NOT ALL THE SAME
Stan Grant makes a convincing case for the redefinition of what it means to be an indigenous Australian, writes Stephen Fitzpatrick
In his recent memoir Talking to My Country, indigenous journalist Stan Grant let fly with a barely contained fury, an anguished, laser-sharp attack on the forcible silencing of his people: names, languages, whole nations disappeared in a relatively brief moment. “You called us Aborigines: a word that meant nothing to my people,” he wrote. “And in that one word you erased our true identities.”
Less than a year on, it is as though the catharsis of ordering his rage into paragraphs and chapters has been complete. In a measured, considered Quarterly Essay, Grant ponders what potential there may be for co-opting that erasure. He concludes that framing the story as bearing similarities to economic migration the world over may be it.
Which is not to downplay the massacres, the rapes, the removal of children and the brutalisation of a culture but to acknowledge these events knowing “history — the history of dispossession and ensuing suffering — can be an all-too-convenient explanation of what ails us”.
Grant argues that marginalisation and impoverishment through land seizures were not always mutually exclusive, with developing economic relations, chiefly through the supply of labour (and, it should be said, sex). The process was under way of building a hybrid economy, in which “Aboriginal people could be both needed and segregated”.
He describes this QE, The Australian Dream, as a coda to the now-famous speech he delivered at a low-key forum last year, as a way of trying to understand the vicious, racist insults then being launched against AFL star Adam Goodes — a speech that months later unexpectedly went viral when it emerged online.
That address, in which he levelled the simple charge that the Australian Dream was “rooted in racism”, resonated so deeply with both black and white Australia, it became a “weight” for him to bear. Many indigenous people felt that in telling his family’s story, he had also told theirs; at the same time, “to some, I may have let white people off the hook, too readily absolved them of their sins”.
Yet, he writes, “I can no more deny the greatness of Australia as a peaceful, cohesive, prosperous society than my fellow countrymen and women can deny the legacy of neglect and bigotry and injustice that traps so many indigenous brothers and sisters still”.
And from there it is a short distance to his convincing proposition that the economic mi- gration model is a powerful lens through which to view what has happened, even as that model has often put his people at a disadvantage. He takes his family as a prime example: moving across three generations from itinerant fruit picking, sawmilling and tent-boxing, to itinerant, or at least globetrotting, TV journalism.
A great-great-grandfather, Frank Foster, who Grant reveals here for the first time after only recently discovering the details of his life, was born in 1870 — long enough ago to have spent the first years of his life living in one of many makeshift blacks’ shores of Sydney Harbour.
That man’s own grandparents saw the arrival of Europeans and bore the brunt of first contact as part of the ancient Eora nation; yet he gained enough skills to become a mission schoolteacher, wandering NSW and Victoria for work, spending time in jail and ending life as a fisherman. A victim, by some accounting, of the colonial state but also, in Grant’s view, part of the “great migration” of Aboriginal people as a new indigenous identity was formed. camps around the The sacrifice and resilience of our forebears has created a burgeoning indigenous middle class: confident, selfassured. They are redefining what it is to be indigenous … the grandchildren of people who emerged from oppressive Aboriginal missions in a segregated Australia are as at home on the streets of New York as Dubbo.
It is a far from glib assessment, and Grant treads a fine line, citing Aboriginal educationalist Maria Lane’s identification of two separate indigenous social streams: an “open society” focused on opportunity, effort and outcomes, and an “embedded society” that is risk-averse and welfare-oriented.
These two societies are linked through kinship “but their courses were set by the great Aboriginal migration”, he argues. Lane’s definitions are not absolutes and are dangerously at “risk of falling into caricature and stereotype” but her work helped identify a key truth, “puncturing the lazy assumptions and convenient identity of a homogenous, united indigenous society: no, we are not all the same”.
He is cognisant of the north-south divide in indigenous Australia, the differing needs of each, and the fact while “just 20 per cent of the indigenous population live in remote areas … their disadvantage is so acute that it obscures the successful lives of others”.
Questions of the precarious nature of indigenous identity arise, then, and Grant interrogates the implications of the “‘half-caste’ community that emerged from the Australian frontier; this hybrid society formed out of the clash of the first peoples and the new”.
It is a community to which he belongs and one in which a querying of identity must play a central part. But as he dryly notes, “I don’t try to profit from being Aboriginal; I take my skills and expertise to the marketplace, not my identity.” To the problem of “whether an Aborigine can be a Smiths fan”, he answers with a vehement “I can be whatever I damn like”.
Perhaps clewing to the outsider status deliberately inhabited by that quintessential 1980s English rock band and its forever pained singerlyricist Morrissey undermines Grant’s broader argument against Aboriginal essentialism. But as he was still a teenager — just — when the Smiths emerged, all angst and guitar driven, from Manchester in 1982, it can probably stand as a rhetorical device.
Unless he really does, at his ripe old age, still blast Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now from his comfortable inner-Sydney home. That would be fine, too, which is the point he’s making. is The Australian’s indigenous affairs editor.
Stan Grant is an insider and an outsider