Nonfiction — print. Scribe, 2016. 230 pgs. Purchased.
Grant, an Australian television journalist for CNN and member of the Wiradjuri people, begins his memoir with three intriguing sentences:
“These are the things I want to say to you. These things I have held inside or even worse run from. It is not easy, what I have to say, and it should not be easy.”
These difficult things are centered around the historical and ongoing treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. In a similar vain to American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Grant has taken his son to their ancestral lands, to the place renamed Poison Waterholes Creek after his people were murdered by white settlers in the hopes of explaining how these experiences impact the society where Grant and his son live today.
In fact, Grant makes several references to Coates’ work in his memoir, comparing how Coates sees the (white) American dream in ice cream socials and Fourth of July cookouts to how Grant sees the (white) Australian dream in shopping malls, coffee shops, and tourist brochures of Australian beaches and the outback. Neither dream reflects the realities of black people — as Grant refers to himself and other Aboriginal people — in these countries.
“Here is how we — indigenous people — see the Australian dream: here’s the worst of it. Aborigines rounded up and shot, babies buried into the sand and decapitated, women raped, men killed as they hid in the forks of trees, waterholes poisoned, flour laced with arsenic. The Australian dream abandoned us to rot on government missions, tore apart families, condemned us to poverty. There was no place for us in this modern country and everything we have won has come from dissent, it has been torn from the reluctant grasp of a nation that for much of its history hoped that we would disappear.” (pg. 26)
While both writers weave their personal narratives into a wider conversation with that society, Grant’s memoir isn’t set up as a father instructing a son. He drives his son back to the city where they live among white Australians descendant from the settlers and newer immigrants by the second chapter, but he continues this conversation as though his is speaking with Australia, with its flag and anthem.
“So here we are: all of us in this country — our country. Tethered to each other — black and white, the sons and daughters of settlers, the more recent migrants and my people with tens of thousands of years of tradition. I have to accept you because we are so few and have no choice. And anyway, you are in me and I am part of you. You can turn away from our plight, but while you do your anthem will forever ring hollow. And I don’t believe that is who you are.” (pg. 6)
Frank in his examination of Aboriginal history and experiences in Australia, Grant offers provides a number of eye-opening facts for his readers to consider:
- A quarter of the total prison population in Australia are indigenous people, despite comprising only 3% of the total population
- Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian
- Half of the juvenile prison population are Aboriginals
- Aboriginal languages were banned and are largely lost to the world
- One in three Aboriginal women prisons try to commit suicide while one in five indigenous male prisoners make an attempt
- Like American Indians, Aboriginals were pushed onto reservations as their lands were stolen while 50,000 of their children were taken in attempts to assimilate them into white culture and society
Among these scattered facts, though, are the personal stories that are truly informative. Grant shares how Aboriginal communities would gather food and supplies and then rotate the collection from house to house in order to keep the police and social workers from taking their children. He talks about how Aboriginals are told by the government that education will help them change their circumstances, yet a local principal tells Aboriginal teenagers to leave school when they are legally able to.
“It is these moments — minutes in our lives but repeated over and over — which poison our souls and kill us as sure as the waterholes poisoned on the frontier killed our ancestors. It hasn’t changed; laws can outlaw discrimination but they can also harden the bigotry in the mind of some people.” (pg. 45)
These stories, this entire memoir left me with a feeling of shame. Although I am not Australian and I do not have family who live there, as an American, it did not escape me that these experiences and this history is similar to how America has historically (and currently) treats its own native population. It is a sobering reminder that we — as a nation and as individuals — have work to do in reconciling with our past and, as Grant says, how the bigotry has hardened in the minds of some Americans even as our laws have changed.
This is my eighth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased a copy back in December 2016 after reading Kim of Reading Matters’ thoughts on this book. I had to do quite a bit of sleuthing to track down a copy as it has not be published in the United States. Then, as counter-intuitively as it sounds, I celebrated its arrival by putting it on my shelves and saving it for the “perfect moment”.