Passion and Illusions: Anita Heiss’s Stories

Anita Heiss,  Am I Black Enough for You? (Bantam/Random House, 2012), 304 pages, $34.95 

Anita Heiss is one of the nine part-Aborigines who took Andrew Bolt to court, and won. In Am I Black Enough for You? she writes of herself, family history, and the Bolt trial. “My identity,” says Heiss, who was born in suburban Sydney in 1968, went to Catholic schools and then to university, “is not simply about race, it’s about my family history, it’s about the history of Aboriginal Australia generally, it’s about the way I have been shaped as a human being since birth.” Her visit to Japan, in a chapter called “Blackfella Abroad”, takes readers into the world of the White Aborigines.

Qantas upgraded her to Business Class. From Tokyo she travelled on to Nagoya and lectured university students on the “Stolen Generations”—they had to read her middle-school children’s novel Who Am I? It’s supposedly a 1937 child’s diary and has entries like this: “I met Dot today at the shop. She gave me some lollies which was really naughty cos we aren’t supposed to eat before dinner, but geez they was nice.” Surrounded by Japanese, Heiss wasn’t happy, she felt unobserved and unappreciated by her hosts: “I wanted them to know that I was from Australia, that I was Aboriginal and not a westerner … I wanted to scream, ‘I’m the other! I’m the one the westerners write about!’” She went into a department store café and despised an Englishman who came in: “He spoke in a plum English accent and whined about his piece of cake.” She ignores him, fears the Japanese will think they are alike, and breaks into heartfelt italics: 

I don’t want to be alone in this place, but I don’t want people to think I’m like you. You’re the coloniser, and you complain too much. That’s not me! I’m happy with any cake, especially the one I’ve got right now. I got up quickly and headed to a familiar shop door across the street. Inside I felt happy, warm, at peace, at ease, at home, which some may think weird for a proud Wiradjuri woman, but I had just walked into Tiffany’s.   

 Am I Black Enough for You? is a catchy title, and a cowardly provocation of Andrew Bolt. Both she and her publishers, Random House, know he is legally prevented from responding to her question. It’s also the wrong question to ask Bolt. That was not the argument of his maligned articles. In the Australian, Caroline Overington wrote that Heiss missed the point: “The issue is whether those benefits designed to assist Aboriginal people out of their desperate poverty should be more sharply targeted at those with a genuine need.” She is right. It’s also the issue the White Aborigines are afraid to discuss.

Heiss is angered that we (presumably other Australians) should assume that someone like her is not an Aborigine because she isn’t black-skinned. Several times she refers to Andrew Bolt’s use in his trial statement of a photo of her mother, taken from her blog, to support his observation that she has a mixed heritage. An “error” according to Heiss, who forgets that her readers may Google for themselves. She instructs us on the correct way to behave by quoting from a book written with La Perouse school children (published by Oxford University Press). In it a boy says he hasn’t noticed many Kooris in Bondi and is chastised for saying so by a juvenile PC enforcer: 

“You don’t see many Kooris, but what’re you looking for? Kooris aren’t that dark you know,” Judy says. Mary puts her arm over Judy’s shoulder. In the past, Judy’s been given a hard time about being a fair-skinned Koori. 

Heiss does what she teaches the kids not to do. She judges race and makes cultural assumptions solely on appearances. Of a visit to Hobart she writes: “It seemed uncomfortably homogenous in its population, and I was an unwanted visitor. I was also, compared to the locals, quite dark in complexion.” The White Aborigines of Tasmania may feel slighted. She makes the same cultural/racial judgments when lecturing in Tahiti: “The majority of the audience were local French residents interested in literature and a handful of Tahitians.” The same double standards were present in the trial statement of Pat Eatock, who brought the case against Bolt, when she spoke of using skin colour and physical appearance to recognise Aboriginality: 

I have photos of Lucy [her grandmother]; she is clearly Aboriginal but not particularly dark. My grandmother’s husband, my grandfather, was an Aboriginal man, Bill Eatock. They married in 1894. He looked very Aboriginal. I have seen a photograph of Bill; he had a very black face and a long white beard.           

