Pride, Purpose and Perspectives

This time one week ago I got the shits when confronted with the knowledge that my friends’ black babies are dealing with the shit I, my brothers, my Mum and everyone else, have dealt with all our life, by mostly well-meaning but still rude people. I felt it deeply, knowing that these comments were going to make a new generation of black kids question their authenticity as Aboriginal people, and therefore make them feel inadequate in their identities. It was going to cause them distress, it was going to contribute to the divide within and between our communities.

With the young ones in mind, I hand wrote that post in about an hour, then typed it onto my phone and published it immediately. Today, one week later, it’s clocked over 4.4k 4.5k 4.6k likes and shares on Facebook alone. It might be no big deal in the grand scheme of the blogosphere, but for someone who’s last blog post got 40 likes (and yes I thought that was deadly) 4000 is quite an overwhelming number.

I am under no illusion as to why people are interested in listening to my viewpoint this week. The themes of race, categorisation and identity are topical at the moment, with the RDA coming under intense debate, in no small part by the opinions of George ‘Bigot’ Brandis and Andrew ‘Assimilation’ Bolt. My perspective adds to the discourse. It’s a marginalised and mostly ignored perspective, but a valuable perspective, according to the majority of Australians who want to shrug off our country’s racist reputation and use their privilege to do more good than continuing harm. Yes, my perspective does have value.

That said, there have been a few public comments and private messages from people who missed the point. White people, indignant that my perpective should make them look racist and in the wrong. People who felt their freedom of speech to express their institutionalised embedded racism to young, beautiful, innocent black kids to make them feel not good enough. People who demonstrated their privilege and power by whitesplaining to me why our feelings and reactions are wrong; why their intentions take precedence over my affectation. Again I say to those – you missed the point. There is no need to try and exonerate yourself. I know why you say it and I know your intentions are not malicious. I know you are but a drop in the ocean, that you are a product of your socialisation. I know this. But that doesn’t change the fact, the evidence, the actuality that those words hurt. So instead of telling me I’m wrong, why not just believe my [educated and experienced] viewpoint, cop it on the chin, and just vow to not say those words again? Reconciliation should not just be our responsibility.

I reiterate: I addressed my post to the people who tell Aboriginal people that they don’t look Aboriginal. I addressed it to the ones who think it’s okay to say it. I addressed it to them in the hope they could better understand why it’s not okay, and that even if they couldn’t fully empathise or understand the history or frameworks or language of oppression, or to understand why it’s not okay in a practical sense, that they could at least move forward with the theoretical understanding that its not okay. I addressed it to them so they could consider that what they are doing is more harm than good, more problem than solution, more hurt than healing.

I had considered not publishing the ignorant comments but am glad I did because I’ve been heartened by the dismantling and debate put forth by better-educated commenters. And that said, the support for my post has been overwhelmingly positive. Besides people complimenting my style of writing, I have had communications from people of all walks of life telling me that the message was received in the spirit I’d intended it. Such as:

My white friend who printed this out so that she could give it to nosy busybodies who say this about her black babies, making them feel hurt. The many black people, of all skin-tones, who’ve shared my writing and stood in solidarity with me. My other white friend who, after reading this, felt confident enough to sit her black daughter down to talk about this, and told me that the connection they made and the smile on her daughter’s face was worth all the previous heartache. My black Aunties who thanked me for articulating what they had been too shame or too shy to express all their lives. My white friend who supported me and shared this amongst his mostly non-Indigenous network. A black artist overseas who encounters this outside the context of generic Aussie racism, who thanked me because my writing made her feel less alone, overseas and away from mob. The whitefellas who get it and came in to bat when other people tried to whitesplain their entitlement to me. My black friends who thanked me for speaking for them, for sacrificing my private nature for them by putting my emotional history in the public sphere. My white friends, some of whom I’ve heard say this in the past, sharing it around so that healing could begin.

