Tag Archives: Australian History

‘Black’, not just a label

Chris Lemoh, an Australian of African and European descent, wrote a response to my essay Are there Black people in Australia? Lemoh rejects the description of himself as ‘Black’, saying ‘It’s your label, not mine.’ Pivotal to this rejection is his characterisation of ‘Black’ as a label.

Lemoh begins his essay with a (sound and perfectly orthodox) denunciation of biological racism, and identifies Blackness as ‘political’, not ‘racial’. What is missing from his analysis is a serious engagement with the social dimensions of race and racism. While he notes the occurrence of structural racism – he refers to the use of racialisation ‘to control and damage groups of people’– he does not acknowledge that this is an occurrence. The general phenomenon – the social reality of Blackness in Australia – remains invisible in his essay.

This invisibility is reinforced by the way that Lemoh’s essay skirts about its edges. Lemoh discusses his own experiences, which feature people around him being racist towards various non-whites with the exception of non-Indigenous Blacks. When he acknowledges racialisation he limits it to ‘specific localities arising from specific historical events’: slavery in the Americas, apartheid in South Africa and colonisation in Africa and Australia.

Whatever his intention, Lemoh ends up reproducing the standard Australian perspective on race: that non-Indigenous Black Australians are not subjected to racism, at least not in any significant structural sense, and that we should reject the notion of race as an analytical tool.

Lemoh’s only substantial departure from this standard view seems to be an allowance that race, as well as being a pejorative notion to be used by racists, is also useful as a political tool. He concedes that there are racialised people who have successfully used ‘Black’ as a political label. But, as an African Australian, he does not feel justified in doing so for himself.

This combination of the standard view with a recognition of race-based political activism makes it unsurprising that Lemoh’s essay has attracted praise. What is surprising is that amongst the admirers is Maxine Beneba Clarke– an author whose work gives testimony to the social reality of the racialisation of non-Indigenous Blacks. Clarke writes:

Thank you Chris for such an articulate and eloquent article. I identify as black when I am in the UK (or would in the US), but circumstances in Australia are different. Eg in the States and the UK – even in the Caribbean, there is not a black indigenous population (but Arawak Indians / Native Americans).

This distinction is becoming increasingly important.

Yes, I consider myself an ally. Yes, my skin may be the exact same tone as my indigenous neighbour. No, this is not my land. So: no, I am not going to use a label which may intimate I have equal claim to it / that I bear the same legacy of colonisation. I feel that saying that I am an ‘Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent’ as opposed to a ‘black Australian’ is a very important distinction.

If Clarke is not going to use the label ‘Black’, then how is she to describe certain aspects of non-Indigenous Australian experience?

‘We were the only black children for miles around. If we saw a black person in the street, my mum would run and get their phone number.’

‘Turning up for a job and seeing their faces, because you don’t sound black on the phone.’

May 3, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/maxine-beneba-clarke-20140501-37iro.html#ixzz3VSeDpdAQ

‘As a non-Indigenous black Australian, the Beyond Blue advertisements are excruciating to watch. I’ve been there: in that interview room;’

Less than a week later the only other black student in the class, a friend of mine, who’s been ill and barely attended tutorials, mentions she was given 18.5 out of 20 for her class participation mark. We both agree on what’s happened.’

Black Australian footballer Heritier Lumumba (aka Harry O’Brien), also a star Collingwood player, stepped forward to condemn the words of his club president. “In my opinion race relations in this country is systematically a national disgrace…”’

October 6, 2014, http://rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/no-singular-revelation/

It’s not easy to see how the same meaning could be conveyed using other language, such as reference to place of origin.

Identifying by one’s place of origin, rather than as Black, is problematic for other reasons too. Australians who are not of white British descent are constantly identified by their place of origin – regardless of how remote that ‘origin’ is – while whites of British descent are not. The effect is to single out non-whites and non-British as being from elsewhere and therefore less Australian.

For me, ‘Black’ indicates my lived experience as a racialised person in Australia, not my ‘place of origin’, so the label ‘Australian of such-and-such non-white descent’ is even less appropriate than it might be for a migrant or the child of a migrant such as Clarke.

In the conversation that follows Lemoh’s essay, we begin to see glimpses of the reasoning behind objections to African Australians identifying as Black. Far from the stated claim that they are not Black – or not entitled to call themselves Black – the motivation seems to be a desire to avoid ambiguity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks. This is consistent with Lemoh’s characterisation of ‘Black’ as a political label.

But Clarke’s call to avoid ambiguity by having non-Indigenous Blacks not refer to themselves as ‘Black’ in the Australian context makes no more sense than demanding that white women not call themselves ‘women’ for the purpose of supporting Black women’s activism. That ‘Black’ is considered synonymous with ‘Indigenous’ in Australia is only due to the erasure of non-Indigenous Blacks, and is not something that can be defended without their continued erasure.

