I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung as the traditional owners of Mordialloc and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Yesterday was Mabo Day, a significant day for First Nation Peoples, a day to honour the vision, commitment and legacy of Eddie Mabo, who paved the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights and Native Title in Australia.
It is also the end of Reconciliation Week, which occurs from 27 May – 3 June every year.
The dates mark the May 27,1967 Referendum that amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census and ends with June 3 when in 1992, the historic Mabo judgement by the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land.
The Mabo decision acknowledged the First Nations longstanding and unique connection to the land for the last 65,000 to 80,000 years and declared Australia was not terra nullius – a claim used to justify the colonial invasion and acquisition of the land by Britain. In 1993, the Native Title Act passed in Federal Parliament and this has returned some sovereignty in some areas to First Nation peoples.
I wrote several posts in the last few days on other subjects, but each time stopped before posting because creative writing hints or other topics paled into insignificance with what is happening in the USA and other parts of the world after the recent murder of George Floyd.
Coupled with news of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm of misery.
George Floyd’s tragic murder captured on mobile video and replayed millions of times throughout the world has led to scenes reminiscent of the 1960s.
Scenes of civil unrest in the USA I remember watching as a teenager as they played nightly on the television news.
Sadly, many of the issues around systemic racism have still not been resolved and most politically aware people know this because what happened to George Floyd has happened to other African Americans, year in, year out!
Why do we remain silent? Why in Australia have we mostly ignored the 2015 death of David Dungay, an Aboriginal man who also struggled and said I Can’t Breathe when pinned to a bed by several prison officers in Long Bay Gaol? (The video of that incident also circulating on social media and just as distressing as George Floyd’s murder.)
Social media has fuelled the current protests, but my newsfeed often filled with videos of appalling racist incidents, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.
I only hope the rage is maintained and results in a definite change.
Too many people are still reluctant to acknowledge systemic and institutionalized racism and white privilege exists or that people of colour are targeted by the police here in Australia and the USA.
Australia had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) but there has been a lack of action on the recommendations and avoidable deaths are still occurring.
Please Deal the Cards Again
Mairi Neil © 2020
English has a list of words describing you
I checked the dictionary and thesaurus too
but really words will fail to record
your harmful legacy of bitter discord
How sad the office of American President
is sullied by you, the 45th resident
a narcissistic, dastardly, vainglorious fool
boastful, vacuous as you let ego rule
Pusillanimous, brutish, pompous, offensive
spouting ignorance when on the defensive
craven, fatuous, corrupt, and oafish
your addled tweets so often malicious.
A destructive numbskull you need to resign
the current civil unrest another warning sign
just go to Florida and there please stay
allow decent adult voices to have their say
Your election a nasty global surprise
a long three years have exposed your lies
let’s hope the tide will really turn blue
and in November we’ll be rid of you!
Civil Rights An Ongoing Struggle
I recall vividly hearing the news of JFK’s assassination in November 1963, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, and of Bobbie Kennedy in June 1968. I’m sure many people my age remember where they were exactly when they heard the news of the killings.
I’ve reviewed the film Selma, and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro – two good starting points for the background to what is happening in the USA now, also the film Hidden Figures.
When I went to university in Canberra in 1970 and took part in the protests supporting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Land Rights, I learnt firsthand the depth of Australia’s institutionalised racism and started on a journey to educate myself and to seek ways of being part of the answer and not part of the problem.
It is important not to remain silent – words in the form of poems, essays and stories are my way of working through the pain, anger and powerlessness I often feel when events like the murder of George Floyd or Aboriginal deaths in custody occur.
I also write letters to politicians and write blog posts and have conversations with people – encouraging others to be more aware and accept systemic racism exists.
When I look at the poems, I wrote in the 90s and in 2000; it seems there has been little progress, but I’ll keep writing because words are all I have and effective cultural change takes a lifetime.
When Mordialloc Writers Group hosted regular monthly Readings by The Bay, the poems and stories shared often sparked important conversations about racism. That forum no longer exists, but every community group can start conversations!
Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil © 1992
We watched with horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground
The gang of four wielding batons
grasped tightly to
beat your head
beat your body
beat your legs…
Pounding, pounding, pounding,
A steady funeral dirge
burying the myth
of racial equality –
of equal rights
Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed
those with power to change
what’s the fuss about?
Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A king in black skin – a hint of irony
– or is it okay if a surname?
