These lives matter too!
White Australians, and our institutions, have never sufficiently respected that simple fact. Recently, on our current affairs TV program Q&A, the Indigenous actor, comedian and writer Nakkiah Lui was asked what her people want from we others. Her answer was clear, direct and unequivocal: 'Stop killing us!'
We have been killing the Indigenous Australians since Britain first invaded. There were many horrendous massacres, unbearable to contemplate, by both Government officials and private citizens. Now we have other ways.
There was at one time an official policy of genocide, though it wasn't officially called that. It was thought that if children of mixed race were removed from their families and adopted into the white community, they would become 'assimilated' – and that over time they would marry into the white community and their Aboriginality would be bred out of them (!) The removals of those children were carried out forcibly. Meanwhile it was expected that the rest of the Original population would gradually die out.
And why would they not die out? Many were denied access to the homelands they belonged to. Many, employed as workers, were denied their due wages. They were disadvantaged in the educational system, in the job market, in housing, in access to hospitals and medical care.... Such things may not have been written into Government policy but it is hard not to think that those in power hoped they would hasten the disappearance of the race.
Well, guess what? The Indigenous people are still here, proudly so, and they are speaking up.
It's time to listen! They could have taught their colonisers a great deal if anyone had had the intelligence to ask for their expertise in land management, for instance. Had those in power sought the great wasted resource of Aboriginal wisdom, we might have had better water supplies. We might have avoided last Summer's disastrous fires. We still aren't listening properly! But some of us have become aware of the necessity.
Today I'm sharing with you the words of two very articulate writers, on aspects of the Indigenous experience here.
We are storytellers here, as well as poets. And I have a story to share with you – the story of poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. She was one of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children separated from their families. In 2017 Eckermann won Yale University’s annual Windham-Campbell Prize for excellence in writing, awarded for her poetry. Her personal story was aired when she went to America to accept her prize. You can read the facts of that story here, interspersed with lines from her poetry about the experience. Even better, click on ‘Listen to the story’ at the top of the page. It’s a brief account, but powerfully moving.
You can go and do it now, and then come back here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
When you have more time, there are wonderful poetry readings and talks on YouTube. You can find them all gathered together here at Red Room Poetry, which recorded them for students and teachers. Several of her poems are now on the curriculum for HSC (Higher School Certificate) students. These recordings are in connection with that. She’s eloquent, clear and engaging. Among the things she speaks of are the importance of story in understanding each other, the value of the natural world to poets, and her dream of an Australia where the Aboriginal and white races live in friendship and unity.
Her award-winning book Inside My Mother (recipient, also, of the New South Wales Premier's prize for poetry in 2013) was published by Giramondo Publishing. It’s also available from Booktopia, Google Play, Amazon and Kobo.
Her earlier work has won a number of other awards. She is the author of two verse novels, Ruby Moonlight and His Father's Eyes; a memoir, Too Afraid to Cry; and an earlier book of poetry, Love Dreaming (2012). Some of these seem to be unavailable. Others can be obtained from Booktopia or Amazon.
You can also read some of her poems on PoemHunter. Such as this masterpiece of understatement (from Love Dreaming):
Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites
Cattle will graze
sheep hooves will scatter
Wildflowers will not grow
where the bone powder
When facts are so brutal in themselves, there is no need to sensationalise.
A great way to experience her poetry is on those Youtube videos I mentioned earlier.
Do you remember Jasmine Logan, the young poet and rising star I met at local poetry readings? I featured her at Poets United last year – here, if you'd like to refresh your memory. I think she writes and reads with astonishing maturity. (She will be turning 14 later this year.)
This photo is from Poets Out Loud last October. Jasmine takes the stage, as host Sarah Temporal readies the mic.
The Poets Out Loud readings have been happening on Zoom this year. Jasmine and I have both attended, and have sometimes read, but for personal catch-ups we chat occasionally on Messenger. (A passion for poetry bridges any age gap.) I asked her if she would let me have one of her poems for this current topic, and she offered to write a new one. How exciting is that – a new poem, commissioned and created especially for us! While making wider points, this piece also has specific reference to the issue of Aboriginals in custody.
Indigenous Australians are both convicted of crimes and imprisoned at a disproportionately high rate in Australia, as well as being over-represented as victims of crime. The issue is a complex one, to which federal and state governments as well as Indigenous groups have responded with various analyses and numerous programs and measures. As of September 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners represented 28% of the total adult prisoner population, while accounting for 3.3% of the general population.
Even more scandalous is the disproportionately high incidence of Aboriginal deaths in custody. A recent article in Vogue Australia gives details – and also notes the even higher rate of detention for Aboriginal women and children. We now know the shocking truth that some of these juvenile prisoners have been subjected to actual torture behind closed doors. And I don't mean only in the past! Our systems of authority are no more civilised now than they ever were. (It is not the original inhabitants of this country who merit the label 'savages'.)
Here's Jasmine's Black Lives Matter Poem.
I asked her to read it for us on Soundcloud. Please click the link to hear how beautifully she does so.
And this is the text:
Life is precious Life is sometimes robbed Life is not fair Life is shared The justice system is not your life, however it
can take your life All the black lives that were taken, they did not
have a white flag to surrender to express that
their lives were soon to be over They were mistaken of doing wrong when they
were the ones being wronged From the colour of our skin this diversity is
turning into a murder scene Racism will never be the description of our lives
Of our respect Of our future Of us If all lives matter, why is it mainly the black
lives being attacked? Why is it a plea of justice to the justice system? No matter how loud we talk, no matter how
many there are of us, no matter how young
some of us are, no matter many people we
educate We still aren’t listened By people with power By people with popularity By people with stubborn minds We are heard but not listened to We are being tortured but not falling We are different but not any less the same
You'll be aware that some people have countered 'Black Lives Matter' with 'All Lives Matter'. I have been given to understand that this was a slogan originally created by vegans and animal rights activists. Lately it has been coopted to try and diminish the assertion that Black Lives Matter. I love Jasmine's beautifully logical, stating-the-obvious riposte.
The posts of these last three weeks have only scratched the surface of this issue, and obviously there are other countries too where it needs addressing. I'm not going to continue with this theme here at this time, but neither do I want to just pay lip service and move on. I think we are all needed in keeping the momentum alive. Let’s keep on – as I know you in this community already are – thinking deeply, reading widely, and writing both thoughtfully and passionately in the service of change.
Material shared here is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, usually the authors.