“We asked for footballers, but we got people instead.” (with apologies to Max Frisch)

Aug 30, 2019

It is said that if we misunderstand our history, we won’t solve today’s problems. Much in The Australian Dream– the new film about the booing of AFL star Adam Goodes and its aftermath – reminds us of the need for truth-telling, including the policies of indigenous extermination and “soothing the dying pillow.”

The response of Goodes and other footballers was summed up by Stan Grant: “When we – indigenous people – heard that booing, we knew where it came from. It was the sound of Australia. This was an Australia for other people. It has never truly been our Australia.” Their lack of enthusiasm, and dismissive comments about the Uluru Statement from the Heart including a Voice to parliament, suggest that PMs Morrison and Turnbull don’t understand this.

The AFL says it regrets its inactionon the booing of Goodes, but the problem recurred this year against Eddie Betts, and the film’s social media excerpts show there’s a hard racist fringe out there. The film shows pushback from supporters, journalists, players and coaches, but perhaps the hardest problem is how to deal with casual racism and social distance.

Useful here are the three main takeaways from Stephen Romei’s film review in The Australian (17/8/2019): we give too much import to the intention of the person saying the words, rather than the effect on the receiver; you can only teach a white person who is prepared to listen; and the loudest voices may not be the common voice, their loudness comes from privileged access.

I recently saw two film biographies which echoed this rejection story – about the African American entertainers, Nat King Cole (the 2006 American Masters documentary on Youtube) and Nina Simone (“What happened, Miss Simone?” on Netflix). Cole was immensely popular with both whites and blacks, and a compere of a high rating 1950s TV show, but big sponsors still weren’t game to support his entry into the lounge rooms of middle America. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark” he said. His daughter said it broke his spirit, pushing him back to non-preferred work in films and clubs, and he spent much time overseas, learning to perform his songs in five languages.

Unlike Cole, who was a latecomer to the civil rights movement, Nina Simone was a high profile and articulate campaigner by the mid-1960s, when she wrote and performed “Mississippi Goddam”, “Young, Gifted and Black”, and “Backlash Blues.” She said “When the civil rights thing came up, I could let myself be heard on what I’d been feeling all the time…We had to keep our mouths shut…we knew to break the silence meant a confrontation with the white people of that town…At my first feeling of being discriminated against, I recoiled in horror at such a thing…We will shape and mould this country or it will not be shaped and moulded at all…my job is to make them (young blacks) more curious about where they came from, and their own identity and pride in that identity…we don’t know anything about ourselves…it’s like a lost race.” A confluence of issues and pressures took their toll and she fled from the “United Snakes” to Liberia, then Europe. Her latter years were often troubled.

Goodes has not become beaten and broken like the two Americans, and the film suggests he is a thoughtful, calm and self-aware man, with great leadership qualities. His recent journey of discovery, and the widespread support from his peers seems to have strengthened him despite the intense focus and criticism.  With so much to offer, we should all hope that he finds an acknowledged place to contribute to public life, and reciprocate with our support of a strong space for indigenous voices.

Kevin Bain has a background in economic analysis and teaching. His Refugee Reading Guide can be accessed at Mornington Peninsula Human RightsGroup

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