Here I sit, writing this in my break from marking essays that are discussing race and representation. Essays from mostly non-Indigenous students; the social workers, teachers and policy-makers of the future. People who will have the power to make or break Aboriginal people. Thankfully, they mostly get it, and if they don’t yet, well. Instead of getting angry at them I remind myself that it is only Week Four of a twelve week course, that they should not bear the brunt of my frustration that’s better directed at the history, and at the institutions. That despite their cognitive dissonance in the face of learning true Aboriginal (and therefore Australian) history, they are doing the hard work, the necessary work of decolonising their minds, and examining their assumptions and attitudes that will one day hopefully lead to right action.

Once these essays are marked I will then work on my thesis that is exploring the ways in which women from my community (including myself) have experienced transgenerational trauma as a result of past government policies, and how they interrupt these effects and move forward, spreading strength. Real evidence of Aboriginal people transcending our historical legacies, and doing what we’ve always done: resisting assimilation, healing trauma and caring for our kids. The unsung heroes who are having a go, who have been hurt in different ways by the seemingly innocuous but assimilationist comments of non-Indigenous people.

Here I sit writing this, on the bank of the Deerubban, not far from the place my grandmother was born. The very same place that she last saw her mother before welfare took her because to them, she didn’t look Aboriginal enough. Here I sit, reflecting on the week and the impacts of my writing, the power we all hold to heal instead of hurt. And, here I sit, safe in the knowledge that my grandmother would be proud of me.

– Defender Of The Faith, 31st of March 2014

Riot Grrl

Right at the end of my living in London stint I started working at Pogo Café in Hackney. I also found myself in the middle of a riot.

One of the maddogs I used to work with

It was high summer and there was no teaching work for five weeks. I had considered getting a bar job but I couldn’t bring myself to work for six quid an hour – that is not why I went to uni for four years. Anyway, I went to Pogo one night to watch a screening of Noise and Resistance and starting yarning with one of the girls who worked there. It was an all-vegan anarchist co-op – completely volunteer-run, and all profits went to paying the bills and to helping various charities. Pogo would reimburse the workers for travel to and from work, and we were also allowed a free main meal while we were on shift. I explained that I would be moving back to Australia in a month but that I could work three or four days shifts per week up until then. I do realise that I went from refusing to work a bar job because the pay was beneath me to volunteering my services for free, but…it was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I really loved working there.

Senorita Ana

Everyone I worked with was amazing in their own way, and we were all there because we wanted to be, not because we had to. I worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds. One thing we all had in common was the café and the ethics and political lifestyle implications that came from that. All of us were vegetarians of varying degrees, mostly vegan. We all supported organic farming and fair trade. We were all part of various alternative subcultures and our lifestyle choices were not compatible with the dominant society. We were all misfits and outcasts in some way, some more obviously than others. We were homo-, hetero-, bi-, a- and trans- kinds of sexual. We were old and young and everything in between. Some of us rented, others lived in co-ops, a few squatted and a couple were homeless. Some used Pogo as their sole means of working and getting a free meal every day, while others just worked out of leisure. We all used it as a social hub.

Foraging in Hackney yields sweet returns

Some of the people I worked with in that last month showed me some of the best times out of the whole time I lived in London. The time Ana from Spain and I went bike-riding through Hackney, found hidden farmland and picked buckets full of wild blackberries, then sat in a field of horses, got blazed and munged out, and talked about human circuses, punk rock and literature. The time Seba from Poland and I sat at Pogo for two hours after it closed and showed each other up in the thrash stakes on Youtube. The day I first worked with the beautiful Eva from Italy and she allowed me the privilege of watching her make mouth-watering, healthful and colourful salads out of our garden, flowers and all. The day that Jozsef from Russia Hungary and I made ten different kinds of scrumptious vegan desserts and taste tested them all. The day that Joel from Byron Bay first came into the café wearing the exact same Dangers jumper as I, and we sat and trouted about hardcore all morning. The day that Summer from LA told me she was a writer, and we read to each other bits and pieces of things we’d written over the years whilst listening to Rodriguez and Neil Young. The time Paul from Dublin introduced me to some low-down and dirty rocknroll from his hometown in the style of the Cramps. All these times were very special to me – bonding with strangers from all over the world about the things that matter the most in my life. I was sad to leave but grateful to have been a part of it. It’s something that I would like to start up here eventually, once I get tired of the academic rat race. A not-for-profit, organic vegan café that doubles as an art and music space, run by a community of like-minded and eclectic individuals that could make it greater than the sum of its parts. One day…one day…

