enraging experience of reading about Walter Macmillan, we’re ready to accept whatever logical argument Stevenson presents because we’re personally angry about the injustice of the system.
Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes use of the emotional gateway in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” Coates begins the article with the story of Clyde Ross, a black man born in Mississippi in 1923 to a family of sharecroppers. Coates briefly describes Ross’s difficult family background and the brutal persecution of black people in Mississippi before telling us the story of when a group of white men took then 10 year old-Clyde Ross’s most prized possession: his horse. Coates quotes Ross: “I did everything for that horse. Everything. And they took him. Put him on the racetrack. I never did know what happened to him after that, but I know they didn’t bring him back. So that’s just one of my losses.” This image hangs below the quote:
Juxtaposing this photo with a story about a young sharecropper’s horse being taken from him is heartbreaking. This is a heavy-handed, emotionally heart-wrenching anecdote used perfectly by Coates as an emotional gateway. We hate the men who took Clyde Ross’s horse, and this opens us up more to the arguments Coates goes on to make in the rest of the article. A good emotional gateway does not just make us receptive of an argument, however; a good emotional gateway forces us to actually want an argument to be made to justify our emotional response. Coates masters this technique with his use of Clyde Ross’s life: we want Coates to tell us why the people who wronged Ross were extensions of a heritage of racism, we want Coates to tell us how we can be a part of the solution, and we want to help Clyde Ross. If Coates jumped into his later arguments without this emotional gateway, those arguments would be exponentially less effective.
Stevenson and Coates use emotionally crushing anecdotes as emotional gateways, a rhetorical strategy that serves them well. But in America today, emotionally crushing anecdotes having to do with race are everywhere, particularly having to do with police brutality. Cell phones have made recording audio and video easier than ever before, and as a result, our nation has found itself in an uproar in response to videos of police brutality. One such instance happened last winter, when Eric Garner died after being arrested outside a convenience store.
Like Stevenson’s account of death row and Coates’ stories of racially divided Mississippi, this video of Eric Garner’s death and assault is emotional torture. The helplessness of watching something so immoral and unfair unfold in a video on your computer screen is more powerful than any rhetorical tactic used by Coates or Stevenson, and it sent our country into a state of emotional turmoil:
America is angry. Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the sharpest minds thinking about what it means to be black in America today, and in their respective rhetoric, they have given us an answer to the question of what we should do with that anger. We should not let it deepen racial divides or fuel political controversy; instead, we should use it as an emotional gateway. We should use our nation’s current energy over issues of race as a way to make people want to start to end the systemic racism in our country and our criminal justice system. Following in the footsteps of Just Mercy and “The Case for Reparations,” let’s transform the outrage over Eric Garner, the anger of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the heated controversy of Ferguson into an emotional gateway towards receiving an argument, just like Stevenson and Coates did.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 May 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
Eric Garner Original Arrest Video. Youtube. New York Daily News, 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfXqYwyzQpM>.
Eric Garner Chokehold Death. Youtube. The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0cwvKY6ZS4>.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014. Print.