Thursday, January 16, 2014
What an Interesting Point of View
We are soon approaching one of Australia’s National Holidays – January 26th – Australia Day. I always love a public holiday. Apart from the day off from work, Australians love a good opportunity to have a picnic or Barbeque; an opportunity to pull out the cricket bats and wickets; to sit at water’s edge and enjoy the heat while the kids play in the water. I have been known to tape an Australian flag to the aerial of the car. In the year we were in the UK for Australia Day, we went outside in the freezing cold with our jar of vegemite and Australian flag, wearing footy shorts, singlet and thongs (flip-flops for the non-Australians) and took photos to mark the occasion. Actually I took the photo, my son wore the Aussie garb.
In recent years I have become aware of some agitation that has been coming to light over Australia Day. I’m not going to say I know what it’s all about, but from the bits and pieces I have picked up I would suggest it has something to do with point of view. As writers we are big on ‘point of view’ discussions; how important it is to keep the POV from jumping around, but more importantly as a writer of fiction, it is crucial that we can begin see things from various points of view and show an empathy or understanding if we are to make our characters credible.
I’ve had numerous discussions with my daughter who has been a teacher of Aboriginal Studies for seven years, and is currently studying a masters in Aboriginal Studies. She is very animated when she talks about Australia Day. For some odd reason she doesn’t see Australia Day the same way I do. The chops on the barbie and the cricket on the TV is not what she thinks of at all. If anything she says she thinks of the yobbo’s who drape Australian flags over their shoulders, waving stubbies of beer in their hand, racing around the suburbs inciting violence and yelling racial chants. You might ask if that was our usual family activity for an Australian Day holiday, and I would say: Of course not. I think I saw something of the sort on TV once and dismissed it without a second thought. Those sorts of people are not Australian! Are they?
Then I recall a recent back yard party I was invited to. The family were Indian migrants, and their backyard was full of Indian migrants. We ate some fabulous curry and even joined in some Bollywood dancing to music that was blaring out of the speakers in the parked car. It was very multi-cultural from my point of view. There was me, the lone Aussie Aussie, my husband , who identifies as an Italian, though he was born in Australia, and two or three other Italian neighbours. It was all going very well until I engaged in a conversation with one of the young Indian fellows. He was highly educated, and unlike a lot of his friends at the party who drove taxis for a living (all the taxis were parked in the street), he worked in a slaughter house. He was scathing in his description of the country Australians he worked with. He saw them as racist and abusive. I wanted to object. I am a country Australian, and we are not racist, are we?
This year I was studying Australian Literature of 20th Century for a semester. Of course Dorothea Macellar’s ‘My Country’ was dragged out and examined, and I immediately connected. ‘I love a sunburnt country; jewelled seas; ragged mountain ranges; the wide brown land for me.’ But then there was another poem entitled ‘Australia’ by Ania Walwicz. Walwicz arrived as a twelve year old non-English speaking migrant to a crowded urban environment, and from the way she has written her poem, her experience was not that great. ‘Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach...you dumb dirty city with bar stools. You’re ugly...’ It’s not what you’d call a poem that inspires patriotism. Clearly her point of view was of a crowded, unfriendly, overwhelming place where she had no escape.
But as we approach Australia Day particularly, I want to look at the reason we celebrate in the first place. I have heard the throwaway line – it’s the day Australia was settled. And in those few words lies the problem. It was the day the Europeans arrived, ran up a flag and proclaimed that the British Empire would build a nation. However there were already settlements and nations all over the land we now call Australia. Of course they were the first Australians. When we look at the first picture we see the ceremony with the flag, the officials standing around about listening to proclamations and prayers. However, the second picture shows us the other folks that we don’t see represented in the first picture. These were the first Australian indigenous people whose land the Europeans were laying claim to. From that day to this, a lot of history has taken place, but usually we only focus on the part that represents from the European (particularly the British) point of view. So when we come to Australia day we of white British descent can give a cheer and thank God for this great land, and for all the good things that we enjoy by way of provisions and freedoms. But while British colonial settlers were successful in building a great future for their white descendents, what was constructed for the indigenous population was characterised by some very ugly history, if we choose to look at it.
Now I am about to enter contentious waters. Come with me a little way – it will be OK. In 1938 at the 150th anniversary Australia Day celebrations, a small group of courageous aboriginal people staged a silent demonstration, proclaiming the day as a day of mourning. This group was led by a William Cooper and his nephew, Douglas Nichols. They weren’t saying ‘Europeans have stolen our land’; nor were they saying, ‘Europeans go back to where you came from’. What they were saying was, ‘let us be a part of the nation you have built’. This was the beginning of Australia’s own civil rights movement where this group had written a petition to the King asking that Aboriginals be given civil rights: to be counted, to be allowed to have a say over their own affairs, to vote, to be allowed to go into the public swimming pool, for their returned soldiers to be allowed admittance to the RSL clubs. At that time they were still having children being taken from them indiscriminately, and they were only allowed to live on certain reserves. They were not allowed to move around from those reserves, nor were they allowed any say on how the reserves were run. All of that was left to white overseers. Some were benevolent, some were cruel and unkind. William Cooper begged his nephew, Douglas Nichols, to use his influence to help their people. Doug Nichols was the first indigenous professional football player in Victoria. He was reluctantly accepted by the VFL(they couldn’t refuse his skill), but he was refused the usual rub-downs that all other football players received. But he persisted in the game, and eventually joined his uncle in the cause. After he finished his football career, he became a Christian minister, and using his influence he pursued the cause of equal rights for his people. It is an inspiring story of Australia’s civil rights leader – he is our Nelson Mandela; he is our Martin Luther King. Why don’t we know much about him? Perhaps you do, but if you don’t, I strongly encourage you to take a look at a TV documentary you will find on You Tube. It is from the series ‘First Australians’ produced for SBS. This episode is called ‘A Fair Go for a Dark Race’, directed by Beck Cole.
This Australia Day as you enjoy your chops and sausages with good old tomato sauce (translation ketchup for American friends), and you cheer wildly while the Aussie’s beat the Poms in the cricket, don’t forget to give a nod of recognition to the other points of view. In our country today there are many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds represented. Sometimes their experiences have not been so great. Perhaps we could offer a prayer for our government and for our people, that we can find the course of grace and wisdom that will help us travel difficult roads together towards a more loving and accepting time.
Author of Cora Villa, Mellington Hall, For All Time and The 'Heart of Green Valley' series
These thoughts were bought to you by Meredith Resce at 2:00 AM
Labels: Australia Day; First Australians; Australian Civil Rights; Douglas Nichols; Racism; William Cooper