Before we can truly understand another person, we must walk a mile in their moccasins. Before we can walk in another person’s moccasins, we must first take off our own.
(Native American saying)
While no longer my physical home the Sydney ghetto, those few blocks of urban and social decay bounded by Eveleigh, Redfern, Cleveland and Phillip Streets, is my spiritual home. The ghetto and its Housing Commission units like everything urban, has undergone change from a Whitlam era utopian vision, to a dumping ground for Australia’s social outcasts.
The ghetto is no longer an exclusive Aboriginal enclave; it has evolved into a hiding place for all of societies undesirable elements, the most recent of the marginalised being Muslims. Unlike the ghetto’s other denizens Muslims are openly vilified, in Australia and globally. Intolerance towards Muslim and Arab Australians, because of the freedom with which it’s expressed is fast becoming accepted by the community. Community acceptance is further endorsed by the Australian Governments’ interpretation of global events and the alleged threat of terrorism.
Those who know the area might object to the pejorative implications of the term ghetto, but this is as much a physical ghetto as it is psychological. Its denizens are prisoners of societal indifference, the hidden underside of our perceived comfortable middle class and egalitarian Australia.
You have got the Aboriginal, or Koori on the inside and the dominant ‘white’ society on the outside. If you’re in the ghetto you can’t sit on the fence. You sit inside the fence, close to the ‘white’ society, but you can’t cross the barrier into white society. You’re never really accepted into white society, never. So if you go outside the ghetto, you’re in no man’s land.
Visits to my spiritual homeland are becoming more infrequent as other demands take priority, however they remain de rigueur when I return to Sydney to visit family and friends. They have survived the ravages of an underprivileged life. I was stolen by the Australian Government for having the impudence of being too light to be black, some would say spared from their fate.
Strolling through Eveleigh Street on my way to the train station, I consider the juxtaposed worlds of my existence, from the poverty and misery of the ghetto to the affluence and abundance of my government enforced altered reality, the home of my adoptive parents in Vaucluse.
Walking the path the Gadigal trod for tens of millennium before Europeans knew of the existence of the southern continent, I start to hum the tune of a song I was taught by the men of Wadeye:
Brother! Let’s all go now, let’s all go now!
Pelhi, the ceremonial ground, is there, there behind Yenmilhi Hill.
Brother! There are clapsticks for us all.
Come with us.
I can see them faintly, behind me at the creek.
My descendants! Come here!
Humming this invocation to Walakandha and Ma-yawa Wangga walking across the bridge at Redfern station, I see the figure of a man lying across the tracks. It’s Darren, a Murri man whose acquaintance I had made briefly the previous night.
“Oi, cuz watya doin?” I call. Receiving no response I go down to the track, ignoring the sign: “Beware trains, trespassers will be prosecuted” to which some wag had added, “Abos please proceed”. “Watya doin?” I ask again stretching my hand out in a helpful gesture.
Initially ignoring me Darren finally accepts my hand. As we walk back up onto the platform he speaks of the aggressive, pervasive racism that has impacted on his life, about the prejudices society enforces on Aborigines. He speaks of his feelings of sadness, of his bewilderment about the source of society’s hatred and of the hard times he and his family are enduring.
While I can offer him little solace and less insight, the conversation we are engaging in seems to prove a welcome distraction for him. We stroll back into the ghetto, my spiritual home land, but Darren’s prison.
Bypassing Eveleigh Street we continue along Redfern Street past the unmarked, but still remembered places of his ruined life and our shattered culture. We pass the church adjoining the Aboriginal Medical Service, where Darren’s uncle was “bashed into unconsciousness and left for dead” by a serving New South Wales police officer dissatisfied with the sentence a Magistrate handed down to his uncle for calling the officer a “colonizing pig”. Uncle Ray, a Murri Elder, remains in a permanent vegetative state; the officer is now an acting superintendent.