Beauteous Hackney farmland

Anyway, you would have heard something about the England Riots of 2011. What started out as a legitimate angered response to police brutality and lies regarding the shooting of Mark Duggan turned ugly when the cops bashed a young girl in Tottenham on the Saturday night. This of course set the community raging even more so – police stations were picketed all over most of the poorer areas of London – Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney and Croydon amongst others – and full-on riots began that Sunday night and carried over for close to a week in different parts of the country. It started in these areas in London, and the High Streets were set ablaze and looters took advantage of the chaos. What could have turned into a righteous response to ongoing problem of police power tripping quickly turned scummy, and people lost their lives trying to protect the streets, their families and themselves. I witnessed the scumminess, and also the strength, of some of these people firsthand as I went into Pogo on that Monday afternoon. Here is an excerpt from my journal that evening:

<beginning of entry>

Monday, 8th of August, 2011

I just found myself in a pretty fucking intense situation. I went to go and watch a movie at Pogo; I left home early because I wanted to chill and have a feed at the café beforehand. There was a report that Hackney Central station was closed because of the riots yesterday, as was Brixton tube, so I took a train from Tulse Hill to St Pancras, then a tube from King’s Cross to Highbury and Islington, and then the overground towards Homerton, where I was going to get off and walk, but the train ended up stopping at Hackney Central anyway. That was a fucking mission!

As soon as I got out of the station shit was weird. Riot cops had shut off the ramp and directed us down the stairs towards Amherst Road. Across the road, there were about thirty people gathered in the square – some masked or scarfed over, but most brave-faced. Something was being anticipated. You could see it in the way everyone was shuffling their feet, hands in pockets or clutching drink bottles, eyes flicking in a 360° vista, placing themselves in relation to everyone else. Always feeling safer amongst my own and wary of the real bad guys, I stood amongst this crew and looked to the right, toward the ramp of the station. Four riot cops stood, blocking the way of the nobodies trying (yet) to get through.

I took my headphones out – I realised I would need to be catlike and alert to be safe – and that’s when I noticed the unholy noise of drone and doom from the sky. I usually love that shit but hearing it live and not at a gig is fucking unsettling. I counted four black choppers in my direct vicinity and a few more scattered further away and hovering in and out of sight. This shit was serious.

Well, no way was I going to get onto Mare Road where I usually walked to the café. As I walked north along Amherst Road to go the long way towards Dalston Lane, I could see through the alleyways on my right that Mare Road was blocked off – the cops clearly anticipated that rioters would be looting the shit out of those swanky High Street stores. Thing is, for all of their armour and batons and weapons, I could see even at this early stage that the cops were outnumbered at least four to one and this isn’t even the intense part yet. I kept walking along the strangely silent street, overdubbed with the sound of the blades spinning overhead. I got to Kenmure Road which is a side access to Mare Road and walked up to one of the cops blocking the way in.

“Hey mate, I need to get to Clarence Street,” I said.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Well usually I walk straight up here and past the estate, up that street.”

“Well that’s all blocked off, you’re best to walk up and around and then you’d have to go through the estate, but I would advise against walking through there by yourself.”

“Are you talking about Pembury Annex on the corner? Like, don’t go through there?” I asked, not sure of what he was telling me to do.

“Yeah. Stay away from the estate.”

“Why’s that? No, don’t worry. I know exactly why. I’ll sort something out.”

