Hello, you. Long time no see! Actually, I saw you on the TV the other day talking about the Voice, and realised it had been ages since we spoke. Wow, you’ve come a long way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it—the Voice, that is. Of course, it doesn’t matter what I think, but I reckon there’s a reasonable chance it’ll get up, like you’re telling everyone on the radio. Some of our old friends are going to vote ‘Yes’ because they’re nice people and it seems mean to refuse something nice when you’re asked, especially when it’s such an easy thing to do. Why would you say ‘No’ if there’s even a slight chance it’ll make someone’s life better?
I often think back to the argument we had before we parted. You’d just got an Aboriginal scholarship and I think I rolled my eyes. OK, I did roll my eyes.
‘What, aren’t I black enough for you?’ you accused. It would be ‘Blak’ now, when you put pen to paper. In truth, you weren’t that black back then, but I said something clumsy, and … well, that was that.
We had a lot in common in those days—same town, same school—though I didn’t know as much about you then, as I do now. How many brothers and sisters did you have again? A truckload is all I remember—six kids to a room, or was it a bed? You lot were traipsed all over regional New South Wales and Queensland, changing schools way more often than was good for your education, and I bet that made it hard to make friends. Sometimes the houses were tiny, but adequate, and rarely squalid. Remember the one with the dirt floor!
You had a big family. The adults seemed interchangeable. Some of your relatives were badly affected by alcohol and drugs. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all got some of that in the family-tree. You saw some shockingly intoxicated adults, and I thought all the yelling made your place a bit scary. That’s probably why you wanted to have tea at my place. I now know that there was a fair bit of violence and other unspeakable depredations. You never told me the details, but I heard about it.
School must have been tougher than I knew. Kids can be cruel. They pick on differences mainly: too smart, too slow, four-eyes, no uniform, uniform, no shoes, shoes, black, yellow, slanty eyes, accents, funny smells. You said it was because you were black. Maybe … you weren’t the blackest by a country mile. We used to hang-out a lot, so they must have called you those awful names when I wasn’t around.
You remember some of the Asian kiddies couldn’t speak English? We laughed, but they learned fast. I heard you did an on-line course in one of those ‘disappearing’ indigenous languages when you got that job with the government. Hope you weren’t doing it on the boss’s time (ha ha). It’s amazing what you can learn on the internet.
While we’re at it, what’s with the slang? Those pidgin-lexicals roll off the tongue now. You must once have had to bite that same tongue because you never used them at school. Probably didn’t want to get bullied. You swore a lot, I remember. Now it’s ‘mob this’ and ‘mob that’, and ‘blackfullas’ galore. Never heard you swear on the TV, but did I hear you drop a ‘gammon’?
You were clever. That was special. But there was something else too—something that helped you resist the pull of drugs and alcohol, and peer-criminality. You got through school, went to uni, without a scholarship that first time. You got a job while you were studying, and got on with it.
You went back to see the family as often as your busy life allowed, and for as long as you could stand. It was a chore at first, but it was somewhere you could relax, despite the yelling. They’re plain ordinary people, your family. As you got older, you got to know them better. You pieced together relationships and biographies, learned more about the friends and distant rellies, whose names you’d overheard around the table, or in the car, as kids. Uncle Johnny isn’t as scary now—now that he’s old, has given up the grog and lost his teeth.
Some of your family had kids, young—plenty of little nieces and nephews for a newly minted auntie or uncle to cuddle. There were tragic stories too: favourite uncles in jail (again), or dead, way too young from diabetes or heart disease, and schoolmates who didn’t make it, or ended up trapped in the familiar cycles of poverty and violence.
All up, you’re proud of your family and friends, and your connections to them. You used to take them for granted, as we all did. You were ashamed for a time, and now you’re not. Good for you. You’ve grown up. It’s not easy is it—jobs, parenting, keeping a marriage together, not blowing it all up doing something stupid? You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy; wouldn’t miss is for the world.
I think you fetishize it a bit— the your ‘mob’ stuff—but maybe that’s me. I get that you feel part of something bigger, and richer. When you go home, you join-in the gossip and nonsense as an equal. Sure, you have to tone down the fancy words and you don’t talk about your big-city tastes, but you are still accepted by these strange-familiar people—without airs and graces—feckless and decent, self-sacrificing and persistent, greedy, lazy, determined, irresponsible, solid and dependable. We all come to terms with our families as (or if) we grow up. By the way, did you Google that tribal name, the one that comes after ‘proud’, or was that more tongue-biting?
