After Queen Elizabeth II’s death, Indigenous Australia can’t be expected to shut up. Our sorry business is without endSep 20, 2022
When the Queen first visited Australia in 1954, my mother almost did not get to see her.
Like millions of other school kids, mum was expected to join the throng flocking to glimpse the young royal.
The problem was, my mother didn’t have any socks.
She was a dirt-poor Aboriginal kid living in a tin humpy on the outskirts of Coonabarabran, in north-west NSW. Socks were a luxury. Clothes and shoes were shared among a dozen siblings.
The school said no socks, no go for the trip to Dubbo to see the Queen. Mum’s older brother had made the royal trek a day earlier and met mum at the back fence between the primary and high schools and threw his socks over.
It is a memory that has stayed with mum. She has told me the story many times — wearing her brother’s cast-off socks to see the Queen.
It is one of the rich memories of a long life. And she has other memories, other stories that she has told me.
Stories of her father being tied to a tree like a dog by police and left all day without food or water to swelter in the sun.
Seeing Aboriginal men arrested for drinking alcohol and roped together and marched down the main street of her hometown.
Stories of two younger brothers who died as children.
Stories of her siblings taken to welfare homes. Stories of aching hunger. Of once following a white girl eating a cake around the schoolyard and pouncing on a crumb that the girl dropped. My mother still says it was the best cake she ever tasted.
The girl with no socks got to see the Queen, while her family and other black families lived in poverty that the Crown inflicted on them. Living homeless in a land that had been stolen from them in the name of the Crown.
We aren’t supposed to talk about this
I called my mother this week and she told me the story of her childhood brush with royalty over again. I have thought about mum and dad and all of my family, of my people — First Nations people — who die young and live impoverished and imprisoned lives in this country.
We aren’t supposed to talk about these things this week. We aren’t supposed to talk about colonisation, empire, violence about Aboriginal sovereignty, not even about the republic.
Everyone from the prime minister down has told us it is not appropriate.
I’m sure I am not alone amongst Indigenous people wrestling with swirling emotions. Among them has been anger. The choking asphyxiating anger at the suffering and injustice my people endure.
This anger is not good for me. It is not good for my mental health. It is not good for my physical health. I have been short of breath and dizzy.
But that is nothing compared to what too many other Indigenous people go through day after day. Those languishing in cells. Those who take their own lives. Those who are caught in endless cycles of despair.
Writing this is not good for me. I feel my pulse racing now. I feel the tension building in my head. The veins constricting.
I know what will come. I know the abuse that will come from those who don’t like Aboriginal people who speak up.
I know that online trolls will target my family with the most foul language, even threats of physical violence.
Why do we do it? I ask myself that, too. Why do we have to explain ourselves, why do we have to relive pain?
Why? Because a voice is all we have. Because too often that voice is silenced. Like this week.
The other side of history
I have wondered where that voice is. If it has spoken it has more often been in muted tones, lest anyone be offended.
I have wondered where the voices of Indigenous political leadership have been. Where have they been as Indigenous rugby league player Caitlin Moran received a suspension to the equivalent of a quarter of her salary for an Instagram post deemed offensive to the Queen?
Australians will likely vote in a referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament, but what good would that voice be if at times like these it is reduced to a whisper?
This past week, I have been reminded what it is to come from the other side of history. History itself that is written as a hymn to whiteness.
History written by the victors and often written in blood. It is fashioned as a tale of progress, as a civilising mission.
As historian Caroline Elkins writes in Legacies of Violence, her history of the British Empire, for hundreds of millions of people “the empire’s velvet glove contained an all too familiar iron fist”.
From India to Africa to Ireland, the Pacific, the Caribbean and of course here, Australia, people from the other side of history have felt that fist.
It is not a zero-sum game. There are things in the British tradition that have enriched my life. But history is not weighted on the scales, it is felt in our bones. It is worn on our skin. It is scarred in memory.
How do we hold strong?
How do we live with the weight of this history? How do we not fall prey to soul-destroying vengeance and resentment, yet never relent in our righteous demand for justice?
At times like these I struggle with that dilemma. Because Australia has never reached a just settlement with First Nations people.
The Voice to Parliament — whatever its virtues — falls well short of justice. It is another step on the long journey to justice.
But again, we don’t talk about that this week.
I have felt a sadness at feeling adrift, estranged from friends and colleagues. Sadness at knowing that at times like these there is a chasm between us.
I have watched as others have worn black and reported on this historic event, participated in this ritual mourning. And knowing I cannot.
They come to this with no conflict. I cannot.
My colleagues can extol the Queen’s undoubted and admirable devotion to duty. They can lament the passing of “everyone’s grandmother.”
This is their ‘sorry business’
My thoughts have been on my grandmother.
My people have a word, Yindyamarra — its meaning escapes English translation. It is a philosophy — a way of living — grounded in a deep respect.
I have sought to show Yindyamarra to those for whom this moment is profound. This is their “sorry business” and I respect that.
But it will pass. For Indigenous people, our sorry business is without end.
At times like these I wonder what it would be to not know apocalypse. To not know what it is to come from a people who face an existential threat. Who have clung on to their very place on this earth.
I wonder what it would be like for me to be like my colleagues for whom this is one of the defining stories of their lifetimes.
Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be white.
But then I would not be my mother’s son.
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and presenter of Q+A on Thursday at 8.30pm. He also presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel.
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