Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you (Review)

Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you?

Courtesy: Random House

Anita Heiss‘s Am I black enough for you? is a challenge to categorise, so I’ll start with writer Benjamin Law‘s description on the cover of my edition. He calls it “part family history, part manifesto” to which I’d add “part memoir” because “family history” does not really cover the self-description aspect of the book.

For those of you who don’t know Anita Heiss, she is a Wiradjuri woman and an activist for indigenous Australians. She has a PhD in Communication and Media, focusing on Aboriginal literature and publishing, and is a writer. (I reviewed her chicklit novel, Paris dreaming, earlier this year, and reported last year on her address to the inaugural Canberra Readers’ Festival.) She co-edited the Macquarie PEN anthology of Aboriginal literature and was the guiding force behind BlackWords (the subject of this week’s Monday Musings). And this is just the start … she has been, or is currently, on many boards and committees, particularly to do with indigenous people and communications. She is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. She is, in effect, a tall poppy … which brings me to Am I black enough for you?

You see, in 2009, one of Australia’s influential shock jocks, Andrew Bolt, wrote a post titled “It’s so hip to be black” on his blog, asking readers to accept his proposition that there is “a whole new fashion in academia, the arts and professional activism to identify as Aboriginal”. He named many people, including Anita Heiss, calling them “white” or “political” Aborigines. His facts were questionable and his language emotive – such as “madness”, “trivial inflections of race”, “comic”. His argument was that these “white” Aborigines were obtaining unfair benefits from their decision to “be black”. The result was a court case brought by Anita Heiss and eight others against Bolt and his employer, The Herald and Weekly Times, for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. Heiss and her co-defendants won the case. They did not seek damages. It was ground-breaking stuff that brought out some good discussion about the nexus between racism and free speech, about rights and responsibilities, but it also generated a lot of vituperative commentary. You can research all this pretty easily on the ‘net.

This is the background to Am I black enough for you? which, you might now have gathered, could also be described as an “identity memoir”. On the publisher’s website, Heiss writes that “I wanted to demonstrate that we as Aboriginal people have our own forms of self-identification and self-representation”. She wanted to “challenge the stereotypes” and present “alternative realities of being Aboriginal today”. This she does very well.

Heiss opens the book with her family background, Wiradjuri mother and immigrant Austrian father. She describes herself:

I’m an urban beachside Blackfella, a concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming, and I apologise to no-one.

This is my story: it is a story about not being from the desert, not speaking my traditional language and not wearing ochre …

In the first four chapters of the book, she tells of her background – her grandmother and mother and their experiences as indigenous women, her father and his values, and her school days. Having laid that foundation, she presents in the fifth chapter, the current working definition of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person used by the Federal Government:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he “or she” lives.

That seems pretty tight to me, though no definition is perfect. It’s better than using “a caste system defined by blood quantum (half-caste … quadroon)”.

There are a lot of “ah-so” moments for me in the book – some confirming things I’d already believed and some raising my consciousness about how easy it is to say the wrong thing without being aware of it. Heiss chronicles many instances where (mostly, I think) well-meaning whitefellas seem to get it wrong, such as the non-indigenous academics who proclaim themselves experts in “everything Aboriginal” or the critic who argued that Aboriginal literature “must” be in traditional language otherwise it’s Australian literature. It’s good to have these ideas aired publicly. It helps us test our own conceptions.

Am I black enough for you? has, like most of Heiss’s writing, a strong political and educational purpose. She is on a mission to encourage both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to think about indigenous identity and, further, about how we relate to each other. She therefore writes in a bright, breezy, accessible style. She’s acutely aware of the power of words and language to define and to obfuscate (though she wouldn’t use such an obfuscatory word!), and frequently discusses language in the book. She makes a particular point about this in the chapter on her academic life, “Epista-what?”, when she says that using academic language, particularly to discuss indigenous issues, served “largely to alienate the very people it was talking about.”

There is much more in this book, and I hope many Australians read it. It’s well-structured, more or less chronologically but in a way that aligns with various themes – academia, the role of literature, her writing, gender – all of which link back to affirming indigenous people’s identity. She comes across as a generous woman – in her relationships with indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. She believes that optimism, rather than negativity and anger, is more likely to get results. It is possibly this optimism which underlies my small frustration with the book: several times she hints at dark times and stresses but, being the optimist, she focuses more on her strategies for overcoming them than on how they have informed her being. I’d like to understand more of that. However, Am I black enough for you? is not a misery memoir, and that’s probably a good thing!

Australian Women Writers ChallengeRead for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013ANZLitLovers Indigenous Writers Week, and Global Women of Color. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Marilyn (Me, You and Books) both enjoyed the book.

Anita Heiss
Am I black enough for you?
Sydney: Bantam, 2012
ISBN: 9781742751924

33 thoughts on “Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you (Review)

  1. I have been meaning to read this book for ages. I went to the launch (was it of Manhattan or Paris) at the Diamante, and there were lots of connections for me, particularly as for several years I was the (non-Indigenous) library director of the AIATSIS library which was on virtually the same spot. I enjoyed a brief booklaunch type chat with the author and have always intended to read something in a slightly more serious vein from her. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Oh do read it Glenys. This is more serious, but chatty rather than heavy. She covers a lot of ground that you would be interested in. I saw her at the Canberra Readers’ Festival but haven’t met her. How great that you did.

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  3. Interesting themes presented here. Here in the USA there are similar issues involving ethnic identity where folks have been accused of taking on a racial identity for cultural credibility as well as economic benefit. A couple of years ago the issue even popped up in the Massachusetts Senate election.