Further into the ghetto we go, our talk hampered by council cleaners busily removing the ‘battle debris’ of another night in Utopia. Finally we reach the relative tranquillity of Redfern Park, resplendent with war memorials and statues commemorating the valiant deeds of Australia’s European pioneers. Passing the decommissioned Vickers pom-pom gun, a memorial to all those who gave their lives in defence of truth, liberty, justice and the Australian ideal of a fair go for all, Darren falls into a deeper malaise.
“You know, I was bashed here by the cops. They reckoned I refused to provide identification. They’re fucken dreaming. Identification, yeah, fucken oath, what’s that? I was born in the fucken long grass, no fucken identification there!”
If only he could let go of his fear and anger, I think. “Fuck brotha” Darren continues, oblivious to my thoughts, “Apart from you and Bird, everyone on The Block has a criminal record because of the way the cops treat us. That means no jobs, no prospects, no future – fuck, for most of us it’s the end of the road at 16.”
“Cuz, I understand,” I reply as fragments of another song from the Wadeye flood my mind a kind of barrier to the suffering I encounter in the ghetto:
Don’t be frightened!
Quick! I’m singing a song.
“Education is the great equalizer; with it everything is possible.” I offer in response.
“Mark that’s bullshit and you know it.” Darren counters “Aboriginality is as real a barrier to employment and education as prison walls are”
“Darren, all we need is unity and resolve of purpose.” I offer in an attempt counter Darren’s malaise “That’s why the Tent Embassy was established in the 70s, to be a focal point for our people to put concerns like yours on the public agenda”
“Yeah right”, Darren counters. “The fucken Magistrate found me not guilty, I’d got a job as a brickies labourer just the week before, had to move a thousand bricks a day with broken ribs. Wasn’t fast enough, got sacked that was two years ago and I still haven’t found another job”.
So much for the blind goddess scales being evenly and fairly weighted, I think to myself.
As Darren continues to regale me with stories about his encounters with the blind goddess, I suffer a personal crise de conscience, fortunately one that can be satiated by the unmistakable aroma of freshly made coffee and pastry.
Looking around for the source of these welcoming smells amongst the pungent aromas of the ghetto, I notice that Aldo’s fruit and veg shop has morphed into a trendy boulangerie. I suggest that we put our troubles behind us for a time and savour the culinary delights of this bourgeois encroachment into ‘our’ ghetto.
We choose to dine alfresco through fear of offending other patrons with our presence inside. After ordering, the waitress eyes Darren suspiciously while asking ‘demurely’, “Do you mind paying NOW?” the last word uttered more as a command than a question.
“No”, I reply with as much élan as I can summon, realising that personal achievement and accomplishment matter naught in Australia when you’re Aboriginal.
Darren, apparently making the same assessment quips, “Cuz, you’re the one mouthin’ off about education being the great equalizer. She just fucken treated us like shit.”
“I know,” is all I can respond. “Can’t take it personally,” as an afterthought.
While considering in the implications of Darren’s comments my ears are graced with, “Cuz, heard you were slumming it,” as we are joined by Uncle Bruce McGuiness. An old friend, Uncle Bruce is an Aboriginal activist and out spoken critic of Aboriginal child removal.
After introducing Darren and Uncle Bruce the conversation turns to an issue that has ongoing implications for all present, the stolen generations and the lingering after effects on all those who suffered the indignity of forced removal and compulsory assimilation. Uncle Bruce took the opportunity to express his long standing views on the issue.
“Many people with many good intentions took Aboriginal children in the 1960s and 70s hoping to assist them and their families. But it did not always work out this way. For a lot of us as we grew up we found ourselves isolated in a community of Europeans. That’s when problems started. We started to become self-conscious of our colour and racial difference. We felt inferior. Some families were, through love and understanding, able to offer a positive experience to their adopted Aboriginal children. But those were few … it is important for any child to grow up with others with similar families to have pride in their own race. It’s essential to identity. Without it, comes the overwhelming sense of inferiority.”