“Righto,” he said.

“Racist cunt,” I thought. “You think I’m one of you and so you’re trying to point out false boogeymen in the places where the brown and poor live. Well, I am brown and poor, and the only people on this earth that scare me in situations like this are white men in uniforms.”

I walked back down the way, debating whether to walk up to Homerton and jump on a train home, or just go around the long way to Pogo. “Fuck it, I’ve come all this way, may as well have a go.” As I kept walking I noticed a tall young man fall into step beside me.

“Hello, are you going through Pembury?” he asked in a heavy Eastern European accent.

“Yeah, are you?”

“Yes, I have to meet my friends up the road. I can walk with you if you like.”

“Yeah thanks. What’s your name?”

“Mikael.”

“I’m ‘Dot’. Where are you from?”

As we got yarning, I learnt that this young man was from Romania, and had just lost his job at a construction company. He’d been living in London for nine months, in Hackney, and wasn’t educated past Year 10, making it really hard for him to get work.

“How old are you?” he asked, peering sideways into my face.

“Too old for you love!” I joked.

“No, you’re only about twenty-one or twenty-two,” he argued.

“Actually I’m nearly twenty-seven mate,” I laughed.

“Oh! Oh okay. You look like a kid still. How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like these games.”

“Just guess.”

I turned and smiled at him. “Sixteen?”

“No, of course not,” he puffed, his manly pride clearly hurt, “I’m twenty-three.”

“Still too young darlin’.”

After a minute or so he asked me: “What makes you feel crazy?”

Unsure of what he meant, I asked him to elaborate. He wanted to know the things that made my blood heat up, that made my toes tingle, that gave me butterflies, that made me smile secretly. He wasn’t being smutty, and this was one of those interesting conversations that punctuates the mostly banal exchanges I have come to expect from strangers in London. No shit, I have been told too many times to count that I was the most interesting person that some people had ever met, and it made me sad because there are millions more interesting than me out there. This is what I crave – chaos, unfamiliarity, that which creates friction and so, growth. I am glad that I gave that young man the time of day. Anyway, back to the conversation.

“This,” I said, “this is what gives me butterflies – connections, warmth, belonging. Throwing a net out in the vast and overpopulated ocean, not to catch a multitude but just one or two special, rare and willing finds.” Not sure he wouldn’t take that as encouragement, I added to distract him, but no less honestly: “When I talk to and when I think about the person that I love, I feel a thousand times happier than I did before.”

“Mmm. This is a nice answer. I like it. Would you like to have a drink with me later?”

“No, I don’t drink.”

“What about a coffee then?”

“Look, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about me. I’m not interested in anything romantic.”

“That’s okay, I understand. Somebody is very lucky to have your heart,” he said sweetly.

I smiled, and thanked him, and wondered how accurate that statement really was.

We turned the corner and stopped, taking in the sight of burning bins on the rubbish strewn northern end of Clarence Road; hundreds of people, mostly masked and hooded, gathered around, sporadically visible through the black smoke of burning plastic and rubber, which moved through the air around us in zigzags, pushed this way and that by the helicopters chopping into the ether just above us. Mikael suddenly put his arm across my chest and pushed me back as something flew past us and glass smashed on the wall next to my face.

“Holy shit! Thankyou! There’s no way I’m going into work tonight.” I stared all around me. Mikael grabbed my hand and offered to walk me through.

“No, I think I’ll just go home. Thankyou anyway, and good luck!”

“So I can’t see you again?”

“Look, I think not. I’m moving back to Australia soon. But please, stay sweet. Its very refreshing.”

We hugged, then I smiled at him and walked away past a young woman and man putting out a council bin fire and moving it off the road. An older man was heckling them. The young woman had enough, stood up and looked him in the eye.

“You know what Uncle? My mum and baby brother need to drive home very soon. We live here, this is our street. So I’ll just clean up your mess Uncle, and you respect my family in turn.” Chastised, he let them be and wandered into the crowd, muttering to himself. I hope that strong young girl’s family got home safe and sound.