    • Thanks Brian … she talks a little about the US because she’s travelled there a few times to speak. She noted that issue we noticed when we lived there of your having two groups – the Black Americans and the Native Americans. She felt she had experiential connections with both. I didn’t know that that “economic benefit” issue was playing out there too, but I guess it’s not surprising.

      • Yes, racism is alive and well in the USA. I think maybe the worst it has been since the Civil Rights Movement. But I think our version right now may be different than yours. When I read Heiss’s book, I wondered if a book like hers—establishing that blacks can have success and power—would resonate here. I don’t think it would. We have lots of powerful African and Native Americans, even a black president. They are highly visible everywhere, so much so that they frighten some people. White supremacy now seems to mean people of color shouldn’t have the power they have, economically, politically, or culturally. They must have gotten it by some immoral trick because they are not equal to whites.

        And yes, Elizabeth Warren was attacked for “using” the fact she was Native American when she wasn’t. She had never claimed that as a major part of her identity, though, as Heiss does, and we have no laws like you have in Australia by which she could sue. [An interesting fact in itself.] She went on to be elected to the Senate and is our best hope for someone bright, knowledgeable, and articulate to lead the attack on Wall Street’s domination of our government and economy.

        • Thanks for this Marilyn. I think you are right about African Americans in the US and visible success – just look at Obama and Oprah Winfrey for a start. We do have some here but they are nowhere near as visible … in visibility they are probably between the African Americans and your First Nation peoples. It’s rather like people don’t want so-called “coloured” people to be poor and therefore a “drain” on the public purse but neither can they cope with their being successful. What are they really expecting to happen?

        • Very true. Recently—since the rise of the Tea Party, I have been thinking the major problem here is fear–fear of others in places that used to be reserved for white men, fear of the government helping others, unjustified fear of physical assault. Over 30 states now have “stand your ground” laws which mean that whites can kill blacks whenever they feel threatened, whether there really is a threat are not.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. And it is really fantastic to have someone so active and open and outspoken about the issues. The whole world needs more people made from her mould.

  5. I have not, I repeat I have not, missed being away from Bolt. Ugh. This memoir/history/book sounds like a fantastic response not just to that… person, but to the broader issues/current socio-cultural climate.

    • It is Hannah … Fortunately Bolt doesn’t cross my path much but just reading some of the commentary on the issue is pretty depressing, often emotional rather than thoughtful.

  6. I don’t think we hear enough from Australian writers here in the USA. And with respect to this topic I agree with Brian Joseph that we do have issues that are very similar. I seriously doubt that my library will have this one, but I need to become more familiar with Australian writers. Any suggestions of where to start?

    • I totally agree. Recent books are hard to find, especially those by Indigenous authors. Older ones are available on Gutenberg. I started reading Australian books last year when I joined the Australian Women Writers challenge. It’s been great. I have learned a lot and made some good friends who help me find the best books. And I follow blogs like this one.

    • Nice to hear from you Grad. It does sound that the visibility of Aussie writers rather woeful in the USA.

      Names you might like to check out who may be easier to find over there – partly because they have lived (or still live) over there – include Peter Carey, Shirley Hazzard, Geraldine Brooks, Lily Brett, Janette Turner Hospital. Another author likely to be found in US libraries would be Tim Winton. I wonder too whether Anna Funder’s Stasiland (non-fiction) or All that I am (fiction that won many awards) would be available. Or, Michelle de Kretser who has been well reviewed over the years and won this year’s Miles Franklin Award.

      Another good place to start could be looking at the list of books under Miles Franklin Award in Wikipedia, and checking them at your library. (You could also look for Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career – it’s old, a classic, but it’s often available in the USA.)

      If you read eBooks, more are becoming available electronically, for example Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project, books by David Malouf, and I think most if not all the books published by Text Classics ( Names you might like to check include Elizabeth Harrower, Madeleine St John.

      My author index lists all the books I’ve reviewed, with the author names in upper case being Aussie. You could use that to check your library.

      I’ve had a look at your blog and it seems you are wonderfully eclectic in your reading, so I think most of the names I’ve given you above are likely to be of interest to you.

      I’d love to know how you go.

  7. Just one more thought. I’ve seen your comments on other blogs and always wondered how you chose the name whisperinggums. I thought “teeth and gums” until I read the link to your explanation. Goofy me. Anyway, I loved the words to the song and the picture of a “whispering gum” tree.

    • Oh that’s funny Grad … I’m glad you found the link to my origins! I do occasionally get hits on the blog from people searching things like “cheesy gums” which I’m guessing related to some dental condition. I guess the name could make you think I’m an old toothless person!

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  9. Oh yes, Marilyn, I agree that fear is part of it. We have been hearing, for obvious reasons, quite a bit about “stand your ground” laws. I find that quite unbelievable … it smacks of a fundamental lack of respect for “life”, which is something I associate more with third world countries where survival is so tough “life” seems to become cheap? I had no idea this law was in that many states though.

    • Yes. It is a basic lack of respect for human life. Zimmerman who shot the black teenager said in a TV interview that he had no regrets and would do it again because it was “God’s will.” I hate seeing my country becoming what it has become with attacks on blacks, on voting rights, and all the ridiculous “abortion” laws shutting down women’s access to health care. We are falling behind those we used to consider inferior.

      • Now that’s truly scary, Marilyn! I’ve seen a bit of reporting on the Zimmerman case but I hadn’t heard that … “No regrets”, “God’s will”. Wow.

        As for your country, we over here aren’t feeling so happy with how our country is going either! It’s all very sad. History seems to have taught us nothing except, what is it they say, that history repeats itself?!

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