You found university and urban workplaces a bit sterile compared to the welter of life at home. You felt out of place with the university kids from the suburbs and those dreadful private schools. Their worlds were orderly, predictable, soft—like the law-library where you spent all those hours studying. These city kids were ambitious, had higher expectations of themselves and others. You said some of them were ‘judgemental,’ but they’re still your friends. ‘Privileged’ is the new word, isn’t it?
You say ‘identity’ has always been an issue for you, but you never mentioned it back then. It’s like the trans-kiddies who remember playing with opposite-gender toys and flouncing about with frilly things, and gossamer wings…while their parents scratch their heads. I suppose we didn’t know what ‘identity’ meant when we were kids. But it’s all you talk about these days. Actually, it’s also become a bit of a fetish, if you don’t mind me saying.
Remember the poor white ferals we hung out with? It’s OK to say it. Some of them stayed poor and white, like Ronnie and Shane. And yes, trashy, like Narelle. A few got away to the Big Smoke like you. They were whiter than you so it must have been easier for them, eh? Did you hear Shane came back and smashed his uncle Johnny with a crow bar? He’s in jail now, and still as white as a fish in the sun. Some of them stayed and made good. ‘Cashed-up bogans,’ you’d call them. That’s their ‘identity’—four-wheel drives, big TVs and a pool. Still, ‘If the shoe fits…’ as you used to say.
Speaking of Trans, the Vietnamese ones, with the big family and the stinky shop with packets in funny writing. I still see Anh from time to time. Remember he had to run the shop after school? He has three beautiful kids now. They speak Vietnamese at home. His father was tough on him, I mean real tough. Found out he used to clip him and his mother… Anh says he’s mellowed and is a good granddad. The old-man’s parents came out on a boat fleeing the North, some of Gough’s f’n Balts. I’ll tell you about it some time. Mum and dad never made any money from the shop and Anh is expected to look after them. Families, eh?
You were always good with words. It’s how you make your living. But…your family never talked like you do…now. I often wonder why. Back in the day, you just lived where you lived, and moved where you moved. ‘Country’ use to mean…what it means…but now it’s like biltong you can chew-on for days, squeezing the juice out and sucking it through your teeth. What’s the other word? Used to be ‘walkabout’ when you were taking the piss, but now it’s just ‘walk.’ When you’re on the radio, you don’t just visit your family, you go ‘back on country.’ Actually, you ‘walk’ on country, and you get a pretty powerful feeling from it, or so you told the nice lady on ABC radio. If only you’d said something back in the day, riding our bikes through the long grass. We could’ve ‘walked’ if you’d wanted (ha ha). Is it as good, this feeling of yours, as when we smoked a bit of grass when mum was at work?
I’m sorry to harp but you weren’t really that ‘black’ in the day…that word again. In the Taubman’s colour catalogue of the modern multicultural workplace, your melaninization was at best caffe-latte or blanched-almond. Maybe in the right shade, at the right angle, when you close one eye…there’s definitely some indigenous physiognomy. When you’re older and seriously wrinkled, like that crone with the glasses you sat next to on that TV panel, you can be any colour you like. You’re ‘accepted.’
So why did you get into indigenous activism? You were mid-range good at what you did. Why not just keep doing it like the rest of us. You weren’t a star, but who is? Sure, the cult of laudable disadvantage was gaining traction in the 80s and 90s, and it took you a long way. But it was more than that. I think I understand now. You’d go back to the home-town—you used to call it ‘fly-over country,’ a reminder of your time in the US on that scholarship, the one that caused our bust-up—and your mum, she’s looking old for her years, a hard-working woman…she’s not a teacher or a nurse like your uni-mates’ mums, and it doesn’t seem fair somehow. She is as smart as any of them—smarter—and could’ve been more if she’d had a chance. And your old man? It’s sweet and sad just how proud your dad was of how well you did at school. Your brother Troy was a star. Fastest kid I ever saw, ever. He played A grade rugby league. These days, he’d be on big money. Still, there’s way too much jail time in your family, and some of the younger ones are heading down that path. You’re right, it’s not fair. Life’s not fair.
