3 February 2015
Tales of the Tikongs & Letters from a Birmingham Jail
Both Epeli Hau’ofa’s Tales of the Tikongs and Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” speak of developing cultures, as well as touching on the way that typical American culture affects a certain group of people. Though dealt with in different ways, both of these works are giving very important insight into the ways in which cultural differences should be approached. One lesson that can be taken away from both of these works is that differences should be accepted, and even celebrated, instead of being eliminated completely. The important aspect that can be found in both of these works is that they focus on the individual.
Epeli Hau’ofa’s Tales of the Tikongs describes a Pacific island culture, and how its people respond to modern development. The book gives multiple descriptions of certain members of society, effectively showing this specific culture’s traditions and values, and more importantly showing how the people respond when their culture is changing. The last account stuck out to me in particular, in which Ole Pasifikiwei essentially takes something that he loves and turns it into something that will gain him wealth and notoriety. In the beginning of his story, he is simply a man that is trying to collect oral histories so that they may be shared. By the end, he “immersed himself totally in the supreme task of development through foreign aid…He has since shelved his original sense of self-respect and has assumed another, more attuned to this new, permanent role as a first-rate, expert beggar” (Hau’ofa 93). It seems that development, something that is meant to be positive for these people, has only corrupted and warped this man’s values. Instead of trying to learn from a different culture, Western ideals have simply been forced onto him and his society.
A similar argument can be seen running throughout King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”. He is attempting to explain the need for desegregation in America, and why he believes he is making a moral and right choice by opposing everything about society that keeps blacks and white separate. It is yet another instance in which cultural differences are viewed in a negative light, to the detriment of one of the groups. His effort to change the way an entire nation views African Americans starts at a grassroots and individual level. More than that, in his writing, he makes very personal statements about how segregation affects a person, stating, “you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park…and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children” (King). His description of the ways in which he has encountered segregation, and how it has affected his own life in even the smallest of ways is a much more effective way of showing why it is so important to accept cultural differences.
It is important to give these personal and individual accounts to advocate for acceptance of cultural differences. I once traveled with my mom and two of my siblings to Appalachia, to bring aid to incredibly poor areas of our own country. My understanding of the types of people we were being sent to help was that they were poor, uneducated, and generally unable to be independent. However, the little town that we visited was full of fascinating characters and everybody I met there, no matter their social situation, had a lively and grateful air about them. They lived very differently from my family and I, but they had just as much to teach us as we had to teach them. Speaking of the individuals of this community, and getting a sense of who they really were, was ultimately what brought me to respect the way they lived so much. They did not need to completely reform their way of life to match ours in order to be happy.
Both of these works help to shed light on the fact that it is important not only to be aware of other cultures, but to be accepting of them as well. When traveling to a new place and confronting things that are different from what you are used to, it is much more beneficial to remain open and learn from them. Acceptance aids in growth, leading to a personal and inward journey of the mind when visiting new places.