(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)
OODGEROO NOONUCCAL (1920-1993)
The book My People was published by Jacaranda Press in 1970 and was the first poetry book I bought with my own money! I attended university in Canberra in 1971 and I remember feeling overawed when I met Oodgeroo and Faith Bandler at a conference held at the Australian National University.
It is a book I treasure for content and memories!
Kath Walker is now better known by her Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal and this was her third collection of poems and essays. I’ve chosen this book as another contribution to Lisa Hill’s celebration of Indigenous Literature for NAIDOC Week.
“In 1988, as a protest against continuing Aboriginal disadvantage during the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia, Walker returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970, and subsequently adopted the Noonuccal tribal name Oodgeroo (meaning paperbark).”
The book’s sub-title, A Kath Walker Collection apt because it is not just poems – there is what we would term flash fiction, and also speeches made by the author, a prominent political activist and fighter for social justice.
Judith Wright who was Jacaranda’s poetry reader in the 60s recommended the publication of Oodgeroo’s first collection We Are Going, in 1964.
“The work was an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best selling Australian poet since CJ Dennis.
The plain-speaking style of her poetry, and the strong element of protest in it, precluded literary acclaim for her work, but the role of a political ‘protest poet’ was one in which Walker would come to revel.“
It was my passionate support for the rights of Aborigines that led me to seek out Indigenous writers discovering Oodgeroo first, and then later many others.
I’ve already written about West Australian Jack Davis.
Like many white Australians who were immigrants and lived ‘in the suburbs down south’, initially knowledge of Aboriginal affairs came from school and mainstream media. At school, it was more colonial history and the less said about media coverage the better. (In the main, this still produces poor quality information!)
In the mid-60s, Harold Blair visited Croydon High School and was often in the news. My father who loved singing and had a wonderful tenor voice became very interested in everything Harold did or said. Around the dinner table, we often discussed politics including the plight of Aboriginal Australians.
Dad was genuinely shocked that the majority of Aborigines had only received voting rights in 1962 – a few months before we arrived in Australia.
On page 36-7 as well as a poem, Oodgeroo has written an historical document, prepared and presented to the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement, held at Adelaide, Easter 1962:
“We want hope, not racialism, Brotherhood, not ostracism, Black advance,not white ascendance: Make us equals, not dependants…
Must we native Old Australians In our land rank as aliens? …”
Similar to Jack Davis, her fellow writer/activist, Oodgeroo assumed a role of cultural guardian and educator for her people, establishing the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, near Amity Point on Stradbroke, her island home. A rich legacy includes Indigenous studies being embedded in Queensland University’s curriculum.
The poems and essays in My People focus on conveying the point of view and plight of Aboriginal Australia to non-Aboriginal readers. The words are not strident but the message is strong. As a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s, because it was the only political party against the White Australia Policy at the time, a universal philosophy of the ‘brotherhood of man’ influenced Oodgeroo’s work.
All One Race (page 1)
Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?…
… I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.
Let us Not be Bitter (page 20)
Away with bitterness, my own dark people
Come stand with me, look forward, not back,
For a new time has come for us.
Now we must change, my people. For so long
Time for us stood still; now we know
Life is change, life is progress,
Life is learning things, life is onward.
White men had to learn civilised ways,
Now it is our turn…
An Appeal (page 3)
Statesmen, who make the nation’s laws,
With power to force unfriendly doors,
Give leadership in this our cause
That leaders owe.
Writers, who have the nation’s ear,
Your pen a sword opponents fear,
Speak of our evils loud and clear
That all may know…
And the poet continues to plea to Unions, Churches, The Press and ultimately All white well-wishers.
However, by the end of the book, there is a change of tone and readers can detect impatience and frustration at not only the slow, if any, change to a system of endemic injustice, but anger at the lack of land rights and respect for her people and country.
I am Proud (page 86)
I am black of skin among whites,
And I am proud,
Proud of race and proud of skin.
I am broken and poor,
Dressed in rags from white man’s back,
But do not think I am ashamed.
Spears could not contend against guns and we were mastered,
But there are things they could not plunder and destroy.
We were conquered but never subservient,
We were compelled but never servile.
Do not think I cringe as white men cringe to whites.
I am proud,
Though humble and poor and without a home…
So was Christ.
Recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty, Oodgeroo assumed would be a given once white people were educated and understood everyone’s responsibility towards the land and the rights of Native Title.
She believed enlightenment, and compassion would also lead to a material change and improvement in living conditions for Aboriginal Australians.
Oodgeroo’s mastery of English and her command of poetic techniques, coupled with deep-felt honesty and her lived experience of Aboriginal Australia has produced memorable verses of varying styles and a powerful snapshot of Australia in the late 60s.
Namatjira (page 64)
… What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.
The Dispossessed (page 65)
For Uncle Willie McKenzie
… The white man claimed your hunting grounds and you could not remain,
They made you work as menials for greedy private gain;
Your tribes are broken vagrants now wherever whites abide,
And justice of the white man means justice to you denied…
There are also personal poems where we see glimpses of the writer, activist, teacher, woman and mother. Poems about tribal ways, historical incidents, totems, unmarried mothers, the dreams of young women, family past and present, and always the longing and belonging to country:
Artist Son (page 54)
… Paint joy, not pain,
Paint beauty and happiness for men,
Paint the rare insight glimpses that express
What tongue cannot or pen: …
Son of Mine (page 55)
My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?…
My Love (page 50)
Possess me? No, I cannot give
The love that others know,
For I am wedded to a cause:
The rest I must forgo…
The social part, the personal
I have renounced of old;
Mine is a dedicated life,
No man’s to have and hold…
For there are ancient wrongs to right,
Men’s malice to endure;
A long road and a lonely road,
But oh, the goal is sure.
I recommend My People to readers because of the quality of the writing and the narrative of a time past laced with the present and future. The poems, a way of understanding the historical struggle of Aboriginal Australia and the richness of its culture and traditions.
The writer’s voice perceptive, strong, precise in detail, encapsulating a love for humanity and a vision for a peaceful, fairer future. Something we should all wish for!
A Song of Hope (page 40)
Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking,
The world is waking
To a new bright day,
When none defame us,
No restriction tame us,
Nor colour shame us,
Nor sneer dismay…
To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.