Since 2018 in the Australian Capital Territory, the first Monday after (or on) 27 May (the anniversary of the 1967 referendum) is a public holiday called Reconciliation Day. It is part of Reconciliation Week which, says Wikipedia, aims “to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and foster reconciliation discussion and activities”. Because Mr Gums and I have reached crunch time in our downsizing project, we did not engage in any of the focused activities around town. However, quite coincidentally, my decluttering task today included the books that set me off down my own reconciliation path, not that we called it that then. So, I thought to share them with you – and some of my own journey, from the keen but naive teenager to the better-educated person I hope I am today.
It all started at high school in Sydney, although there were beginnings in my early high school years in the outback town of Mt Isa. In Sydney, though, it was two women – the school librarian, Miss (Ellen) Reeve, and my modern history teacher, Mrs (Mary) Reynolds – who encouraged my interest in civil rights and to whom I am eternally grateful. When I was 15, I wrote my first piece on the need for fair treatment of “Australian Aborigines”* – for the school magazine. I intended well, but looking at it now I can see that it was naive and simplistic.
The books I read in those days included:
- Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst, Nation and people: An introduction to Australia in a changing world, 1967: its progress-focused tone was typical of the times. It did recognise, albeit in passing, “the first black owners of our continent” but it also conveyed that lie that they didn’t offer much opposition. It briefly discussed paternalism, assimilation, and integration, which, it says, “most thoughtful people are now favouring”.
- Douglas Lockwood, I, the Aboriginal (1960 Bill’s post) and We, the Aborigines (1963, my ed. 1970): written by a white man in the voice of his Aboriginal subjects, these were some of my first introductions to Indigenous lives – at least outback ones. Such an approach is politically incorrect now but, in its favour, the table of contents lists every person by name and “tribe”.
Then we move to my university years, and although my major was English literature, I also studied some anthropology. This included traditional ethnographic studies, using AP Elkin’s classic The Australian Aborigines (with its uncomfortable subtitle, How to understand them), but also involved more political reading, like CD Rowley’s The destruction of Aboriginal society (1970). It was my first serious literary introduction to the truths we are still learning now. Here is what the back cover of my 1972 Pelican edition says:
The destruction of Aboriginal society is a powerful and detailed study of the history and tragedy of the interaction between black and white Australians. Most white Australians today are unaware of the part the Aboriginal played in the history of settlement. Even if he only stood to be shot, he influenced profoundly the kind of man who made a successful settler.
The Aboriginal has been “written out” of Australian history; the tragic significance of conflicts have long been bowdlerised and forgotten. Yet, even if vicariously, our guilt remains, as does our responsibility. Aboriginal attitudes take on a new dimension in the light of history, and no policies should be formulated except in that light. This is a book to stir the sleeping white Australian conscience.
That was over 50 years ago! What have we been doing? Anyhow, it’s the book that informed my understanding, by which I mean it kickstarted my thinking from simple ideas about fairness and equality to comprehending the sociological complexity. It is also the book that, in 1982, the academic Peter Biskup said had begun, twelve years previously, “the process of rewriting the history of contact of Australian Aboriginals”.
These writers were all white, however. The first work I read by a First Nations writer would have to be, as it was for many of my generation, Sally Morgan’s My place (1987). Sally Morgan conveyed the fear and shame that attended being Indigenous in modern Australia, how this caused her family members to try to hide their heritage if at all possible, and the devastating intergenerational (though we didn’t use that term then) impact this can have.
Since then, and particularly since 2000, my reading of First Nations writers has increased dramatically, much of it documented on this blog, so I’m not going to repeat all that now.
My main point is, really, how horrifyingly slow all this is. We have had, among other things, the 1967 Referendum; Mabo and Wik, and the related Native Title legislations in the 1990s; the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled in 1991; the Bringing Them Home report tabled in 1997; the National Apology in 2008; and most recently, the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. Having come of age in the 1960s with all its idealistic fervour, I would never have believed that here I would be in the 2020s with so little real progress having been achieved, with relationships fraught and a referendum on constitutional recognition struggling to gain forward momentum.
But, it’s not about me, so I will share the theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week, which is, appropraitely,
Be a Voice for Generations.
The theme encourages all Australians to be a voice for reconciliation in tangible ways in our everyday lives – where we live, work and socialise.
For the work of generations past, and the benefit of generations future, act today for a more just, equitable and reconciled country for all.
And will leave you with CD Rowley’s conclusion. The words are of his time but the meaning is still valid, wouldn’t you say?
The future status and role of the Aboriginal will be a significant indicator of the kind of society which eventually takes shape in Australia.
* Nomenclature has changed over time, but in this article I have used different terms as appropriate to the subject and time.