Your destiny now entwined
with that other dreamer…
A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news worth a thousand protests
political decisions worth a thousand votes…
Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes are innocent until proven guilty
at the scheduled trial
will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
but a jury without black faces
proves society controlled by red necks
and white lies let injustice triumph…
Los Angeles burns along with our shame
those with power remain unchanged
cosmetics mask the ugly face
waspish capitalists sting… again and again.
Australians are shocked. Horrified!
Yet reality reveals our guilt.
Our smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes among police
our custodians of law
don’t need lessons in brutality
We watch L.A aflame
but closed minds switch off
like television sets.
Will Australia suffer the same fate?
I can only imagine the despair of many people of colour in the USA and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here but I stand in solidarity with their struggle for justice and will continue to promote events, books and articles to help others to stand in solidarity too.
It’s 20 years this week since the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, a defining moment in the tortured history of Indigenous affairs in Australia.
Mairi Neil, © 2000
We are hungry for our land!
The catch cry of the seventies
as angry black activists
reclaimed a slice of land…
They protested by establishing
an Aboriginal Tent Embassy
opposite Parliament House, Canberra
When the Embassy brutally dismantled
thousands of people
black and white together
linked arms to prevent
dispossession, yet again.
We celebrate Corroboree 2000
hundreds of thousands of people
black and white together
march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
but how far have we come when
Treaty is still a dream
Mandatory sentencing a reality
Black deaths in custody a shame
Government statistics used to deny
the devastating generational horror
of the Stolen Children!
Despite historical misinformation
and the cultural exclusiveness
of our education system
we cannot say we did not know!
We must be honest and admit
we didn’t care enough to seek the truth
confront the injustice
move out of our comfort zone…
It is a new century
we have a second chance
to right past wrongs
resolve to move forward
all contributions important – so
write a letter of protest
challenge a racist remark
invite Aboriginal speakers
to address schools and clubs
one nation honouring
the First People of this land
This our land.
#black lives matter
Lament For Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
Mairi Neil ©February 2000.
What were your thoughts, young man
When you stared out the window each day
were they of family and friends
now replaced by walls tall and grey?
Did the future look bleak and sad
as inside your spirit ached
for the call of the distant past
and colours of earth sun-baked?
Did you dream of lying beneath the stars
on a blanket of gum leaves and grasses
at odds with European ideas of comfort
and structured constricting classes?
Did the dark shadow of depression
devour teenage thoughts of fun and love
your inner child struggling to grow –
plans abandoned like an ill-fitting glove?
A young man caught between two worlds
coping with life’s most turbulent age
a fifteen-year-old orphan feeling lost
confined to a cold and lonely cage
Colonial laws stole your land
foreign culture crushed traditional way
and mandatory sentencing ensures
more despair-filled cells each day
Your name now recorded in history books
will your desperate act be in vain?
Australia as a nation can only progress
if we acknowledge your people’s pain.
Resources Abound To Learn About Racism & Diversity
The ABC has a lot of educational resources, including videos written and produced by First Nation Peoples.
Lisa Hill’s Indigenous Literature reading list, which she compiles and adds to each year, is a fabulous resource for readers and writers.
The Little Bookroom bookshop has compiled an excellent list of books for adults and children, which they have in stock or can obtain for you.
WordPress.com has a special blog about the situation in the USA and have a detailed list of links to find out more about current events, the political context, and what you can do to help and where you can donate.
Here are practical ways you can support Aboriginal Lives Matter and a guide to researching and educating yourself on the issues.
The Victorian Women’s Trust has also compiled a list of anti-racism resources.
In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.
5 thoughts on “Words can Warm, or Wound, Comfort or Control, Clarify or Confuse…”
Mairi, I thank you for the reminder about ILW… I had been thinking about how to approach it this year because I always link it to NAIDOC Week which has cancelled due to COVID_19, and your post was the inspiration I needed to put a bit of fire in my belly and get on with it!
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My motivation needs a bloody big bonfire under me – I had a fall out walking and my whole equilibrium still off methinks plus emotional me is tired 🙃 however, I found a lovely book written years ago with stories for a group of Aboriginal women in NSW and I’ll try and get a review for you. I bet you uncovered a few treasures with that lovely renovation of your bookshelves.😘 thanks for always reading my posts and commenting.
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Oh no, a fall. I’m still nursing a sore knee from months ago, they take a lot longer to heal at our age, alas.
Take it easy, and if your motivation is failing, it might be your brain telling you to slow down a bit…
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Ha ha, if I slow down any more the pigeons will roost on my head. Xx
Oh yeah, as if…