When Lemoh writes of the marginalisation and erasure of Indigenous Blacks in his childhood history books, he makes no mention of the erasure of non-Indigenous Blacks. He overlooks non-Indigenous Blacks such as John Caesar, the first Australian bushranger; William Blue, the pioneering ferryman of Sydney Harbour; or John Joseph, the first man to stand trial following the iconic Eureka rebellion, whose Blackness was central to the rebels’ legal defence. Their absence is too complete to be noticed.

Clarke’s fear that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks will homogenise – or at least be seen to be homogenous – if we refer to them by the same term is also unfounded. Black Harmony Gathering is an event in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Blacks are referred to by the singular term ‘Black’ and yet the heterogeneity of their performances couldn’t be more evident.

As I discuss in Are there Black people in Australia? , ambiguity in the use of the term ‘Black’ is an issue. However, it is not an issue to be resolved by the continued censoring and elimination of non-Indigenous Black identity in Australia.


Why ‘Black’? Why not ‘Aboriginal’ Power?

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.

The Origins of Black Australia and the Erasure of Non-Indigenous Black Australians

We’re often reminded that white Australia has a Black history; but it’s generally ignored that Black Australia includes a non-Indigenous history. Historian Cassandra Pybus describes the erasure of non-Indigenous Black Australians from the Australian narrative. This erasure is the reason why people today mistakenly believe that I am not Black Australian.

In 1912, a young man named Thomas Conquit was shot by police in a remote mining hamlet in the Snowy Mountains. In view of Conquit’s description as part Aboriginal, this was unremarkable. What took the case out of the ordinary was the police explanation that they were arresting Conquit for lunacy because he had declared that he was on a mission to kill the police who were part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people. Putting aside the issue of whether or not this perception was dangerously paranoid, I find it astonishing that in 1912 an Aboriginal person might regard himself as part of a worldwide black community.1

The man’s distinctive name of Conquit makes his ancestry easy to trace in the colonial records. His grandfather was Thomas Conquade, a white convict transported from England to Australia in 1819, whose common-law wife, Frances Martin, was described on his death certificate as Aboriginal. However, Frances was not Aboriginal; she was the third child of John Martin and Mary Randall. Both her father and grandfather were African-American. Her grandson correctly understood himself to belong to the African diaspora, even if the authorities did not. In the year before Conquit was shot John Randall’s youngest child, Ann, died at Windsor, aged 96. She was the last survivor of the foundation generation of African-Australians. Ann Randall had only the faintest memory of her father, who must have died or disappeared when she was six, and she explained her origins as being an ‘islander’, from ‘the French Islands’, presumably exotic Tahiti. A descendant who remembered the old lady from her childhood said that she was as ‘black as the ace of spades’.2

In the early years of the new Federation of Australia there was intense racial anxiety among a majority settler population aggressively determined to define their society as inherently white. With their racial purity felt to be under threat, it was decided that ‘Kanakas’ and Chinese  workers were to be expelled, while in future non-European immigrants would be denied entry. The concept of ‘white Australia’ fashioned at the turn of the twentieth century had no capacity to encompass currency lads and lasses who were black, and no comprehension that there might exist Australians of African descent. Between 1788 and the middle of the nineteenth century, almost every convict ship carried people of the African diaspora to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Settlers and soldiers brought African servants, while some settlers were themselves of the African diaspora. Each of the port communities of the colonies included plenty of African-American and Afro-Caribbean sailors. Yet the foundation narrative of the new nation promulgated an uncomplicated racial divide: white settlers (civilisation) displacing black Aborigines (stone-age savagery).3

In this narrative, any black individual in early colonial Australia could only be understood as the despised and excluded other. Therefore, early twentieth-century accounts of Billy Blue entirely overlooked the fact of his African heritage and black complexion, in order that a foundation legend, who lent his name to several Sydney landmarks, could be read as a white man. In the 1970s his first biographer found it impossible to ignore the evidence that Blue was not European, but still she insisted he wasn’t really black. Despite the evidence of three portraits that show Blue to be unmistakably African, she argued that he was ‘not predominantly Negro’ and was perhaps part Carib. For sure, his children must have been white because none of them ‘ever seem to be referred to as coloured’. The daughters, ‘named as among the finest young women in Sydney Town and again as two of the most attractive colonial born young women of their time’ were by implication white. In twentieth century Australia, it was unthinkable that such complimentary remarks could be made about a colonial woman unless she had a European complexion. Even the historian who fully understands Blue as an African-American man persists in reading Blue in early colonial Sydney as ‘the member of a despised and oppressed race’, albeit one who was supremely adept at destabilising his status as the excluded ‘other’.4