Heiss uses language which can only be used by insiders about themselves. She calls herself “Black”, “Blackfella”, and part of the “mob”—all “others” in our multifaceted nation are called “white”. Passing the faces on our streets it’s hard not to see that Heiss, and those like her, have been left behind by history. Dr and Dr Kelueljang from Macquarie Fields, meet Dr Other from Matraville.

The family story she tells, so necessary for asserting her insider membership, is fractured and dismembered to fit the narrative of Aboriginal identity. Belonging to an aggrieved Aboriginal community supposedly gives her the authority to express resentment towards contemporary Australia for our past and present racism. Calming racial tensions is not one of her aims. This bonsai family tree—it completely excludes her father’s family—has too little structure to support anything so grand. As history writing it is uninformed and completely present-orientated. The facts it relies on are sometimes uncertain. For instance, the story that her grandmother and her sister were stolen and sent to a home for Aboriginal girls (which Heiss claims is based on documentary evidence) supposedly took place years before the institution opened.

Her father, Josef Heiss, was born in a small village near Salzburg in 1936. It escapes his daughter’s notice that the real Other returned home to Austria in 1938. By the time he began attending primary school her father’s village was part of Nazi Germany, a world war was being fought, and the Holocaust was burning—often with the assistance of Austrian executioners and jailers. This produces no comment whatsoever from Josef’s daughter. Heiss refers to times when she has explained racism and cultural identity to him, but she never seems to have asked him if he remembers saluting a photo of the Fuehrer during his schooldays, or if his hometown of St Michael im Lungau was ever declared Judenfrei. To leave unexplored the story of her Austrian forebears during the first half of the twentieth century is cultural blindness. Is she afraid of finding brown relations? Comparing what happened to her Austrian family in the 1930s and 1940s with what happened to her Australian family would have made a more interesting book—and perhaps given her a more realistic idea of state racism.

At the time of writing this essay (early May) I have published on Quadrant Online some concerns I have with the facts put forward by Heiss. They may have been resolved by the time this is published. Trial claims that family members were “stolen” were not tested in the court, and they were accepted by the judge. Now that Heiss has provided some of the details behind those claims there may be a lot more to question in her account.

Elsie Heiss, Anita’s mother, has told her daughter that her own father, James Williams, was a “Wiradjuri warrior”. The connection with tribal life was probably long gone by the time he was born in Brungle in 1900, to Catholic parents. Amongst the evidence used by Keith Windschuttle in The Stolen Generations is a 1904 report from the manager of Brungle Aboriginal Station: 

During the year the old King (John Nelson) died. It is sad that very little notice was taken of his decease, and that the old customs of the race are fast disappearing, the habits and the customs of the white people taking their place. 

On Aboriginal traditions and culture Heiss is trivial and condescending. Of her maternal grandfather she says: “Although Catholic, he was initiated through traditional sacred Aboriginal men’s business, and spirituality was part of his life.” Initiation was the difference between being a boy and a man, between belonging and being excluded. Whether it still existed in Brungle in the years before the First World War Heiss probably has no idea and she gives no indication that she has tried to find out. It is a matter of supreme seriousness in traditional life but is trivialised here by the Hindmarsh Island platitude: it is the defining, irrevocable marker of Aboriginality: 

In the western desert of Australia a boy becomes a man by having an upper central incisor pounded out of his head with a rock, without anaesthetic, without permission to express pain or terror; by having his foreskin cut off in little pieces with a stone knife and seeing it eaten by certain of his male relatives, and as a climax of agony, by having his penis slit through to the urethra from the scrotum to the meatus, like a hot dog. At the same time the men singe into his brain with the white-hot poker of these memorable operations the first important knowledge, secular and sacred, of what he must know to survive in the world’s most hostile inhabited land. He goes away by himself, bleeding, terrified, to prove he can live for a time alone. When he returns to camp weeks or months later, he is a man, a child no longer. The little boys throw toy spears at him. They break against his chest. 

