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From Tragedy And Shame Came Awakening
tells the personal story of her political awakening and commitment to change in a new book The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers. This extract follows what she describes as the worst year of her life: in 1970 her mother and grandmother died, and her brother and sister and their families were killed in a plane crash in Samoa.
Up to my first year at university, in 1971, the only world I knew was church, school and family, and the importance of being a “good” Samoan girl. But that had all changed. My family had been decimated by the loss of a big chunk of my family; I had left school and was now immersed in a new world of university experience and learning. And while I was aware of the importance of being a good Samoan girl, now, at church, I began to question everything I had been taught to accept as given. As I became educated I became critical. I began to question the moral, spiritual and cultural “rightness” of Western Christianity.
I was disturbed by the impact it had had on Pacific people and cultures; how it had almost completely replaced indigenous religious beliefs. My reality was challenging the tenets of Christianity and theology in a way that would have been unthinkable to my Samoan parents and church community.
Even the idea that there was a God was debatable. I began to feel dissatisfied at church and Bible class. Later, as an adult and young mother, I would come to reconcile my feelings about Christianity into a personal belief. I began a one-on-one relationship with God and refused to believe that any church building, denomination, religion or institution could mediate that relationship.
As bad as that annus horribilis was — and it was bad — the situation had been made worse by the fact that I could not talk to anybody about my circumstances, about what I was feeling and what I needed. The loss of my mother and grandmother; the weight of the roles and obligations forced on me as the youngest girl in the family; the shame I must have brought on myself and my family with my “bad girl” behaviour: all this was crippling. It seemed that even people willing and able to help couldn’t really help. They didn’t understand what ‘help’ looked like and I couldn’t tell them. So my wall remained firmly in place, and I suffered in silence.
As I had done at school, I eventually stopped talking about much at all. Even then, I knew that kind of silence wasn’t right.
But then something strange happened.
I began to see silence and silencing everywhere. I watched the frustration boil over in other Maori and Pacific friends from school, and on the streets in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn when Pacific people, especially young males with afros, were being harassed by the police. They were often rendered inarticulate by a school system built with a systematic disregard for Pacific youth that was genuinely debilitating. These experiences of racism on the streets, in the classrooms and in the shops went unchallenged by our parents. They would almost always side with palagi policemen or teachers who saw errant behaviour on our part — thus reinforcing the silencing and exacerbating the frustration. But this was only because they had so much respect for authority and the law of the land: to them, the police, the teachers, the government were always right.
Silencing and being heard matters, I began to realise. They matter for remedies. They matter for recovery. They matter for living. They matter for well-being. And so started my journey of identifying and investigating silencing. It was a way to focus on something I felt I could understand about a situation that, at the time, was beyond my understanding.
I was an older teen, but I was still too young to understand the intersecting systems of racism and oppression; the difficulties of forging a new New Zealand-born Samoan identity; and the extraordinary level of stigmatising that leads to labelling — to accusations of being, on the one hand, ulavale (cheeky, disrespectful) or moe pi (a bedwetter), and on the other, the s***-stirrer or black sheep of the family.
I had no idea of the extraordinary burdens placed on the first generation of New Zealand-born Pacific people and their migrant parents. I had no idea of the racism and institutional racism suffered in a monocultural society. I had no idea about the need to forge new inter-generational identities of Pacific people in Aotearoa. I had no idea of the whole host of situations — personal, interpersonal, national and transnational — that operated to facilitate my family’s situation and my particular silence.
But the incapacitating silence and silencing, and layers of both racist oppression and ethnic cultural conformity-seeking, which I both felt and observed, would later became my life’s activist and academic work. I would go on to examine the specific role knowledge plays in the process of forced silence and silencing. I would explore the conditions for the unjustness of racism. I would expose my New Zealand-born Samoan identity and, in doing so, break down my wall of silence and find my voice.
Melani Anae is senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Marsden Award recipient and holder of the Queen’s Service Order Medal for services to Pacific communities. She has also been bestowed with Samoan matai (chief) titles Lupematasila from her dad’s village of Sama’i, Falelatai and Misatauveve from her mum’s village of Siumu.
by Melani Anae (Bridget Williams Books, paperback $15, e-book $5) is out now.