I wanted to walk north through the park of Hackney Downs, but was loathe to pull out my work smartphone in the middle of this, to check out my direction, which lines were down, and the best way to get back south without putting myself in any dangerous situations.

There was a pub nearby, and I went in to the toilet and pulled the phone out to check where the closest open station was. Satisfied with my orienteering skills, I went out into the bar for a few minutes. The pub was packed, all patrons with pints in their hands, staring at the news on the flatscreen. They were watching news of the riots in Hackney, when they could well have just looked outside for a flesh and blood update.

“Fuck this flatscreen culture,” I thought. “Hyperreality sucks everyone in.”

I walked through the community orchard, and the apocalyptic doomsday atmosphere got under my skin. There were random packs of other humans, and I was a lone wolf, a female, and very fucking thankful that I dress like a teenage boy in times like this. I pulled my hood over my face and my scarf up where my beard would be if I’d had a Y chromosome. I wasn’t hassled the whole way home – I kept to myself and stayed alert.

I caught a train from Rectory Road to Seven Sisters, and then into Camden Town. I treated myself to a nice dinner at Inspiral Café, and sat and wrote and people-watched. I caught a few more trains to get back, sticking to the peripheries of the city itself, giving wide berth to the hotspots. It was a long and winding road home, going around the tedious way, narrowly avoiding some crazy shop fires and opportunistic looting in the centre of Brixton, but I eventually got home safe and sound. I’m glad I didn’t get caught up in anything gnarlier!

London’s burning?! Camden Lock, Monday night of the riots.

<end of entry>

The next day I spoke to some of the Pogo crew. They had locked the café and watched the rioting from inside. Some of the photos they took were pretty full on. There was a car upended in front of the shop and set alight. It gave off so much heat that the front window of the shop cracked! A few shops down the street were looted and destroyed. We started up a fund straightaway to help our neighbours. It was rad to see everybody lending a hand.

Delicious Pogo food

Anyway, that was my experience of arson, stealth and romance in the London Riots of August 2011. Namaste.

Defender Of The Faith,  20.11.12

Heart’s Ease

Once upon a timeless dream, I was walking through a dirt-brown desert punctuated only here and there with a small skeletal shrub. These sparse sentinals emerged blackened from the soft cinnamon sand, their crooked little limbs frozen like scorched corals. The sky was huge and close and coloured with cool bright tones – turquoise above, fading to aqua and stained lavender at the horizon. I was naked as usual, and this bright arid wilderness showed no sun or moon to shed light on the time or on my skin. The sand I trod upon was brown, reddish and amber, and it shimmered with glints of silver and gold. All was lifeless and deafeningly quiet.

As I walked, my heart began to feel heavy in my chest. My legs found it more and more difficult to support my weight and my feet were sinking as I walked through the sand. On I walked; slowly, determinedly towards that faraway horizon, but my heart grew larger and more leaden as I advanced, and it soon got so burdensome inside me that I had to stop. I put my hands over my heart and opened my chest up with my hands, pulling my ribs apart and out from the centre. As I felt around inside the seams of this bursting cavity, about half a dozen dusty and gaunt brown sparrows came flittering around me. I pulled out handfuls of my heart to feed them with my flesh. It was soft and sticky, and they alighted on my outstretched hands to feast. I kept pulling out fistfuls of my heart to nourish these hungry, skinny creatures and they grew more shapely before my eyes.

When there was almost none left, I pulled out the meagre remains and ate of myself. My heart was sweet and chewy and tasted like plump Medjool dates. The taste put a smile on my face and I licked my glistening fingers clean with glee. I folded my chest back over itself and, feeling so much lighter, began to walk towards the horizon. My gait was effortless, my hips swung and the birds danced around me cheekily, guiding me on.

Defender Of The Faith – 12.10.12