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Thursday, 3 September 2009

Review: Why Weren't We Told?, Henry Reynolds (1999)

Half history book, half memoir, the book transports us back to the bad old days of the history wars, the time of that choice epithet, 'black armband', which Reynolds chose to wear with pride. We're in a different space now that ATSIC has been relegated to Siberia, Howard and Hanson are gone, the Intervention has faded, and Rudd said 'Sorry'.

Despite this, Reynolds' question remains valid. For children in school today there are probably more facts about Aboriginal history, but for people of my generation it is a question that must continue to be asked because Aboriginal disadvantage continues to fester in the heart of the nation.

When Australian journalists questioned the sex of athlete Caster Semenya recently, South African news outlets responded by calling Australia "racist". Our image overseas remains sullied by a racist past. In the book Reynolds, a Tasmanian, invokes an era when the texts available air-brushed out Aboriginal claims and Aboriginal contributions to nationbuilding. In the 1960s, when he started teaching, the Aboriginal was seen as a failed genetic experiment, a throw-back which had merely succumbed, regrettably, to the robust advance of Anglo settlement.

But then Reynolds moved to Townsville to take a job following a period overseas. In the far-north city he found racism alive on the streets and in the pubs. It opened his eyes and, when he went to the extant books for a guide to making his own curriculum, saw that accounts failed the reality test.

He set about researching Aboriginal history and continued to do so for the next thirty years. Others also joined in the task of uncovering a hidden story of guerilla conflict, expropriation, summary killings, multiple viewpoints (in the contemporary press), and a British government concerned about the welfare of the natives.

With his wife he became involved in Aboriginal groups that tried to improve the conditions of Aboriginal residents of Townsville. He was reviled by many citizens and was shocked by the levels of hatred that existed on both sides. It was an uneasy relationship. The "uppity nigger" was feared and spat on. The Aboriginal quickly learnt not to answer back to the migaloo who came to the front door.

Reynolds chronicles the history of his progress along a continuum from ignorance to enlightenment. He introduces material produced by some of his students who researched in areas bordering on his own.

This rich material is always illuminated by the writer's excellent style. There is not shrieking from the rooftops, but rather a quiet undertow pulls the reader down an uncharted stream that leads deep into the past. Into two pasts: Reynolds' own and that of the country in general. The excellence of the written style is equalled by the meticulousness of the research and the high tone of his story of close contact with a foreign society.

When we reach Townsville, we are taken swiftly to a gaol. In a dark cell littered with dirty mattresses and broken glass sit two 13-year-old girls. they had "been cheeky" with the teacher and had landed here. It was all-too routine. That was the 1960s.

But how do we move on from this kind of live narrative of summary punishment in the face of entrenched disadvantage; a crushing, humiliating disadvantage? Reynolds thinks that we need to come to terms with our true history, and so wrote the book.

Without some reconciliation of stories, some convergence of histories, it is hard to see how the broader agenda of reconciliation can be advanced. Is reconciliation possible between two peoples who fundamentally disagree about their shared past, who differ widely in their explanation of the reason why things are as they now are?

Reimagining frontier conflict in terms of war may be one way to bring issues surrounding reconciliation (a loaded, heavy word) into the broader public sphere.

the controversy aroused by the question of the Aboriginal war dead should not come as a surprise. War is central to the experience of nationhood. Death in war is seen as the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. The fallen are revered as martyrs who gave up their lives for the benefit of the community. But the situation becomes complicated when white Australia seeks to incorporate indigenous Australia within the nation, when national leaders proclaim we are all members of one nation. If that is so then the logic is inescapable -- we must treat the Aboriginal dead with as much respect and as much honour as we treat our own. Nothing less will do.

But this has never been done, Reynolds writes. If 20,000 white people had died in war there would be recognition. There would be marches. In this case there is nothing. At Myall Creek each year about 200 to 300 people gather on the first Saturday in June each year to commemorate the massacre of 28 Wirrayaraay women, children and old men by a group of stockmen in 1838 and the subsequent trial of the perpetrators. But coverage of the event is patchy and uncertain. Is this enough?

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