The day news broke of Barry Spurr’s “whimsical linguistic game” – in which he reminisced about a world with “no fatties, darkies or chinky-poos” on the University’s email system – I had the honour of attending the Dr Charles Perkins AO Annual Memorial Oration in the Great Hall. Charles Perkins was the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university; an activist, administrator, and soccer player, the leader of the historic Freedom Rides that revealed the prevalence of apartheid-like discrimination against Indigenous peoples throughout Australia. The entire evening was a moving tribute to the legacy of Dr Perkins’ inspiring vision of a better Australia.
It is an appropriate moment to be asking this question of what it means to be “a better Australia”, a question initiated by Dr Perkins himself half a century ago. February next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Freedom Rides, which were led by a group of USyd students from the Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) society. The group was formed (with Dr Perkins as president) in 1964, in response to a midyear campus demonstration over the American Civil Rights movement, which, according to protestors, had failed to address the injustices occurring within Australia. Although the Freedom Rides have a hallowed place in our nation’s history, and are celebrated as one of the major factors in generating the overwhelming support for the 1967 referendum, they did not end the social and institutional discrimination against Indigenous peoples in Australia. One does not have to look past the half a billion dollar cuts to Indigenous affairs sanctioned by our current government to see that that struggle remains.
The legacy of Student Action for Aborigines is fairly close to home for me. In 1964, my father, Barry Corr, signed up for SAFA on Science Road with songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in his head, and the Beatitudes in his heart. He didn’t know his Aboriginal ancestry then. It was a revelation uncovered years later, and his involvement in Aboriginal education over the past thirty years has involved classroom teaching, bringing Elders and community members into schools, working on state curriculums, delivering drug education to Aboriginal students across NSW, and twelve years of research on Pondering the Abyss, an online source-based history of settler and Aboriginal contact in the Hawkesbury. There is no doubt that SAFA, the Freedom Rides, and the follow up journeys he and other members undertook had a monumental impact over his life, but his involvement in SAFA is not something that he boasts about much. “I don’t want to be memorialised into a milestone of Australian progress,” he tells me. “Memorialisation worries me in that it will become a fleeting feel good moment for White Australia.”
Memorialisation is a funny concept. Kind of like that word better. What does it mean to memorialise the Freedom Rides, when this word better is being dangled before us, telling us that there is still so much more work that has to be done? What is the worth that I can attend a beautiful oration in celebration of Dr Perkins’ legacy, where I receive an award for my academic achievements, and have strangers approach me to discuss my research in Indigenous and postcolonial writing, and yet a professor in the same university was able to couch his prejudice in educational rhetoric to advise that Aboriginal writing be struck from our national curriculum because its impact has been “minimal”?
I want to believe I can save the world with passion and literature and justice, but this sort of discrimination will haunt me throughout my career, as my father is still haunted by memories from his youth today. Being physically thrown out of the Royal Hotel in Bowraville when he tried to buy a beer for an Aboriginal man. Seeing the devastating effects that alcohol would have on Aboriginal communities. Being told by a policeman in a country town that there was clean dirt, and dirty dirt, and that only clean dirt could be washed off. Visiting Aboriginal communities where the housing was corrugated iron humpies. Taking a young boy into a milk bar to get him a milkshake, and seeing it served to him in a paper cup, instead of the aluminium containers given to white patrons. Going to the Bowraville cemetery, where Aboriginal people were buried at the bottom of the hill, their graves marked by sea shells, and where his faith was washed away. This wasn’t an Aboriginal problem back then, and it’s not an Aboriginal problem now. White Australia’s discriminatory attitudes and ignorance continue to this day.
There is a danger in memorialising the Freedom Rides as if the job were already finished. Conscription and anti-Vietnam War movement swept Aboriginal issues out of the student and public consciousness in the 60s. Fifty years later, Indigenous communities are forced to distil the value and necessity of their needs into standardised forms to compete for limited pools of government funds, a fraction of the wealth that has been accumulated through the exploitation of Aboriginal land and resources over the past two hundred years. White Australia has a Black history, we are reminded at the Memorial. In her speech, Ms June Oscar AO questioned the complacent assumptions of progress and advancement, pointing out that these terms negate Aboriginal values, beliefs, knowledge and experiences and assume the right of White Australia to unblinkingly continue the old policies of assimilation. February 2015 is not a time for memorialisation. “Fifty years on”, my father tells me, “I realise that there has never been an Aboriginal problem. I would like to stand in Science Road during Orientation Week 2015 and see students of the University of Sydney reinventing SAFA and continue the Struggle.”
Image: Jennifer Yiu.