Written on Dja Dja Wurrung Country
For four days in late February this year, not long before the world shut down, I took myself to a music festival on Yuggera country, just outside Ipswich, Queensland. This was the first proper break I’d had from my work and from day-to-day life in about eighteen months. As such, it took some time to shrug from my nervous system the neurotic twitching induced by the 24-hour media cycle, and the habitual pocket-checking of constant, instantaneous availability; both of these rhythmic patterns punctuated and enforced, as they are, by their various beeps and buzzes. But gradually, on this ‘holiday’ (it’s difficult to use the word), I managed to find a steady solace in other, more organic rhythms: dance, conversation, cooking, sleep and foot-travel; all punctuated by breath and silence.
On the third morning of the festival I was walking towards the main stage. The sun was out. I had bare arms. The humid weather left me with a thin sheen of sweat all over. I was walking with a young, tall, South American First Nations bloke. We’d just met. He’d seen I was wearing an Aboriginal flag on my singlet, approached me and shaken my hand. He told me that he’d been working nearby, protecting the local country at a blockade, and had come to the festival with a day-pass.
I don’t always wear the Aboriginal flag. And I notice that people sometimes treat me differently when I do. In some places and at some times, I ‘pass for white’; in other places and at other times, I don’t. I know that the distinction depends on more than the colour of my skin. I once asked my brown Tuvaluan friend whether I ‘pass for white’. She said no, but that she always makes that call with her heart, not her eyes. I don’t always feel comfortable signalling my identity to people immediately at a distance. Keeping quiet for a time can sometimes be a better, safer strategy. But that day it felt right. More than right. I felt strong and fit and healthy. I felt happy and satisfied and enthusiastic about my life. I felt content with my contributions to art and culture, content with the work I’d been doing with my students and my colleagues and my family. It was a good party and a great day for it. I was on holiday and I was on the way to dance at the main stage with some friends, including some mob who were local to the region. What I was feeling, I started to realise, was pride. I don’t throw this word around as a hollow slogan. I don’t use it in hope. I need to feel it before I name it. That day I did feel it. That day, for once, I actually felt myself, experienced myself as a tall, proud Aboriginal man.
That day I felt strong and fit and healthy. I was on holiday and I was on the way to dance with some friends. What I was feeling, I started to realise, was pride.
A young whitefella began walking alongside my new friend and I. He started chatting. No worries. He talked about how beautiful the surrounding bushland was. My friend and I agreed. He remarked on what a great party it was. We agreed. He kept talking. He said thoughtfully ‘you know, the Aboriginals really had something special here before white people came’. We agreed. He kept talking. ‘And then white people came and brought sickness and disease and alcohol and livestock. And they fucked up all the land.’ We agreed. He kept talking.
‘No wonder they’re sad’ he said.
‘Who?’ I asked.
‘No wonder who’s sad?’
‘The Aboriginals; no wonder they’re so sad’, he said. ‘No wonder they drink so much and have so many problems. Imagine if you had all this, and then you just had…’
He trailed off with a knowing gaze.
‘Well…I’m not sad’, I said.
He shook his head, exasperated. ‘No wonder the Aboriginals are so sad after everything that happened to them. After what we did’.
‘I’m not…I’m not sad’, I said.
But that whitefella couldn’t hear me. He was already walking away, shaking his head, sipping his beer, heading back to rejoin his mates, ready for a big day at the main stage.
‘Look, bro, I’m an Aboriginal person. And I’m not actually sad’.
Too late. He was gone.
I looked back over at my new South American friend. He just nodded. We all know that yarn. Pity. You can taste pity. You can smell pity like sweat.
The sun seemed to go behind a cloud. My shoulders slowly hunched under the familiar dark weight of our grief. I felt the exhaustion of long conversations with well-meaning, curious white people at the pub on a Friday night; the tedium of repetitive explanations; the numbness of reliving the grief-stories for an audience, while gracefully hiding the private sorrow. In place of the sun came the helplessness of watching the suicide statistics grow; of watching the numbers of deaths in custody rise. Aboriginal deaths in custody…Aboriginal deaths in custody—a configuration of words as familiar to my mouth as the name of my own mother. I felt the numbness, I felt the exhaustion in my small brown body.
No wonder they’re so sad.
Standing there, I remembered once ashamedly asking a friend to come and help me remove all the ropes and extension cords from my sharehouse, and how I had asked him to sit with me and my housemates while I carefully explained why. I started to recall grainy footage, images, interviews. Cells, police cars, people lying in the street in blood. Children and women and men dragged into caged wagons like dogs. I felt them kicking in my body. I saw them kicking in my brown body.
I didn’t want to apologise for still existing. I didn’t want to explain and educate and justify. I just wanted to smile, to stand up tall and dance.
