Growing up as an Aboriginal child in Tasmania was quite a challenge. But despite the overt and covert racism, I developed and maintained a longing to know more and more about my country’s people and history.
This led me in different directions, most notably a growing awareness of what can be termed racism bred from ignorance, in children’s books and in history texts. For, as Bolkus states ‘Books form opinions and attitudes, [and] have a major influence on children’s relationships with each other and society’ (Bolkus in Hanzl, 1994, p. 162).
One of the greatest affronts to Aboriginal children of today, and probably more so of my contemporaries, is the pretence that they do not exist, ‘that they are somehow invisible’ (McVitty, 1982, p. 9). While a primary school teacher in the late 60s and early 70s, it was impossible to find a text that portrayed Tasmanian Aboriginal people as living, breathing and passing on aspects of their culture. Instead, all the resource material available to students and teachers portrayed an ignorant, stagnant culture.
Many years later, after moving to Canberra and working with the ACT Department of Education, I attended a seminar facilitated by Bronwyn Davies, at which time she used the words ‘speak the world into existence’. I learned much later that this was a simplistic spin on Paolo Freire’s statement that ‘Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it’ (p 88). From that time I wanted to name the world, to change it.
I had many questions. Why does a threatening cloud have to be black? Why does a vicious dog have to be black? Why does a dangerous bend in the road have to be black? Black Tuesday. Black Friday. Black Spot … There is a passage in The Last Don that often comes to mind ‘On racial problems, he wrote an essay on language in which he insisted the blacks should call themselves “coloreds” because “black” was used in so many pejorative ways – black thoughts, black as hell, black countenance – and that the word always had a negative connotation except when used in the phrase “simple black dress”’ (Puzo, 1996, p 106). I would add another that is quite puzzling – it is always good when one’s bank account is “in the black”.
Phrases such as black ball, black sheep, are full of negative connotations as was de Bono’s black hat. (Initially my PhD was to be called “De Bono de bastard”). Children grow up with associating black with something negative. In my PhD, I was going to expose this and use my research to educate the world.
Thanks to my supervisor, Professor Read, I came to understand that I wouldn’t live long enough to undertake the research necessary and so, with much encouragement my research project went off in another direction, albeit with reference to some of those ghastly stories from my childhood and adolescence.
Researching my Country’s history was an exciting, but sometimes harrowing experience. While I was aware of many of the atrocities carried out, to actually see in John Batman’s handwriting, that he had no choice “but to shoot them” was the catalyst for a series of nightmares that lasted for some time. To read of a proud man left to die from dysentery left me feeling incredibly sad; learning how Aboriginal women were treated by sealers makes me angry. But above it all is the resilience of Tasmanian Aboriginal people who have survived the depredations to maintain oral cultural traditions.
Ultimately, I decided to write an historiographical narrative – a chronological story of seven Aboriginal people and their experiences of education and the parallels existing in mainstream education. The paradox for me was realising that mainstream schools were being established at the same time as genocide was taking place. On the one hand, children and young people were guiding the lucky and the free in the core values of Christianity – values that include the words Thou shalt not kill – while a bounty was being placed on the heads of humans. The Tasmanian Government, in February 1830, offered a bounty of £5 per Aboriginal adult and £2 per Aboriginal child captured alive.
Governor Arthur’s office did issue a statement in relation to the bounty in that it was only for Aboriginal people caught while engaged in aggression in the settled districts, but how many Aboriginal children would be “engaged in aggression”?