That was the anthropologist John Greenway in his brilliant book Down Among the Wild Men (1972). He was American, he knew Australia, and he knew what he was writing about. Anita Heiss, it seems, grew up already knowing everything: “My greatest educational challenge as a secondary student in relation to Aboriginality was that I knew more about Aboriginal Australia than my teachers.” The mention of her grandfather’s supposed initiation seems to be the only time the custom is mentioned in her book, but it has appeared elsewhere in her writing. Peta, the indigenous arts bureaucrat and White Aboriginal narrator of her novel Avoiding Mr Right, uses the word in relation to a cocktail bar, “Friday came and I was looking forward to my initiation into the Comme bar after-work soiree … I looked hot and I knew it.” Peta, like her creator, is a stickler for PC language and rebukes a co-worker who has said she has a “personal mission”: “Hasn’t anyone around here told you that it brings back terrible memories of mission managers and mission life for a lot of Aboriginal Australians?”

For over fifty years a few cutting words have been treasured in someone’s memory, probably Heiss’s mother’s. When they come into the open Heiss uses them to make a very modern political argument of resentment: the anecdote also illustrates her knowledge of Aboriginal history, and her mother’s family. After the Second World War the Williams family moved to Griffith where the adults worked as seasonal fruit pickers: 

The kids went to Hanwood Primary, where they were told quite blatantly, “You play up and you’re out on your heads. You are only here thanks to the courtesy of the parents and citizens.” It was the reference to “citizens” that stung the most, making a point of the non-status the Blacks had, not only in town, but around the country. 

Am I Black Enough for You? was worked on by professional Random House editors, and probably seen by the family and friends she thanks. Not one pointed out that Heiss should have written “parents and citizens” with capital letters because it was not an expression of two ideas but a clear reference to the school’s Parents and Citizens’ Association. Through this book there is an unexplored theme that runs just under the surface. It’s benevolence, or charity. It is the unacknowledged and unthanked help that has been given to the Williams and Heiss families by people wishing to assist them because they are Aboriginal. That unkind remark, or even deserved warning, could and would have been given to any children. Heiss does not consider that the local P & C may have been financially helping her family to attend the school, and clearly those who were there have not pointed out her error.

Heiss uses the incident to show that Australian Aborigines, and her family, were denied voting rights. This is a basic part of her understanding of Aboriginal history, yet even Wikipedia would tell her that the matter was more complex. Perhaps she’s not interested, for if she has researched her family history how could she not know that at the time the event took place the adults in her family had voting rights? In fact, her grandparents and great-grandmother were on the electoral rolls since, at least, 1930—as were other residents of Brungle Aboriginal Station.

There is little new on the background to the Bolt trial, even though Heiss writes, “The case was traumatic, but it will remain the most important thing I will ever do in my lifetime.” Strange then that the chapter called “The Trial: In the Court” is so short, just over four pages, and is less detailed than her account of Oprah Winfrey’s visit to Sydney. Though she had a $90,000 Fellowship from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and a Random House contract for this book, Heiss attended just a single day of the trial, the first, and came late. Offering a quote from her barrister Ron Merkel, she says his words gave her goosebumps. They include one of the Nazi comments he directed towards Bolt. Heiss says, “I knew at that moment that we would win.” Summing up her one day in court she correctly noted, “Ron had set the tone for the trial.” Reflecting on those headline-making slurs that appeared in the next day’s newspapers, has she never wondered if a Heiss and a Merkel ever confronted each other somewhere in Holocaust Europe?

Heiss returned to Sydney and months later sat in a Redfern bistro for five hours fielding the messages of congratulations when the result was known. Although she has lit the bushfire which is consuming our freedom of speech, you wonder whether she really knows what she has done: “By the time judgment day arrived, this case was no longer simply about Blacks, it was about all those oppressed by opinion columnists.” 

ONLINE UPDATE: Anita Heiss and her publisher, Random House, have still not explained the confusing claims in Heiss’s book which were examined here… 

Michael Connor’s coverage of the White Aborigines trial appeared in the November 2011 issue. 

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