He produces a yellowing piece of paper from his wallet, an old newspaper clipping from the Portland Observer and Guardian. The handwritten date reads 26.06.1968. After reading it I realise that matters have not progressed much in the intervening forty years:
The day it is both fashionable and sensible to adopt an aboriginal child into a white home and environment will be the day when it is fashionable and acceptable to take an aboriginal as a husband or wife with the full blessing of the white party’s parents and friends. Until that day, the adoption of aborigines by whites, no matter how well intentioned, can lead only to cruel disillusionment.
Darren and I both nod our heads in a silent gesture of shared experience and understanding. As is always the case with Uncle Bruce the conversation soon turns to politics. With this and hearing the first mumblings of “bloody Abo’s” from the other diners Darren and I take our farewells of Uncle Bruce and continue our walk through the ghetto.
“Fancy a trip to the Art Gallery to see the exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance Painting?” I ask. “Art is best appreciated in company,” I add.
“To the gallery it is little brotha” Darren replies pretending enthusiasm.
I spot a work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus. I have always viewed this painting as an allegory on the self-centered character of Christian society. ‘I’ will always trump ‘we’ in the religion invented by St. Paul of Tarsus and other followers of a possibly genuine historical figure popularly known as Jesus of Nazareth. Executed by crucifixion, a punishment reserved for terrorists, he died not knowing that he was the Son of God or the founder of a new religion.
The followers of St. Paul of Tarsus claim to be a brotherhood of men. All I see when I look at them is self interest and greed. In the The Fall of Icarus I see the indifference of Christians to suffering, highlighted by the ordinary events which continue to occur, despite the death of the young Icarus drowning in the sea at the bottom right of the painting. Surely a boy falling from the sky wearing a set of disintegrating wings would elicit some notice, no matter how busy one is in pursuit of the commonweal of brotherhood.
Viewing The Fall of Icarus again along with my earlier encounters in the ghetto leaves me mentally drawn. I suggest to Darren that we keep moving. As we leave the gallery descending the main stairs we ignore the stares of indignation … how did they escape the ghetto … they’re no neighbours of mine. No words are needed; the looks say it all.
Crossing the road to the Botanical Gardens, Darren observes that there are two Australias. The one Aborigines live in and that of mainstream Australians. Almost every contract we as Aborigines have with bureaucracy or individuals is likely to be different from the one our white friends have. Even when these contacts are positive it is still discrimination. Excessive friendliness marks a distinction; as an Aborigine it separates us not on a basis of need, but of race. More often the discrimination we encounter as Aborigines is a pervasive negative.
As we walk back to the ghetto enjoying the waterfront, we pass some of the most expensive real estate in Australia and consider the landscape and its memory. The land we tread has its own memory, a memory of trees and animals of the traditional Gadigal owners and ask ourselves how we went from being owners, to outcasts, criminals and finally fauna in the space of two hundred years – surely, a metamorphosis the envy of the gods! This question hangs in our minds as we walk along Macquarie Street, past the seat of the colonial administration, a permanent monument to our dispossession.
“Well little brotha, what went so wrong for us?” Darren asks again, the bitterness increasing in his voice.
“The answer is up ahead,” I reply as we reach the Old Supreme Court building at the top of Phillip Street.
“What’s a building got to do with anything?” asks Darren his annoyance palpable.
“R v Murrell was decided in that building,” I reply pointing to the Old Supreme Court, noticing the goddess resplendent with blindfold and scales adorning its roof. “Murrell’s case paved the way for all the massacres, missions, maltreatment and forced assimilation we have endured as a people.”
“How?” Darren asks, the pitch of his voice alternating between surprise and indignation.
