As a youngster, whose age was in the single digits, I was always aware that my paternal grandmother, and one of my father’s sisters, looked ‘different’. It was no big deal. People, I realized, did have a tendency to look different. That was just the way things were. But just not this different. I was intrigued by their open faces, their darker skin colour, their full features, and their frizzy hair. None of my other relatives in Melbourne looked quite like they did. Nor did I.
Owning no photographs of these women, I am reliant on my memory. The photo above – gleaned from publicly available stock – is a passable resemblance to them, as far as my recollections go, but with some qualifications. My grandmother and aunt were not nearly as dark as this woman. Dusky, I would call them. Their noses and lips were not as full. And their eyebrows were bushy, whereas the woman in the photo has none.
Around this time, my parents with me and my then siblings in tow, paid a visit to a small farm in the remote high-plains region of East Gippsland. My father’s cousin (widowed) and her two children – my second cousins – ran the farm. She, my father’s cousin, had the same strange features as did my grandmother and aunt, features I hadn’t seen elsewhere in my family. Her children – like me – didn’t have these features.
I liked my grandmother and my father’s cousin very much. They were kind, caring women, and that is what matters at the end of the day. By contrast, my aunt was always a bit distant, with worries I couldn’t identify seeming to wear her down. She was ‘nervy’ and ‘high-strung’, but I still liked her. She was a good person. Her husband, my uncle through marriage, was the only person in my immediate family circle with left-wing views. The spirited arguments he traded with the others – for whom Bob Menzies was next to God – was my first introduction to partisan politics.
As it is with so many of the experiences I gathered when very young, the penny only dropped much later in life. Could there be aboriginal genes in my make-up? I can’t be absolutely certain of this even to this day, and it is not sufficiently high on my priorities to follow it up with the sort of rigour it would demand. I am who I am, regardless of what my genes say.
But the mental picture I have of these three women, now all dead, intrigues me. How could it not?
Only recently it has occurred to me that, if a person has been born in Australia, and if there are any hidden crannies in that person’s hereditary make-up, then this person cannot be certain there won’t be some aboriginal traits lurking there. The known part of my genetic heritage is the common-and-garden British and Scottish connections, but it’s the unknown bits I am talking about here. Many of us, I’m sure, would have such unknown bits. Beware. Potentially, they are the places in the field from whence genetic curve-balls come.
Predictably enough, nobody in my family ever made mention of the unusual physical features of my grandmother, my aunt, and my father’s cousin. Maybe the lack of mention says volumes. My father, regrettably, was prone to have prejudices, and was apt to give voice to them on occasion. Dagos, Jews, and communists were fair game to him at such moments. But I never ever heard him denigrate people on the basis of their darker skin colour.
Since my birth, I have been steeped in Western values and culture. The little I knew of aboriginal culture was either grossly distorted or outright wrong. In primary school, our teachers told us – and I’m not sure that it wasn’t part of the formal curriculum – that aboriginal people were an inferior breed, that the percentage of them still alive was very low, and that the few remaining were congenitally weak and would soon die out.
Well, that one has certainly turned out to be wrong.
Typical of the distortions, a.k.a. myths, apropos aboriginal culture prevailing back then, and cherished even to this day, are those promulgated in the film Jedda, made in the 1950s, directed by Charles Chauvel, and in fact the first ever Australian film to be made in colour. Overall, in my opinion, it is a good film. Tellingly perhaps, it was released in some other English-speaking countries under the name Jedda the Uncivilized. It tells the story of a young aboriginal girl, the eponymous Jedda, brought up by a white couple. It tells of her subsequent transition to adulthood.
Then comes the myth. Despite her upbringing, she is beset by some mysterious, instinctive, and animal urge – a call of the wild – driving her to return to her own kind, i.e. to ‘go walkabout’. The supposition is that people of Jedda’s kind, the aboriginal kind, will inevitably end up doing this. It is in their nature. No amount of nurture can prevent this from happening. They are not like us. Inherently, they are not civilized.
The film, of course, ends tragically.
So, I ask myself, given my putative ancestry with its unexpected throwbacks, when can I expect to get the ‘call’ to ‘go walkabout’? To put this white man’s life with all its warts behind me, and disappear off into the eternal dream-time?
Enough of this mocking tone, you may say. Cut the crap. Let’s put it behind us. We’ve been there, done that. This is the 21st century. Jedda was from another era, the mid 20th century. We know better now.
Sadly, it appears not. In the film Australia, made in 2008, and directed by Baz Luhrmann, but not a good film in my opinion, a young aboriginal boy goes the same way as does Jedda. Despite an upbringing by worthy white mentors, played by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, he too goes walkabout, lured away from the civilized life by an aboriginal elder. In the most cringe-worthy cinematic cliche I have ever seen, and believe me I’ve seen some cringe-worthy ones in my time, the bearded elder, spear in hand of course, tempts the boy away to the background strains of – believe it or not – Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Baz Luhrmann, you should hang your head in shame.
That’s two myths I have flagged here about our aborigines with whom we, with a degree of unwillingness on both sides, share this wide brown land. First, the myth of their inevitable and imminent extinction. Second, the myth of their native tendency to go walkabout. But, on close examination, don’t they, both of these tall tales, tell us more about the myth-makers than about the aboriginal subjects of the myths? Don’t they depict what we would wish to happen, rather than what is actually happening?
Don’t we long for these people to get out of our face? To let us get on with the job of dynamiting their sacred sites, ignoring their prior claims to the land, subjecting them to disproportionate incarceration, commemorating the arrival of the first fleet, climbing Uluru when we feel like it, and calling it Ayer’s Rock if we want?
The problem now is that part of the genetic makeup of these noble people has, in all likelihood, become entangled through heredity with our own genetic makeup, manifesting itself – in some cases close to home – in our own physical bodies and possibly minds. How do we expunge this?
Out, damned spot!