If this country is to attain any sense of maturity it must first of all deal with its past and come to terms with it and, through that process, provide a platform where both Black and white can walk together to a shared future of hope, prosperity and equality. Sadly, the whole debate has degenerated into an exercise of political and intellectual point scoring with little thought or compassion to the Aboriginal suffering in the past and the scars that impact and remain embedded in the Aboriginal psyche today.
John Maynard, p. 143.
Aboriginal historian, John Maynard, makes a telling point. Knowing about and understanding the history of the people and place where we live is vital. Without this it is too easy to treat people unjustly, with disrespect and with lack of compassion. A university degree is not required to learn this history. Historical learning can be acquired by anyone through listening to others around us, asking questions and reading. To my mind this is the purpose of Indigenous Literature Week which starts today. It reminds us to sit down and listen to the indigenous people of wherever we may live. John Maynard’s book, Fight for Liberty and Freedom is a good book for the general reader to learn more about an important part of twentieth century Australian history.
In this book John Maynard shares with us the story of a significant Aboriginal movement in the 1920s which protested against the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and evictions of Aboriginal farmers from the land they owned in New South Wales. An Aboriginal-led and managed organisation, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), drew on an extensive network of Aborigines throughout the state. This was quite a feat when considering the travel restrictions that authorities imposed on many Aborigines living on reserves and the determined opposition to AAPA activities by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board.
The AAPA galvanised Aborigines and helped them to voice their protest at the harsh treatment authorities meted out to them. The organisation informed the general public about the government policies on child removal of which they had been previously unaware, and challenged church leaders, the premier and other influential politicians about the appalling consequences of their policies. Even the King received a letter of protest from one of the members of the AAPA.
I first heard about this history when Professor John Maynard delivered a lecture to our course at University of Sydney. He is a great speaker and made quite an impact on the students. He shared with us a history that we had never encountered before. We learned about the world-wide black activist movement,the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), instigated by Marcus Garvey and based in the United States. Some Aborigines in New South Wales were inspired by Garvey’s action and formed the AAPA.
As I noted in an earlier post on archival silences, the voice of people who have been traditionally marginalised in history is often absent or obscured in the archives. The story of the AAPA is a difficult one to learn about due to the lack of archival records. Where records are found the history reveal is distorted by the voice of white people whose accounts were coloured by the racist attitudes of the times. There are very few newspaper articles about the AAPA. This is not because the movement was insignificant, but due to widely-held attitudes that what Aborigines did and said were of little consequence.
This is a good book to read for those who are interested in understanding how the history of marginalised people can be extracted from meagre archival records. There are numerous ‘loose-ends’ where interesting questions cannot be answered because the sources are not there. The fact that evidence is not in archives does not necessarily mean that something did not occur, however, historians have to be careful that when confronted by lack of evidence they don’t yield to speculation. Maynard discusses these issues throughout the book.
Considerable research has gone into this book and it is well footnoted. John Maynard has found fragments of evidence about Australia and the background of Aboriginal activism in this country in African-American sources as well as more traditional Australian archives. John Maynard warns about taking sources such as newspaper articles at face value on this issue. This is a history where every source needs to be interrogated by the historian carefully.
John Maynard’s book is a demonstration of how important it is that we read history written by indigenous people themselves. His grandfather was the president of the AAPA. His family understands the importance of this history and gave John Maynard the kernel of the idea that sustained years of research to bring us this book. An historian who had not previously heard the stories of the AAPA retold by Aborigines would have little hope of recognising the significance of this history even if they came across a fragment of evidence in the archives.
This is a very readable history that the general reader will appreciate. Through this book John Maynard tells the story of eloquent Aboriginal speakers, of successful Aboriginal farmers, of white people influenced by Aboriginal opinion and of persistence in face of concerted opposition from the powerful. As the author says, “The level of intensity the [NSW Aborigines Protection] Board applied to silencing and breaking down the AAPA stands as testament to the AAPA’s success and vitality” (p. 93).
This history lives with us today. As I finished this book I wondered what happened to the money the NSW Aborigines Protection Board gained from selling the land owned by successful Aboriginal farmers. These farmers received impoverishment in exchange for being kicked off their land. I also wondered when we will see the digitisation of those newspapers which John Maynard identifies as standing out for reporting about Aboriginal issues such as Newcastle’s Voice of the North and South Australia’s Daylight.
But overwhelmingly I felt that the determination of the authorities to ignore and quash the Aboriginal voices raised by the AAPA has cost Australia dearly.
This post is my contribution to the Indigenous Literature Week (1-8 July 2012). If you would like to read a history or biography written by an Australian indigenous author but don’t know what to read, have a look at the list of books I have compiled with the assistance of readers of this blog.