I returned from our beach holiday in time to avoid the fervour of Australia Day and the inevitable migration of flag-draped crowds to the coast.
Back in the land of wi-fi, Stan Grant was dominating my newsfeed – everyone was talking about his Intelligence Squared (IQ2) ‘racism debate’.
Grant was arguing for the motion that ‘Racism is destroying the Australian dream’. The debate was hosted by the Ethics Centre, whose purpose is ‘to serve as a catalyst and enabler for society to think, debate and act in good conscience, particularly in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity’. The centre regards Grant’s speech as one of the most powerful heard on its IQ2 stage.
My partner and I decided to watch it with our two children, aged six and eight, before heading to our annual Survival Day event in Adelaide; it felt right to watch this speech, with its contemplation of the Australian dream, before driving into the prickly heat of that particular day.
Grant didn’t need a script, and acknowledged he had over 200 years of preparation for this eight-minute speech. From his localised Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi standpoint, he effectively spearheaded a temporal challenge to dominant linear narratives of history.
The idea that the past is not past is not revolutionary, but Grant made it his own. His poetic sensibilities invoked ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and the spectre of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. His blood-memory response ruptured the collective pride enshrined in these texts, by bearing witness to specific atrocities of colonialism that are embodied, intergenerational and ongoing. There is a haunting familiar here: a resonating, uncanny truth impossible to be carried in words, yet tangible, known, felt.
Personal narratives are often shared at considerable risk. But they continue to be shared because of their ability to resonate, to inform something much larger, something beyond the self. They counter Australia’s national – at times wilful – amnesia and offer a potential shift toward ‘something else’. They goosebump our skin, clench our fists, straighten our backs and tremble our voices.
Narratives like Grant’s remind us of our ancestors’ agency, of their will to survive into the future against all odds. To survive in spite of state-sanctioned violence, in spite of the expectation that we, the supposed missing link between humans and apes, would inevitably die out. We are reminded of a resistant will to continue to breathe. As Grant put it, ‘I have succeeded in spite of the Australian dream, not because of it.’
‘Read about it,’ he said. ‘It happened!’
I’ve been somewhat obsessed with colonial archives since my first encounter, in the late 1990s, with the Aboriginal State Records of South Australia. These primary-source documents make for a chilling read. A grand narrative of the ‘Aboriginal problem’ unfolds and escalates in these spaces to become ‘truth’ in public discourse. From the earliest colonial files, Indigenous peoples are depicted as a problem to be solved, as something to be dispensed with or absorbed for the greater good. In a quest to know our history, we are lured into what Rosanne Kennedy names the ‘perverse archive’; we enter those very institutions that perpetuated oppressive acts on our families, and confront the racialised heart of this country’s foundation.
‘Read about it,’ he said. ‘It happened!’
Sorrow, anger, shame, mourning. What to do with all this emotion? Feminist/queer/critical-race theorist scholar Sara Ahmed considers the role of ‘shame’ in relation to national identity and belonging. She suggests that embracing a claim to ‘national shame’ in the quest for justice is the very thing that would allow us to move forward; that keeping the past alive is in fact the ethical way to live and be.
Grant is one of many Indigenous writers, poets, artists, musicians, scholars and commentators moved to act to keep the past alive through responsibility, respect and honouring. He opened his speech reflecting on the absurd and ignorant responses to Adam Goodes’ dance – an expression of cultural pride – during a football game.
‘We are better than that,’ Grant argued.
Like those who stood up for Goodes when he was called an ‘ape’ and when Eddie McGuire – through a ‘slip of the tongue’ – suggested he should open the musical King Kong. We are better than that.
Like (the late) Pat Eatock’s class action with eight others against Andrew Bolt’s targeted, factually incorrect and offensive columns on Aboriginal identity – columns that were found to breach the Racial Discrimination Act. We are better than that.
Like Rosalie Kunoth Monks, who defended her language and culture in response to former Quadrant editor Peter Coleman on Q&A and said, ‘I am a sovereign person from this country … don’t try and suppress me … I am not the problem.’ We are better than that.
Like musicians Thelma Plum and Briggs, who continue to speak out against ‘blackface’ representations of Aboriginal people, and who are met with a barrage of vitriolic attacks under the guise of ‘free speech’. We are better than that.
And like Stan Grant, who – driven by a deep love of this country – is not afraid to name its racist foundations, who implores us to finally reckon with history’s ghosts – ghosts that continue to manifest and haunt because we are, indeed, better than that.
Audre Lorde said, ‘Speak loud, speak unsettling things, and be dangerous.’ Clearly, the intergenerational fire in our hearts has never burnt out. There is rage, loss, love and hope here; a fusion of emotion to ‘move’ us toward justice/action/reckoning/transformation and toward dreams we might all be proud of.