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!
Am I black enough for you?
Sydney: Bantam, 2012