(The time has come for a reckoning)
Fourth Estate RRP $34.99
In recent months I have reviewed Black Lives White Law, Whitefella Way and The Voice to Parliament Handbook. Three books that make an important contribution to anyone wanting to better understand the brutal history of white settlement in Australia and its impact on the First Nations peoples of this continent. Each book was well researched, factually based and made their various points in a dispassionate, albeit powerful way.
When I picked up Stan Grant’s latest book, I was hoping that I would also be able to recommend it as being another important contribution to that understanding. It is certainly the opposite of a dispassionate treatise, being heavy with emotion, passion and sometimes, sweeping unsubstantiated factual assertions.
Grant is well known as a public figure who has worked as a journalist in Australia and elsewhere for many years in both radio and television. He recently resigned from his position as host of the ABC’S Q&A show after receiving much unfortunate racial abuse.
Grant’s message is wrapped around the death in September last year of Queen Elizabeth II. The story begins with a chapter titled “My Mother’s Son” which was published by the ABC ten days after the Queen’s death. In this he sets the scene by introducing us to his mother, also called Elizabeth, who was the offspring of a white woman and Aboriginal man. On page one we learn that:
“She was a dirt-poor Aboriginal kid living in a tin humpy on the outskirts of Coonabarabran, in north-west NSW. Socks were a luxury. Clothes were shared among a dozen siblings.”
Grant talks of the harsh life endured by his parents including the mistreatment of his father by the police.
In some ways this chapter is an executive summary of what is to come when he says of his feelings about the death of the Queen:
“I’m sure I am not alone amongst Indigenous people wrestling with swirling emotions. Among them has been anger. The choking asphyxiating anger at the suffering and injustice my people endure.”
And anger, if not rage, permeates the whole narrative.
Early in the book Grant suggests that in speaking out he will cop abuse from “those who don’t like Aboriginal people to speak up.” He makes other similar suggestions, which might be regarded by some as a technique designed to blunt criticisms, valid or otherwise, of the book or its author.
Chapter 2 begins with the phrase: “The White Queen is dead”, which is then repeated at the start of every chapter, and on many other occasions. And it is in this chapter that the reader is introduced to what Grant means by the word “White”. He asks the question as follows:
“But who is White? Or, better said, who gets to be White? How can you define something that isn’t real to begin with?”
Note the capital W.
He then provides an eclectic list of individuals from history “who imagine they are White at the top…” Names such as Shakespeare, Hobbes, The Beatles, Hitler, Madonna, Freud and James Cook. It is unclear how and why the particular individuals were selected. No facts are provided to support his selection process.
Grant makes a number of unsubstantiated bold assertions with such comments as:
“After two centuries Australians fear the bush. It is where they disappear.”
“Australia is a place where White people vanish.”
And in talking about children’s Nipper competitions on the beach says:
“They turn this water into a battleground. Everything is a competition. Someone must win and someone must lose. Everything – even the beach – must be conquered. The thing is, among all this noise and order I so rarely hear laughter.”
And about people walking along the beach, he suggests:
“…there are people walking heavy. Striding with purpose. I see them walking three or for abreast. They take up room. Rarely do they move aside. As I walk towards them, they continue straight ahead. This they claim as their right.”
“Nothing can right the wrongs of this nation.”
And then later he suggests that in Australia “racism is always forgiven. There is nothing that someone can inflict on us from which they cannot be redeemed.”
As mentioned earlier, rage and anger permeate all of this book and it is widely directed. Speaking of the death of the Queen Grant says:
“I am consumed by fury. And it is personal. I am furious at the White Queen in a land far away, and I am furious at my own country. I am furious at people I call friends who are swept up in the myth of Whiteness.”
This book makes many important points. In chapter 5 Grant talks about his grandmother’s life in a small town living in “a tin humpy – a one-room makeshift house built out of discarded kerosene tins and wrought iron – with a dirt floor.”
He speaks about the way that he was treated at school as “the darkest face in his all-White class…” and being asked “why are you so black?”
Such emotive stories hit a raw nerve with me as I was transported back to my early childhood in a small West Australian town where the local Aboriginal community was consigned to live in humpies on the outskirts of town and where the few Aboriginal children in our class were never invited to join our play. In my later life I have always wondered how it was that I simply accepted this as being normal and it is something I deeply regret.
Grant examines his concept of Whiteness in a number of situations, such as the English takeover of Ireland; the treatment of Meghan Markle; Cathy Freeman’s performance at the Sydney Olympics; South African apartheid and racism in sport and at the ABC.
Grant seems a bundle of conflicting emotions and torn between anger and resentment on the one hand and love and forgiveness on the other. He says:
“When I hear that she (The Queen) has died, something breaks in me. And I am surprised at its intensity. It is not shock. It is rage….I am consumed by fury.”
“There is no virtue in the resentment held by the likes of Xi and Putin and Bin Laden.”
“To feast on resentment is shameful.”
Later in the book he discusses his faith in God and his tone seems less strident when he does so. Interestingly his book is dedicated “To Jesus Christ, my saviour,” as well as “To Baiame, my creator,” and “To Yindyamarra, the Spirit.”
I leave it to the reader to judge which of his emotions triumph in the end.
This is an uncomfortable book to read. In some ways it is like viewing a festering open wound. Some readers will no doubt be turned off by the emotionalism of the book and by some of Grant’s broad assertions mentioned above.
It cannot be suggested that our First Nations People are not entitled to feel anger. I am often surprised at their lack of anger. For some time, our community has been fed the unemotional facts of the impact of the European invasion of Australia and racism on Aboriginal people, and it may be that Grant’s vociferation is just what is needed for us to be shaken from our complacency. Perhaps this is where the rubber hits the road so that we who are non-indigenous are forced to face up to the impact on particular individuals such as Grant. But it is difficult to know whether that will be achieved with all readers. Probably not.