In a very personal meditation on identity and race, STAN GRANT—journalist, author and proud Wiradjuri man—talks about his experiences coming to terms with being himself in Australia. Talking to My Country is a challenge and an invitation, written in the wake of the 2015 debate over the treatment of AFL player Adam Goodes. Grant says that ‘a truly great country—if we truly believe that—should be held to great account.’ His book is addressed to every Australian about their country and in this adapted excerpt Grant recalls episodes from his early years.
When I was a baby my grandfather held me in his arms; he was the son of a man born onto the frontier before the collection of colonies even became Australia. A frontier marked with violence, disease and death. From me to my grandfather to his father: that’s how close it is.
Always I wondered about us, who we were and what put us here. I was aware always that we were marked by something more than poverty; that no amount of hard work, honesty or decency would untether us from our destiny. We live in Australia and Australia was for other people…
I helped my mother, trying always to be dependable, taking what money we had to fetch what she needed from the shop and counting the loose change. And I looked out for my father, a constant knot in my stomach, terrified of the danger of this world and how it could take him. He had felt the pain of being a black man in Australia. He knew it was a violent place. I knew that we could not survive without him.
I am formed more fully from these early years than all the decades that have followed. This is where I came into the world and it has never left me, The small boy I was is nestled deep in the man I have become. My own path—my people would call it my songline—has taken me far from the dark back roads of poverty and fear. …
… I was a confused young boy at school, ashamed of what I was. I would cringe against the black and white ethnographic films: the snot-smeared faces of the little ‘picaninnies’, the flyblown women grinding seed into flour, the bedraggled, bearded men gripping a spear, one leg resting against a knee. I remember there was always a narrator with perfectly rounded vowels telling of the ‘once proud tribes of Aborigines’. Each head turned to look at me, and I felt anything but pride.
I saw my reflection in Australia and felt diminished. Everything told me I wasn’t equal. The whites told the story of this land now; there was no glory in us. There was nothing that redeemed my ancestors. In books proudly titled The Making of Australia—a key school text of the 1960s—we were dismissed as the ‘dark-skinned wandering tribes who hurled boomerangs and ate snakes’ not fit to be counted in the glorious tale of white men and women who found the land, explored it, and made it a nation.
Back then no one wrote of our great deeds. If we existed at all, we were a footnote, a prehistoric relic. …
Exclusion and difference: these were the abiding lessons of my early school years. They could be days marked with ritual humiliation. I can still hear the roll call of our names. One by one the black kids were pulled out of class. We’d be searched for head lice, our teeth examined, our fingernails examined for signs of dirt. We were questioned about what we’d had for inner the previous night. We would have to open our bags to show what we had for lunch. I remember my teacher looking on and smiling as the government officers continued their interrogation. I recall grasping for answers. I did not know if I could satisfy them. These people likely thought themselves well meaning. But they scared me. My family—like any Aboriginal family—had seen children taken. It could just as easily be me. I remember after school, peering around my street corner looking for the tell-tale white cars of the welfare men, as we called them. Any signs of them and I’d hide out for hours. I would wait until dark then creep back home.
This is where I met white people. I met them in their imaginations I was introduced in the snickering glances of my classmates, in the interrogation and implicit threat of the deceptively kind welfare officers and the complicit smiles of a kindergarten teacher who asked me to sing Cat Stevens songs for my class but was herself trapped in the prism of racism in 1960s Australia and could not see that morning had not broken for us.
I had no illusions of equality. We were another class of people. Our poverty branded on us as clearly as our colour. I wore the hand-me-down clothes of other people, pulled from cardboard boxes in second-hand bins. There were frayed, ill-fitting shorts, and jumpers stinking of mothballs with the names of other boys stencilled in the collars.
Like any childhood memories mine are sketchy. There are flashes of faces, perhaps a smell or a sound. Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ is a blast of musical liberation stuck on permanent rotation in my mind with its promise of forgetting our troubles and cares. I saw the movie Born Free, entering the cinema and being transported to Africa, a lion and freedom.
And I remember pineapple juice from a Golden Circle can. I can picture the two triangles punched in the lid to release the taste of a world of possibilities. I was probably five years old, and in one sip all of my senses were jolted to life. My small hands folded around the can. I can still smell that tangy, sticky sweetness. Then there was the taste: an explosion on my tongue like a bee sting. [pp34– 36] … In one forbidden sip I tasted the promise of a world outside my own; a world of music and movies that shone so brightly but were ultimately counterpoints to a more grim reality. The abiding memories of my childhood remain the things that separated us.
Stan Grant, Talking to my country, Harper Collins, Australia, 2016 pp20-21, 26, 33-36.
Stan Grant will be a keynote speaker at the 2018 Early Childhood Australia National Conference in Sydney 19-22 September. Be among more than 1800 of your early childhood colleagues to hear Stan Grant speak on the big questions for Australia and the role of early childhood education and care. Can Australia can be a country that can fully enshrine the rights of Indigenous peoples, that can wrestle with its past, that can draw a line through its history, that can give Indigenous peoples the opportunity to make decisions about their lives that will lift Indigenous people and communities?
IMAGE: Photograph of Stan Grant courtesy Celebrity Speakers. Artwork adapted from ‘Ancestral Winds’ © Bundjalung Sean licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.
TEXT: Extracts from Talking to my country by Stan Grant, published by Harper Collins, Australia 2016.