The tendency to read late nineteenth- and twentieth-century racial assumptions into early colonial Australia is almost universal among historians and social commentators, regardless of on what side of the history wars they fight. In any discussion of the foundation of Australia  it is a given that racialisation was at work from the beginning, with white settlers confronting black Aborigines. A recent, finely nuanced study of early settlement by Inga Clendinnen continues to read early colonial history in terms of the black/white binary. She takes an incident at Port Jackson on 29 January 1788, where a crew of marines and sailors were dancing with Aborigines, to illustrate the book’s theme that the white British invaders and black Aborigines ‘began their relationship by dancing together’. As the watching officer, William Bradley, observed ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together’. The notions of ‘these’ and ‘ours’ in Bradley’s statement has automatically been read as black and white, yet a week before this incident, the same William Bradley described ‘these’ attempting to engage with ‘ours’ in the interchange between the Aborigines and a black convict who was cutting grass at Botany Bay. I would have thought this was at least as telling an interracial exchange as the dancing, although the earlier incident has never commanded attention from Australian historians. Equally, the persistent rejection of Black Caesar by Aborigines, and the almost fatal confrontation between him and the warrior Pemulwuy at the same time that several European convicts were living with the Aborigines, has been passed over without notice. A white game shooter was deliberately speared, but a black game shooter went about his business in Aboriginal territory for many years without incident. The black convicts, John Randall and William Blue, enjoyed a level of patronage and special privilege far beyond the expectation of convicts in general. There is no fixed racial binary to be discerned in any of this.5

As the stories of our black founders reveal, the settlement of Australia was a multi-racial process that took place at a time when the notion of ‘race’ was a highly malleable construct, understood in ways very different from the modern sense of innate nature, and the binary of black or white was not a reliable way of conceptualising difference. Among historians of empire, there is a common view about the elasticity of the concept of race and the prevailing uncertainty about the signifiers of difference. There is a general understanding that the decades between 1780 and 1830 – the formative decades for the colony of New South Wales – witnessed a sea change in attitudes toward race and identity that would solidify into fixed racial categories in the second half of the nineteenth century. Surely it is time that we jettisoned assumptions about the fixed racial boundaries and the naturalness of racialised identities in early Australian history. Such simplification would never be tolerated, let alone go unremarked, if it were applied to class. To paraphrase Edward Thompson: race is a relationship and not a thing.6

Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers, Cassandra Pybus, pp 179 – 182 (footnotes original).

Unlike Cassandra Pybus, I do not consider Thomas Conquit’s claim (that ‘the police [were] part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people’) to raise an issue as to whether he was ‘dangerously paranoid’. In an Australian context at least, it is quite sane to assume that there was a conspiracy to eliminate Black people. Thomas’ death at the hands of the police is further testament to this fact.

Earlier in Black Founders, Pybus makes observations about Bradley’s positioning of Australian Blackness as he regards the interchange between the Aboriginal people and a Black convict. While the white Bradley projects his association between those whom he perceives as Black people, the Aboriginal people in question do not yet perceive themselves to be Black:

The naval officer William Bradley felt that the Aborigines were ‘much pleased’ to see a ‘man of their own complexion’ and he thought they were puzzled that the black convict failed to understand their language. This was Bradley’s fanciful rendering of the unintelligible behaviour of the indigenous people. For the Eora someone from Africa dressed in a convict uniform would have appeared no less alien than those with pale faces dressed in the same peculiar clothes.

p 88

1 I am indebted to Dr Michael Powell of the University of Tasmania for this story. In 2003, The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil, was the headline film in the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York, but this was an aberration. As a rule, Aboriginal people in Australia have not perceived any commonality with people of the African diaspora. [guantai5: This claim is open to question. I know of at least two other showings of Australian Aboriginal work in African Diaspora forums: that of Aboriginal woman, Bindi Cole, exhibiting in the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in New York; and the screening of Black Voices (1974),  an Australian Aboriginal documentary, at the Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. Aboriginal political and artistic movements have been strongly connected to the African diaspora. For example, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the Freedom Rides and the foundation of the Black Panthers in Redfern; and contemporary Indigenous dance and music from Bangarra Dance through to The Sapphires.]

2 Information on Ann Randall comes from a Randall-Martin descendant, Ray Fairall, communication with author.

3 For a discussion of the Immigration Restriction Bill and the Pacific Island Laborers Bill introduced in 1901 and racial ideas at the time of Federation, see Reynolds, 85–96.

4 Swords, 19–20; Duffield, ‘Billy Blue’, 6.

5 Clendinnen, 8.

6 Recently, Wheeler argued forcefully that earlier scholars have placed too much emphasis on skin colour as encoding difference in the eighteenth century, while, as Hudson, Bayly, Drescher and Kathleen Wilson all argue, the idea of inherent racial difference was not fixed in public discourse and social behaviour until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson’s famous formulation that class is a relationship comes from the ‘Preface’ (written in 1963) to The Making of the English Working Class, 9.