Monday, November 19, 2012

Train reading - Kevin Gilbert's Living Black

One of the more difficult things that I have to do as both a sometimes historian and social commentator is to read and write things about things when I really don't want to do either.

Take the history of New England in the second half of the twentieth century. From my perspective, this seemed a period of defeat, of decline, for many of the things I loved. I had to write about it, but I dodged for as long as I could! Finally, I nominated for a seminar paper on the topic social change in the period, in so doing filling the last major gap in my book project. Of course many gaps remained, as well as the plain hard yakka of writing.

Oops! Hard yakka is an Australianism meaning hard work. It is, apparently, an Aboriginal world. But the, that's appropriate in terms of this post.

My train reading at present is Kevin Gilbert's Living Black (Penguin, 1978). The book presents a series of interviews with Aboriginal people conducted between 1976-1978. I bought the book while on my recent Armidale trip to add to my ever-growing New England collection. While Mr Gilbert was not a New Englander, he did have Kamilaroi connections. More importantly, a number of the interviews were with Aboriginal people from Northern NSW. That was why I bought it, for the interviews provided raw material, oral history, that might help me flesh out the variegated and changing pattern of New England history.

In looking at the book, I focused first on the New England slices, but also looked at the NSW material because of my present professional interest in that area. The rest I tended to browse.

I found the book profoundly depressing at a number of levels.

Had I bought the book in 1978, I would have recognised the impact of stereotyping on Aboriginal perceptions of themselves. I first learned of this from Oceania when I was doing my honours thesis. I would also have been interested in a general sense. Still, it would have been a more academic interest. Outside Armidale's main Aboriginal families, outside some of the more prominent Aboriginal leaders such as Charles Perkins, I knew, or knew of, few Aboriginal people.

Things are a little different now.

  My interest in Aboriginal policy and history was aroused again by my renewed interest in New England history and in the long history of Aboriginal occupation of this continent, I started writing again on Aboriginal history and policy, trying to disentangle the issues. Later, I found myself working in an Aboriginal focused organisation. Some of my longer term readers and friends will have worked out which one by now. I will not give the name here. Later, when my current assignment is finished, I may be more explicit.

My point is that when I read the book today, not only did I know every NSW location mentioned in it, not only did I actually know something of the history. I knew people with family connections to that area; I know something of the politics; I know a lot more of the detail of the needs.

Before explaining my depression, I need to provide a positive. By far the biggest single change between 1978 and the present, one that is transforming the structure of Aboriginal life, is the explosion in education. This is something that Joe Lane writes about partly in honour of his wife. It is a profound change.

And yet, if you read Mr Gilbert's book and compare it with Noel Pearson's views, you could conclude that nothing has changed at all. Here, I don't won't to write a detailed analysis tonight, but I do want to pick up three points from my earlier writing. In doing so, I will also use quotes from things that have been said to me.

"We know our culture has to change, but we want too control that change." 

This comment came from my Aboriginal mentee, of whom I am very proud. Proud not because I helped her although I hope that I did, proud because of what she has done.

We were standing outside an office building in Sydney having a smoke. I stood there listening to the conversation among the mentees, talking about the problems they faced in their own communities. Her and their point was that they knew that change was inevitable, but they wanted to control the process, not have it imposed upon them regardless of their views.

Thank you for introducing me to the language.

This was a recent comment. It was ill-deserved, coming about simply because I told her that a dictionary in her people's tongue had recently been published.

in Mr Gilbert's book, the desire of Aboriginal people to know about their own history come through. Not history seen through the prism of past ills, not history seen through the prism of non-Aboriginal guilt nor Aboriginal-White relations, just the personal history relevant to them

Things have improved a little since 1978, but not all that much.

I write about the history of one area remote from current historiography. But it is also the territory of nine main Aboriginal language groups. I am interested in their history, not generalisations based upon European created constitutional entities whose structures are largely relevant to main themes such as education. Those broader structures do dictate much of what has happened, but they don't tell the full story of what has happened on the ground. There you have to dig down.

We want respect.

Aboriginal people are not blind. Mr Gilbert wasn't blind in 1978, nor are Aboriginal activists today. They know the problems in their own communities. Many have fought hard for change. Many continue to do so in circumstances beyond the conception of those in the broader community. 

They are no different here from those in the broader community. They just want to be listened too. to have their views respected. Here they are no different from those who attended my recent talk to the Armidale North Rotary Club.

I guess that I will finish here, Avenger is trying to sit on the keyboard! I would be interested in your comments.       

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