The following is an extract from Black Power in Australia*, published in 1975. I don’t know what the experiences are for Black children in Australia today, but I recall that in 1975 the word ‘Black’ was directed towards me as a term of abuse. Although I was too young to realise it at the time, it is the efforts of people like prominent Black activist Bobbi Sykes that have enabled me, and other Black Australians, to embrace the term ‘Black’ with pride today. Use of the term ‘Black’, in the political sense, originated in the 1960s with African American movements such as Black Power and Black is Beautiful. These movements soon became popular in Australia.
Sykes – of African descent herself – is celebrated as the first Black Australian to graduate from an American university; she completed her doctorate at Harvard University in 1983. Incidentally, she was also instrumental in the candidacy of MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, the first Aboriginal Australian to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.
Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal Power?
The reasons behind calling the Black Movement ‘black’ are manifold, and not all as obvious as might at first be thought. We have been criticized as imitators of the Americans because of the usage of the word ‘black’, and in this country that imports everything from cars to Coco-cola from Americans, the criticism becomes ludicrous. However, the reason is not solely one of importation. In fact, the word ‘aborigine’ is also an ‘imported’ word to the indigenous language, brought in by the British just over 200 years ago. The indigenous people had no such national word for themselves – and why would they have, when there was no one else with whom they could compare themselves?
The word ‘aborigine’ also has no definite ‘Australian’ connotation about it, either. There are American aborigines and Canadian aborigines; in fact, the word merely means the indigenous people of any country.
Nor is the word ‘aboriginal’ (qualified perhaps by Australian Aboriginal) broad enough for the struggle which is being undertaken here. There are many blacks in this country, subjected to racism and discrimination, who are not aboriginal or indigenous. Consider the Kanaka or South Sea Islander people, brought into this country as slaves to work in the sugar-cane fields in Queensland, who were physically stolen from their own birthplaces, and forcibly implanted in Australia for purposes of slavery – an operation called ‘blackbirding’. These people, and their descendents, have a very real claim to justice from the Australian government and people. Also, consider any other blacks, Torres Strait Islanders, Pacific Islanders etc. who may be in Australia for any reason, who are accorded racist treatment because of their skin colour – are they not to be included in the broad front of struggle against racism?
While the Land Rights claim and the Cultural and Language questions remain purely indigenous issues, the whole spectrum of racist practices has been directed at anyone not bearing a white skin and it can be no surprise that on these common issues, all non-whites will be inclined to work together. On the questions such as Land Rights, for instance, might not the extra weight lent by the non-indigenous blacks assist the indigenes to achieve their just demands?
In an effort to elevate the broad black struggle being undertaken here to a Third World level, use of the word ‘black’ becomes highly desirable. Caucasian people do not call themselves pink, off-white, greyish, or mottled, even when it is very obvious that they are not white in the true sense of the colour. It can be understood from this practice that blacks also are not inclined to differentiate between black, brown, tan, high-yellow, etc but prefer – for yet another reason – to use the all-embracing term ‘black’. ‘Black’ is more than a colour, it is also a state of mind.
We can advance on the premise that Black = all blacks, and Power = power generated by action, and that this action entails any means felt necessary by blacks to achieve their just demands – basically, health, justice, and a better way of life. Not necessarily the type of life presently acceptable to the majority of whites, which would be assimilation; but a way of life which blacks deem to be better for themselves, based, if necessary, on the creation of a whole new set of practices and standards.
Bobbi Sykes, Black Power in Australia, pp 10 – 12
*Thank you to my friend MS for alerting me to, and for loaning me a copy of, Black Power in Australia.