And what’s with these ‘old people who told stories?’ We’re the same age as the ones you bang on about. Unless you kept them in a basement…There was talk, sure, and laughter and bull and nonsense—about friends, family, fights, accidental pregnancies, who’s rooting who—the usual. Who were these storytellers? Not Uncle Trevor. He was, and is still, a moron. Shirley? She’s a good old-stick, but…cripes, not Aunty Dulcie? Just stop.
Maybe I wasn’t there the day Uncle Bruce Pascoe came in from the plains with stories about ancient blocks of flats and grain silos and secret things just over the horizon, and all that. I never knew your family were ancient stewards of the animals, lands and waterways. We used to piss off a bridge into the waterways. It was the rickety one across Shearer’s creek, not the ‘ancient land-bridge’ from Papua New Guinea you talk about at those awards ceremonies, and when you hand out scholarship to kiddies who look…well, like me.
It’s thirty years since you left school, and now it’s opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald, TV spots, and more meetings than you can poke a stick at—some with very important people, people like you. You’ve led a few inquiries and bashed out a report or two on racism in clubs. My dad was always up the Sports Club. He was probably a racist, but he never got to be a coach. He had a problem with the drink too, but I’ll tell you about that when I tell you about Tran’s old-man.
You’ve discovered trauma too. You never say it of yourself, you’re too modest or polite, but everyone from the past seems to have PTSD from colonisation. I got PTSD from my brother Colin…colonial (get it?). See what I did there? His ice addiction and goin’-the-biff must have been cardinal symptoms. I think he methylated my DNA. OK, I’ll stop!
I see you go to the Coachella ‘Garma’ Festival every year. You’re too fat to dance, and a bit embarrassingly pale. Crikey, but those aunties and uncles are as black as the night. You don’t speak any real indigene languages, but the LGBTQI+ public-radio people go nuts over you, especially when you tell everyone to ‘shut-up and listen.’ Makes you sound a bit too much like your old-man for my liking.
I get that you’re not like them, your Arnhem Land brothers and sisters. What must they think of you, and you of them? I’d love to be a fly on the wall in those meetings, but I think it’s ‘secret business.’ Still, a fly and all that. You want to represent them to get a better go. Fair enough. But you’re not the same, whether you want to be or not. You’d never tell me anyway. I can say that, like I can say you’re too fat, and that you fetishize your family, because I know you.
I’m proud of you, my friend, even though we don’t talk. And if you ask me again, which you won’t, you’re still not black enough for me, if black means some kind of wished-for difference, some grafted-specialness, some bullshit stories, biltong-chewy words and numbers, or mid-life conversion to earth-spirit spookiness—the great Indigenous Imaginarium. Yours is a fantastic story of personal growth, against the odds, and kudos for you for wanting to make it better for people…like…whomever you think you were and are. But you forget that I was there are the beginning. I know the real story.
This Voice thing is about inscribing something on the Constitution. Your stories, like mine are not a special part of that great instrument of State. (And here’s me accusing you of being highfalutin! Pot-kettle, am I right?) The Constitution is not the Uluru Lodge Guest Book—where you stayed while penning the Makaratta statement. What a time that was! Can’t help but think you must’ve cringed about Uncle Johnny going to jail when you got to the ‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet.’ bit. Aunty Joycie’d be in all sorts of bloody proportions if he hadn’t, eh? I think you’d now say he was a victim of the ‘carceral state’ (nice word). Sometimes it was a bit like ‘Gunfight at the O.K Carceral’ at your place (ha ha).
While you were there at Uluru, did you see the ‘Field of Light’ show, do the ‘Rock at Dawn’ walk, and marvel at the last stars before sun-up? That’s real magic. You know, you should write a book about your life—your real one. It’s amazing. Please don’t lose your real-life to the Indigenous Imaginarium. It doesn’t make it better than it was/is. You’re too good for that.
When you go home, to your real family, see them as they are, if you can bear it. They’re not too bad, or too good. And we should definitely catch-up some time, maybe go for one of those walks you talk about, and tell some stories of our own.