Our Social Place
“Let us strive to improve ourselves, for we cannot remain stationary; one either progresses or retrogrades.” A quote by Madame Du Deffand explains that change is inevitable; it can be for the better or for the worst. Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, in addition to three other literary works, demonstrates a spectrum of people finding their place socially. “The Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, “Slam, Dunk, and Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Common Ground” by Judith Cofer, and “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education” by Kolvenbach recognizes that we must break down social barriers, believe in ourselves while facing adversity, the fact that we will always have a genealogical connection to our past, and that we are responsible for the future.
You will never get to know a person until you break down barriers or “walls.” In “The Mending Wall,” Frost does a good job at showing the reader, in entirety, how much harder it is to have barriers between yourself and others. A harsh tone is created throughout the poem with the frequent use of the word stones. Keeping the walls up between the neighbor and the narrator proves to be tedious, for they have to rebuild it every “spring-mending time” (line11). In line 20, the narrator articulates to us that they “wear our fingers rough with handling them. The boundaries that people subject themselves to socially hinder any potential for a fruitful relationship, for both parties. This is obviously not the case, symbolically, for the neighbor yet, whose enclosed trees bear pines. The narrator illustrates a yearning for a relationship. We see this through the author’s use of light ambiguous humor in the narrator’s attempts to make conversation (line 25-26). The universal social issue is presented when the neighbor says “Good fences make good neighbors” (line 27). We protect ourselves by putting our guards up and sticking to our own values so we never have to encounter problems.
In Whale Rider, Koro is a spitting image of the neighbor from the poem who believes that the barriers are for the best. He is cruel to Kahu because she is a girl; everyone else seems to have the ability to look past that and love her anyway, but not Koro. His perception on the role of a female in the tribe won’t allow it, she is “of no use” to him.
We need to believe in ourselves in order to overcome obstacles. “Slam, Dunk, and Hook” submerges us in what we thought was a scene of enjoyment and happiness. The imagery drawn appeals to the reads sense of sight creating an image of basketball, with “fast breaks and layups,” that we didn’t know we could understand without actually being there. Komunyakaa even mentions the girls who “cheered on the sidelines” (line 19). We then arrive to a dark undertone in the poem when it is revealed that “Sonny boy’s mama died” (line24). The whole wording of the poem changes, “the backboard splintered” and “trouble was there slapping a blackjack” (line 26-30). Yet he still plays: he plays to escape the pain; he plays to regain that joy he once felt. Basketball is an outlet for him and it successfully allows him to overcome such overpowering emotions.
Kahu, constantly rejected by the person she loved the most, never gave up. She was never discouraged to the point of quitting, only to the point of trying harder which is what we witness with the basketball player in the poem. This only makes you wonder, what was Kahu’s outlet? Was it the unconditional love she had for her family and joy she brought to their hearts? It never took Nanny Flowers or Rawiri much to console her after a scolding from Koro. Yes she wept, as the player probably did, but she prevailed. We, as a society, can learn a lot from the confidence and perseverance of an 8-year old, as I can imagine was intended by Ihimaera.
We all have connections to our past that are inescapable and long to be accepted. By this I mean that our genealogy has a lot to do with who we are and who we become. You can allow it to make you better…or worse. We have a choice. You can allow a bad past to haunt you or motivate you. In “Common Grounds,” the narrator inherits not only physical traits of her family members, but personality traits, her grandmothers “stern lips” and fathers “disdainful brow” (line 10-14). Through figurative language, it is evident that attitudes are adopted along with these traits. “Blood tells the story of your life” (line 1), but that’s just it, it “tells,” not rules. I believe it is possible to find common ground with the past, as well as with others.
Ihimaera keeps Kahu connected to her genealogy in a very touching way. It is the wishes of her mother to give her the Maori name. Kahu develops into, what I think is, the perfect equilibrium of modernity and tradition. Her female gender and love for Maori culture clash in the eyes of Koro. She represents a new social way of thinking that must be accepted. Moreover, her destiny reminds the Maori people that they must remain connected to the land, the sea, and most importantly the whales.
Kolvenbachs “Service of Faith through Promotion of Justice” conveys that the motives behind the service of faith and promotion of justice, together, rest in the fact that Jesus gave his life for the salvation of all and that there must be an initiative to meet the needs of all people. In comparison to Whale Rider, Kahu gave her life for the salvation of the Maori people. This had to be done to preserve their bond with nature. This event and the return of Kahu definitely was a reality check for the village. It caused a change in Koro and probably the Maori people in regards to importance of preserving culture, which we see was a constant struggle for Koro and his visits to other tribes. We see that there is hope for the future.
These are all themes of choice that we have control over and can change for the better.
Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
The Mending Wall by Robert Frost
Slam, Dunk, and Hook by Yusef Komunyataa
Common Ground by Judith Ortiz
The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach