In the comfortable environs of middle-class Melburbia in the 1960s, there was no sign of a black person. Indeed, our First People were hidden away on a reserve at Lake Tyers in regional Victoria where no white man was allowed to enter without special permission. These people were a disenfranchised group, often lamented as of inferior intelligence and incapable of modern manners. At high school, we occasionally studied the early settlement of Australia with the Aborigines portrayed as primitive man as our textbook of that name clearly attested. And what did I learn? That they lived as nomads in mia-mias, shaping stone tools and spears for hunting animals as well as eating witchety grubs, ants and other wild berries. There was face paint for corroborees, scant clothing and an existence reminiscent of our Stone Age ancestors. Murder was rampant in the bush as white men massacred them before they killed us (as the version of history unfolded then). The wonders of our modern metropolis had passed them by. There was also the odd story (mostly negative and damning) in the newspapers and on TV about them living up north somewhere, albeit in abject poverty which I found appalling as some of them tried to emulate an Anglo-Saxon social lifestyle. But there was too much drink and too much violence and they were perceived as destroying the housing properties governments had built for them. Without doubt, they just couldn’t cope with civilised culture as we so called it. They were a lost cause!
But times they were a–changing as activists like Charlie Perkins et al campaigned strongly for the vote and finally, they were included as ‘real’ Australians in 1967. By name only, sadly, as while white Australia passed the referendum to enfranchise them, crowds at the football denounced them as ‘niggers’, ‘cunts’ and ‘abos’ as some of the first indigenous footballers like Syd Jackson and Polly Farmer took to the field. Beyond the boundary, Aussie men and women voiced their racist contempt and prejudice loudly and vehemently and I could only hang my head in shame at their abuse. But I felt very ignorant (a feeling that still pervades my psyche) about our fellow countrymen and women; and while I listened to Perkins deliver a speech on land rights for Aborigines at Melbourne University in 1967/8 following the successful referendum, I had never spoken to an Aborigine and seen them only from a distance. I don’t recall much of his speech except for one vital point: that many Aborigines would still prefer to live as they had when white man first colonised this country. And land rights were integral to achieving this outcome. Projecting our way of life on to them, or at least trying to ‘force’ them to live as we did was not what many of them wanted. It made me think a lot about what pathways governments should be pursuing and even today, with millions of dollars invested in their supposed well-being, this megamoney hasn’t alleviated their ill-health, poverty and unemployment.
In 1968, when I started full-time work as a cadet journalist, I took a petition for land rights to my office to get colleagues to sign it to give to the Federal Government (I didn’t know what else I could do)! Most of them did sign it, starting a conversation about how I had never met an Aborigine face to face and how inadequate I felt in knowing so little about them. My school days’ learning seemed buried in a past that was clearly irrelevant. Where to now? One of my fellow cadet workers said they drank a lot of grog and there was a pub in Fitzroy called The Champion Hotel where they were infamous for drinking. (This suburb wasn’t then the home of the trendy Yuppie brigade but housed the working class poor) Can we go there, I asked him? I want to talk to them. A few nights later, after work, we visited the hotel; and what can I say? In hindsight, I don’t know what I thought that would achieve, but it seemed that getting to know them could be one way of helping bridge the ugly conflict that divided us as a nation, as well as endowing me with at least some knowledge into their culture and them as a people. I was so wrong! The sight that assaulted my being on entering The Champion Hotel was, for want of a better word – depressing! There were quite a few Aboriginal men and women sitting at tables and at the bar drinking beer, some screaming at each other (I couldn’t decipher what they were saying), and when I ventured to try and talk to some of them, they were hostile and uninterested in engaging in any kind of conversation with me. And sadly I realised, they were far too drunk to have any kind of intelligent dialogue. There were only a few whites in the pub; drinking alone at the bar. The atmosphere seemed hopeless; intermittently, there was an outbreak of semi-manic laughter, more yelling at each other amidst heavy smoke and beery smells lingering in the air. Some of the Aborigines were probably in their 20s, but most there that night were older; in their forties and fifties, dressed in checked shirts that were dirty and shabby and a couple of women in sloppy sweaters with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. It was painful to see them as I felt particularly saddened too, at a loss to know what to say and what to do. After about an hour, we left.
What have we done to them? Yes, I blamed white people for their apparently helpless plight; our society of privilege and comfort with opportunities beckoning from every corner of our lives while their existence was permeated by what I witnessed at the hotel. It seemed so unfair, so unjust and so pitiful, that when I got home to my haven in middle-class suburbia, I shed a few quiet tears alone in my bedroom. Over the ensuing decades, I wrote a few stories for the newspapers about them; but I didn’t do a lot. I don’t know whether I just accepted it was the government’s role to help them or I was more preoccupied with my selfish existence. Whatever, I still feel ashamed for being steeped in ignorance and inaction to try and do something to right the wrongs, not just of the past, but their current reality. There were so many stories other journalists wrote and broadcast about their plight; mostly still negative and depressing. Yes, there was the success of more and more indigenous footballers, boxers, and of course, Kathy Freeman, there were artists painting to much critical acclaim and occasionally, there were the rewarding results of employment initiatives and health outcomes for some of them. And while we listened to the horrifying stories of the Stolen Generation, our Prime Minister didn’t think an apology for our betrayal was warranted! (Shame You, John Howard!)
As some Aborigines did take advantage of our opportunities, however difficult and tough it was for them, they were writing books (Roberta Sykes) and making films about their history (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Rabbit Proof Fence, Ten Canoes and of course, Samson and Delilah); I devoured them all, learning at least something more than stone tools and walkabout ‘abos’! I marvel at their prowess and magical abilities on the football field as their numbers in the AFL increase (I am an avid viewer of the indigenous TV show – The Marngrook Footy Show), I am enraptured by the talents of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and I passionately applauded Kevin Rudd with tears in my eyes once again when the Australian Government finally apologised for our wrong doing and injustice to the Stolen Generation. I also praise Michael Long and Nicky Winmar et al and the AFL for all they have done for indigenous rights in Aussie Rules and their efforts to stamp out racism in sport, but as the suicide rates of teenage indigenous girls and boys increases up north and violence in families is endemic, I can only surmise that so much more needs to be done. The documentary on the Eddie Mabo fight for land rights that aired this week on ABC TV was a timely reminder that while he finally won the fight after more than 24 years of land rights’ argument and legal battle, real justice for his people has a long way to go. I cried again watching that doco; at times, sad tears for his refusal to be served a drink in Queensland’s pubs, for his walking out of jobs because he was black and treated so unfairly, for encountering so much racist prejudice and contempt, but also at times, for joy to see a man who believed in his cause to stand up against the odds and fight for his rights. And to see the white men and women who took his case to court. I also wept for the humanity of the justices of the High Court who found in his favour. It was indeed, a great moment for our country.
But where to now? Yes, there has been change; positive and enlightening, but the reality of life for hundreds, if not still thousands of our First People is still tainted by racist sentiments, contempt and paranoia. Millions of dollars are still being invested in their well being, trying to achieve better outcomes, but is money the real key to their prosperity and security in this country? My late mother, (may she rest in peace) once remarked to me when I was still unmarried in my 30s – ‘Don’t come home with a black man; I won’t cope’. As she was a Jew who grew up in anti-semitic Poland before the Second World War, witnessing first-hand the persecution and discrimination against the Jews, I was horrified by her comment. There are still people in this world who would say to their sons and daughters – ‘don’t come home with a Jew – I won’t cope’- (and I’ve been called a Jewish cunt by a female passer-by in a suburban shopping street on a sunny, Sunday afternoon), as there is still ingrained hate and prejudice against the Jews, and money isn’t the answer to that irrational inhumanity either. I do not pretend to understand this hatred, this prejudice, this fear of not only the Jews, but the blacks, and so many other ethnic groups living in our world. But I do know that only with a unified will and desire for justice, equality and human rights will our indigenous ‘brothers’ achieve the outcomes they not only deserve, but are entitled to in this country. Money can certainly go a long way to providing the facilities and amenities they need for better health, education, employment opportunities and material well-being, but we must also confront our residual racism that lies beneath the surface of so many of us. For me, the Aborigines are a magical race, the oldest living people in our world stretching back some 60,000 years, and we must acknowledge their rights, their traditions and culture while according them the dignity and respect they deserve. Let the magic survive and with it, the majesty of the race!