I heard the media tell our narrative; heard us discussed, examined, apologised to, apologised for, queried, studied, researched, commiserated, probed.
I thought about my dead family; about the seemingly endless lateral violence, about the eternally complex divisions within our communities and between families and individuals; about the minerals and gold and oil and gas and coal extracted from our lands, about our people languishing in prison while bureaucrats and mining magnates line their own pockets; I saw families locked into decades-long battles within unintelligible legal systems; the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees just to stand before a wigged man and argue for the right to live on and control your own lands.
I saw the grog and the violence: the racialised violence to which I have become almost completely desensitised. I have seen it so often and from such a young age in the town in which I grew up, on my supposed homelands—Mparntwe: Alice Springs. Alice Springs is many things. For one, it is a place where academics and social workers and professionals and hipsters go for a real experience of Aboriginal Australia; where they go to ‘help out’ and make good money. And burn out, and leave again.
And I saw the violence we commit on each other’s brown and black bodies. And that’s the violence that makes me feel the saddest and the sickest and the most helpless of all. And people wonder why I don’t feel comfortable, why I don’t feel at home living on my own home country.
I felt the paranoia and vigilance and the fear of police. I saw the decades of unpaid labour and the missions and boys’ homes and the kids still being placed in care with incompetent non-Aboriginal families. I saw the old Aunties who take on more kids than they can handle—because who else is going to do it? I saw old men chained by the neck. I saw men beaten with whips. The rivers of blood. The statues attesting to the uncompromising dignity and foresight of white men who massacred our ancestors on the lands you’re probably reading this on.
And I felt the eyes on me. I felt the isolation. I felt the loneliness and I felt the fatigue. And I felt the sadness. Yes. I felt the great sadness of which that whitefella spoke.
But just that one day, I didn’t want that sadness. Just that one day, I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that narrative of us. I didn’t want to cower; to fold my chest in—my chest, the broad, muscular centre of my brown body. I didn’t want to fold it in, collapse it and make it smaller. I didn’t want to apologise with my brown body. I didn’t want to apologise for still existing. I didn’t want to explain and educate and justify. I just wanted to smile, to stand up tall and dance. I just wanted to stand up tall and be proud and laugh in the sun and dance and sweat—on holiday, like everyone else. So I said to myself then what I say to myself now:
We are not sad, broken, problem people.
I am not a sad, broken, problem person.
I am not a sad, broken person.
I am not a problem person.
I am not a problem.
We are not a problem.
We are not a problem people.
We are not a sad, broken, problem people.
I told myself this. I tell myself this when I wake up every day.
Not so long ago I didn’t want to wake up. Not so long ago I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow. I didn’t want to wake up at all.
These days I want to wake up. I wake up to be strong. I wake up and I stand in front of my mirror and I look to my right. On my wall shine photos of heroes. Black heroes: Brother Malcolm, Fela Kuti, Angela Davis, Gary Foley, Uncle Archie, Cornel West. My father, my Nanna Rosie.
Our people, our leaders, our black leaders—they’re always presented in their fierceness, holding on for grim death to their ferocious, unwavering gazes; staring down the barrel of history. Staring defiantly through the veil of our grief. But not in these photos. This wall, to the right of my mirror, is reserved for something else: black joy. I don’t smile for cameras. I don’t do what I’m told by photographers. If someone wants a photo of me smiling, they have to stick around until joy stirs in my gut, rushes up my throat and out of my mouth of its own accord. Snap. Quick. Get it. It’s not common, and you won’t get it by asking. That’s not joy. And I know from these photos that my heroes are the same. Someone with a camera got lucky. Those smiles weren’t sent down the barrel of history deliberately. I look from my wall of black joy, all teeth and diamond eyes, back into my mirror. And I hold my head high and brush my hair. This is my reason to eat good food. This is my reason to take care of my family and our stories. This is my reason to teach my students and make my contribution while I’m on this earth. This is my reason to work out—to grow my chest, arms, torso and pride—for our version of Minneapolis, which is surely on the way. And this is my reason for a holiday. Whenever I look at the smiles erupting from my heroes’ faces, my heart melts by just a few clean, clear, salty drops.
Black leaders are always presented staring down the barrel of history, staring defiantly through the veil of our grief. But in these photos is something else: black joy.
And not so long ago I didn’t want to wake up. So I tell myself every day:
We are not a sad, broken, problem people.
It’s not us who are broken.
We are a proud people. I am a proud person. We matter, our joy matters. I matter, my joy matters.
We are still living here, on our lands. Our lands matter. We’re still taking care of this country and of ourselves and one another. And we’re still helping everyone else to undrink their poisons. Day by day. Memory by memory. Story by story. Campaign by campaign. Dance by dance. Ceremony by ceremony. Painting by painting. March by march. Fight by fight, we are still here.
And that might be a problem—but it’s not our problem.