I was recently speaking to someone about the referendum whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. They complained that indigenous people have had the same opportunities as the rest of us, including the right to vote, therefore they did not know why they needed a special ‘voice’. I must admit, although I disagree with their point of view, I was somewhat lost for the words to say in response and decided to just leave the conversation at that.
Jack Charles’ autobiography Jack Charles: Born-again Blakfella helped clarify to me why the changes outlined in the the Uluru Statement from the Heart are so important to aid in the healing process.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.Source: View The Statement – Uluru Statement from the Heart
A child of the stolen generation, Charles talks about being taken away from his mother at two months age (only because she left the hospital before they could take him away after being born). Instead he was brought up as the only indigenous child in Box Hill Boys Home. There he and the other boys were abused by the Salvation Army officers. The legacy of this experience led Charles to a life balanced between the world of theatre, and a life of drugs, crime and homelessness.
Published in 2019, a few years before his passing in 2022, this book is written with the hindsight of a long life. Although frustrated with politics, the prison system, at Australia’s ‘unique racism’ and the failure to bring about treaty, this is never offered as some sort of excuse to some of the choices made in Charles’ complicated life. Instead, this book can itself be considered as a form of healing.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anybody struggling with the trauma of past abuse is to talk about it. It’s difficult to open up, but I try to encourage folks to reflect on themselves during those moments of suffering – without a sense of blame and shame. What you were subjected to is a part of your lived experience and, as unfortunate as it is, it happened. Come what may, you have to relegate it to a section of the old grey matter up top. Leave it there, until you wanna talk about it in a group session or it comes up naturally in conversation.
I think that what makes this book so powerful is Charles’ (and Namila Benson) storytelling. I often found myself unsure whether to laughing or cry. Whether it be writing letters home for fellow inmates in prison.
It was always whitefellas getting me to write their letters. I don’t remember any blakfellas asking me to write for them. I’d make sure to use just the right language and phrases so these unsuspecting women back home would know they were number one. And the payment for my efforts? Tobacco and chocolate. This letter-writing business held me in good stead. I always rolled out of prison having gained a few pounds.
Collecting rent in the form of burglaries.
When I discovered my connection to this traditional land, I started thinking of my burgs as ‘collecting rent’; taking back just a small piece of what had been cruelly stolen from me and my people.
Performing naked at the Opera House in response to sexism.
The Opera House waited until the very last moment before finally calling me and agreeing to pay all the girls the correct fee. I told them, ‘I’m so pissed off with you, ya bastards. Y’know, making those girls wait so long.’ I paused but there was no response. Time to pull out the big guns. ‘Okay, I’ll stay, but I’m going to do Bennelong naked. Fuck yas.’ It seemed like a fair exchange for the stress we’d been put under. And so I did it. Wandered on stage and performed the show with me willy dangling on the Opera House stage.
And faking it as an ‘actor’.
They had to know full well that I, Jack Charles, was too far up meself to audition. It’s true. When it comes to acting roles, auditioning and getting knocked back just won’t do. I’m very lucky to be in the unique position where I’m not forced to audition in order to be seriously considered for roles. The great Australian actor Bill Hunter never auditioned either, so I take my lead from him. He told me once, ‘I get away with it so often, Jack. Thing is, I can’t act but everybody reckons I can.’ It was a relief to hear someone of his calibre say that, not to mention his advice that I should be more assertive. I responded, ‘Well, I’m in the same boat, Bill. So long as we know our lines and create the illusion of being someone else, then we’ll get across the line. You know, if it works for us, it’ll work for the audience.’
Maybe this book was not about me (clearly not, it was about Jack Charles), however I cannot help think about my own experiences and how I might have behaved differently. I was, in hindsight, lucky enough to teach at a Koori school. I remember being frustrated at times with how I was treated. For example, I would walk down the street and hear ‘pinky’ hollered at the top of one of my student’s lungs. In hindsight, I think this was actually there sign of respect. Often having been somewhat rejected by the mainstream school, I imagine there were many teachers they would not have given the time of day to, let alone called out to. Even with my academic awareness of ‘The Stolen Generation’, I feel that autobiographies like this and Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why help to appreciate the ongoing legacy of such a decision and who change is so important.
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