“Profound and erudite as the judgement in Murrell’s case may have been” I respond, barely able to disguise my contempt for the blind goddess, “it had the effect of making all Aborigines in Australia for all time a category of person’s sui generis, living under the King’s protection within the King’s peace, but as individuals not as corporate groups. As such, under the law of nations we fell within the jurisdiction of colonial courts and governance. Being neither Christian nor white we were deemed by the Murrell judgement to be no more than perpetual inhabitants of the land, meaning citizens of an inferior order subject to society without participating in all its advantages.”
“A bit like our brotha’s and sista’s up north,” Darren almost spits.
“A bit like our people in the ghetto,” I offer in reply.
On our way back to the ghetto I stop and buy some flowers at Woolworths. “For the missus?” Darren asks with a surprised look. “No, there for a fallen Wiradjuri warrior,” I say.
As we reach the bottom of the ghetto and start walking along Eveleigh Street we are greeted with the all too real outcome of the Murrell decision, the pathetic remnant of a once proud people. My ears rang with the tune of despair, something I had become inured to over the years:
“Spare some change, brotha?”;
“I haven’t eaten since last Sunday”;
“Brotha please help, anything will do”;
“Uncle, have you any change?”
This cacophony of misery is almost a parody of the invocation to Walakandha and Ma-yawa Wangga with which I started the day and brought to mind a song to the Marri-ammu dead:
Brother Walakandha, the tide has gone out of him at Nadirri.
Ah, brother, the tide has gone out of him.
Following death the incoming tide once again begins to flow and gain strength. I wonder to myself when our tide will begin to flow again, to gain strength.
As we pass 47 Eveleigh Street I stop in quite reflection and place the flowers by the front door.
“What’s up cuz,” I distantly hear Darren ask.
“This is my personal place of mourning in Utopia,” I respond. “I usually avoid this part of the ghetto, but today seemed right to offer my respects to a fallen warrior”.
“I’m not following” Darren responds. “Was there a battle or massacre here?”
“My soul was massacred here and my heart hardened; this is where my father was executed by the police, shot in his bed, payback for helping establish the Tent Embassy.” Perhaps he was the last Wiradjuri warrior I think to myself as Darren grabs my arm and we move on.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” I ask.
I take out my mobile phone and ring around the men’s hostels until I find Darren a shelter that offers counselling and other support services. It is a little out of the way so I hail a cab to take us there. The driver stops, looks at Darren and says, “Don’t take you black scum,” before driving off, a final insult to top off a wretched day.
“On foot then cuz,” I say with as much gusto as I can muster after the day’s events.
After we reach the hostel I leave Darren with some money and the copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam I was intending to read on the train, along with my parting advice, that “sometimes reading a spiritual text can help in times of crises.”
Without the company of my obviously Aboriginal companion I am able to successfully hail a cab and make a belated appearance at home. As the door opens I’m greeted by good cheer and laughter. The smell of Brioche and Chanel greet my olfactory sense, Satie my acoustic and Whiteley, Blackman and Lindsay my ocular, a parody of the sights, sounds and smells I experienced in my walk through the ghetto with Darren.
After dinner I retreat to my childhood bedroom, my haven from yesteryear. I go to sleep listening to Satie’s Gymnopédies. This time the music is intended not to keep the demons of a child’s fantasy at bay, but the demons of callous indifference and outright bigotry away.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day hovers over the misty ocean, all thought of the ghetto banished from my mind. I spend this day with my adoptive parents before returning to my own home, family and career, not really giving Darren a second thought, until I receive a call from Aunty Isobel telling me that Darren finally managed to end his suffering. The gravitational forces of reality proved too strong for him to resist. The Rubaiyat also eventually made its way back to me with the following quote from Kahlil Gibran copied by Darren onto the first page:
Hypocrisy is your religion, and
Falsehood is your life, and
Nothingness is your ending; why,
Then, are you living? Is not
Death the sole comfort of the
Note to the reader: Whilst all the events portrayed actually occurred, they were the experiences of more than one Aborigine and are not atypcial of what many people who identify as Indigenous still encounter on a regular basis.
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