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April 23rd 2018 print

Robert Murray

Black, White and Grey Areas

In Black + White
by Warren Mundine
Pantera, 512 pages, 2017, $45
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Warren Mundine’s autobiography is the best book by and about an Aborigine I have read. It is also a very good memoir of a Baby Boomer from middle Australia who becomes a national figure.

Mundine has been the indigenous adviser to five prime ministers, a national president of the ALP, a leader of several indigenous organisations and regularly appears on television, noted for his shrewdly independent comments.

Mundine specifically rejects the “black armband” view of racial history, but also the “white blindfold”. He preaches a middle way for people of indigenous background, of embracing modernity, in the form of mainstream society, but also proudly retaining Aboriginal culture when it is practical. He gave his younger children Aboriginal names, and has added Nyunggar to his own name.

His book is a candid account of life as one of the more than 200,000 part-Europeans in New South Wales, the largest group of Australians today who identify as indigenous. They have a distinctive history going back two centuries but usually get little attention compared to the more glamorous or seemingly victimised or dysfunctional Aborigines of the remote north and centre.

Warren Mundine was born at Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales in 1956 and in most ways lived much the same life as other children from local blue-collar families. His father was a grader driver in road construction, earning moderately good money. The family was proudly Catholic, inherited from an Irish forebear of his mother; his father was a convert.

Like a lot of others, the family moved to the city for the better opportunities, and Mundine grew to manhood in the multicultural melting pot of industrial western Sydney, at various times a white- or blue-collar worker or student. He went through a radical phase in his youth, became more centrish in his views, and later somewhat on the conservative side.

“Racism” was sometimes a problem, but not as severe as might be imagined. Grafton hospital still had an Aborigines’ maternity wing when he was born. Aborigines waited at the back of Grafton shops until called. His father was paid less than other workers until the union eventually stepped in. His father was also denied a bank housing loan and had to take a more expensive private loan. But when a colleague called Warren an “Abo” on a Sydney construction blue-collar job he replied unworried with the appropriate rival ethnic jibe.

One of the problems in western Sydney was that there were not many other Aborigines and he often had to explain himself. He did not seem like a typical Aborigine. The population identifying as indigenous exploded in size in his lifetime. When he was born the officially counted Aboriginal population in New South Wales was only 15,000, mostly part-European; today those identifying as indigenous in New South Wales number more than 200,000, and nationally 700,000.

Part of the explanation is that many people living in the general community now identify for the census as indigenous when they once would not have. Decades ago people often concealed or played down the “touch of the tar brush” to avoid discrimination, misunderstanding and childhood cultural confusion, but the main reason was that officially “Aborigine” was defined as people genetically at least half-Aboriginal or living in the Aboriginal manner.

Aborigines also just have a lot of kids. Warren was the ninth of eleven children, all achievers. And he himself has a football team of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and step-children of varied hues. Two of his three wives have been white. If not the dreaded “assimilation” it is certainly integration.

Warren was more an autodidact than a regular student and read international history extensively, especially about colonialism and other rapid cultural and economic changes in old communities. This broadens his outlook. His book is free of the narrow introspection of much ethnic writing. The style is brisk and readable.

The family was (and still sees itself as) Bundjalung, from the Clarence Valley—Mundine is the Anglicised form of the native name—but intermarried with other coastal Aboriginal “mobs” and whites. His father grew up on the Baryulgil community on the upper Clarence, on the similarly named grazing station the Ogilvie brothers took up in 1840.

Warren says there was a squabble ending in a massacre soon afterwards when a neighbouring station owner was killed. The original owners became “slaves”, were poorly paid for station work, and settled in a rough village of huts there they built themselves. But generally relations with the station seem to have been good.

A recurring impression for me was that the early life he describes was at a remove, but not a huge one, from that of whites, much as his own was later. White station hands and small farmers in the nineteenth century lived close to the land in fairly rudimentary huts and felt as if they were poorly paid slaves to the squatters. Their children also moved to towns and cities and better jobs.

The communal life, with its big families crowding in and lots of cousins, uncles and aunts and elders, also seems nearer to white rural communities a century ago than to today’s individualistic, fast-changing society, uprooted from its past.

Warren says his father, born a century ago, could still speak Bundjalung when “on country” but generally the language and culture died out around the time of the Second World War. I was reminded of the way German had faded out in many rural areas a generation before that.

Warren says the big cloud over his early life was “the Welfare”, the Aboriginal Welfare Service, formerly Protectorate, in New South Wales. He says that until it was abolished in 1969 it had a pervasive overbearing presence which extended far beyond its legislation and original purpose. It made Aboriginal people feel subdued rather than helped. In particular, much troubled behaviour emanated from remote, poorly run and decrepit reserves.

He says that his father carried a “dog tag”, a certificate of exemption from Aboriginal legislation as a “half-caste”. He did not strictly need to, but it was a precaution against harassment or questioning in various situations.

He also blames “the Welfare” for the Stolen Generations, for excessive zeal in removing children from their families on neglect grounds—a deep hurt. He is adamant that it happened. However, when he was a child his own family enjoyed a life not much different from their white neighbours. He writes:

Despite being an Aboriginal family living in a mostly white town, my recollection of childhood in South Grafton is of my family getting on well with everyone in the neighbourhood and people usually treating us well. I also remember the relations between all the Aboriginal families and the white families, teachers, priests and nuns, shopkeepers and neighbours, as being friendly. Even though some of them—perhaps many of them—almost certainly looked down on us as though we were inferior because we were Aboriginal.

He says the successful 1967 referendum was a huge boost for Aborigines. Although about technicalities, it made them feel like full citizens, instead of limited ones, especially as specifically Aboriginal state welfare services were dissolved soon afterwards.

This is a big story. Aborigines typically loathe the protectorates but the full story has never been told. The archives contain mountainous records, but await more historians brave enough to risk having to write sympathetically.

In short, the various colonies established protectorates in the nineteenth century because the churches, themselves still establishing, could not do the job. Many Aborigines were in trouble, dying, sick or behaving destructively, trying to cope with rapid change. Alcohol and even drugs were among the many problems. The government help from the protectorates was intended for the “full-bloods” who had few children and seemed to be dying out. Governments felt an obligation to them, to “smooth the dying pillow”. Official emphasis later moved to keeping them alive.

At first officials thought mixed-race people would be best off blending into the general population. This is to some extent what happened, but many part-Europeans also found the rapid transition between radically different cultures difficult so the protectors opened the reserves and services such as food and shelter to part-Europeans, in return for restrictions intended to keep them away from unhelpful temptations. A messy situation of “Who’s an Aborigine?” developed. That at least is my interpretation from scattered references.

This book is mostly about the success stories, people like the Mundines who integrated well into mainstream society. It only briefly discusses the unsuccessful part-European people, some stranded between cultures, before it moves to the tribal people of the north, who are now the principal concern of governments. Once again a big section of the indigenous people is overlooked.

For the much-studied, more remote and tribal people, Mundine is on the side of less government and bureaucracy and more real-economy jobs, education and responsibility. I found nearly as interesting, however, his accounts of politicians and how government works and doesn’t work.

He has liked most ministers for indigenous affairs and prime ministers and found them interested and sympathetic, if not always immediately productive, but he didn’t trust Kevin Rudd and broke with Malcolm Turnbull. He found Turnbull remote and interested only in his media image, especially on the ABC.

He found most worthwhile indigenous developments came from both parties over time, but Labor was better at show and symbolism.

The book should have had an index.

Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg)