Inside Story

Getting under their skin

Frank Bongiorno traces the debate about blackness from Arthur Upfield to Andrew Bolt

Frank Bongiorno 7 June 2012 2351 words

Anita Heiss’s memoir is a lively, good-humoured and spirited answer to Andrew Bolt and his supporters. Amanda James

If you imagined that Andrew Bolt’s notorious Herald Sun articles in 2009 attacking “white” Aboriginals appeared out of nowhere, you might have been inclined to accept Bernard Keane’s argument in Crikey that “Bolt deserves the support of free speech advocates, regardless of how much they may disagree with his bilious outpourings.” But Bolt’s “bilious outpourings” – later found by the Federal Court to be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act – were not idiosyncratic personal abuse: they were part of a much longer white Australian obsession with skin colour and its connection to character.

The erasure of darkness – part of what historian Patrick Wolfe calls “the logic of elimination” – long preoccupied the colonisers. So much so that by the 1930s, bureaucrats in Western Australia and the Northern Territory were devising means by which mixed-race populations could be absorbed into a white Australia as if Aborigines had never existed. The controlled mating of “crossbreeds” with whites and the removal of mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families were to be their favoured means of achieving this goal.

The Bolt case and its continuing reverberations recalled for me Arthur Upfield’s first detective story, The Barrakee Mystery, published in 1929. Although he is an almost forgotten figure today, the English-born Upfield became one of Australia’s most successful popular authors, selling vast numbers of his books around the world. If he is recalled at all, it is for his twenty-nine “Bony” novels – crime stories featuring the “half-caste” detective, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Bony books were translated into eleven languages at a time when few Australian writers had achieved any international recognition, let alone the spectacular success enjoyed by Upfield.

Upfield knew how to spin a good yarn. The Barrakee might have been mysterious but the reasons for its author’s popularity are not, for the stories themselves are absorbing. Although The Barrakee Mystery was Bony’s debut, the reader’s attention is initially drawn to another character, dashing young Ralph Thornton, the adopted son of John and Ann Thornton of Barrakee Station in western New South Wales. “As a collegiate product he was perfect,” writes Upfield. “His speech and manners were without reproach. There was, however, inherent in him a grace of movement which no school or university could have given him... His dark, almost beautiful face was animated by a keen and receptive mind; the fervid enthusiasm of the mystic rather than the unveiled frankness of the practically minded man was reflected from his eyes.”

Ralph has just finished his studies and seems destined to take over the family property and marry Kate Flinders, the Thorntons’ beautiful orphan niece. Yet the young man can’t stop his thoughts turning to a young Aboriginal woman, the evocatively named Nellie Wanting. He receives no encouragement in this direction from Bony, who has arrived to investigate a murder. As a “half-caste,” Bony believes that he can honour neither his white father nor black mother as “they did not honour me… They were below the animals. A fox does not mate with a dingo, or a cat with a rabbit. They disobeyed the law of the wild.” Ralph soon asks Kate to marry him, a proposal she readily accepts.

The journey to the altar, it soon appears, will follow a treacherous bush track. At the engagement party, Kate realises that she really loves Frank Dugdale, the Thorntons’ sub-overseer who, in turn, has long been in love with her. Soon after, Ralph’s foot becomes caught in a snag while he is pursuing fish in a waterhole. Just as he is about to drown, he is saved by Nellie. Out of danger beside the pool, a grateful Ralph “saw quite suddenly how beautiful she was, how beautiful the outlines of her body where the damp cheap blouse clung to it.” Seeing the happy tears in Nellie's eyes, he touches her affectionately on the cheek; Nellie then kisses him on the mouth. “Electric fire rushed through his body and surged about his brain… it was the very first moment of real life.” Once he realises that she loves him, Ralph returns her kiss “with man’s awakened passion.” Bony worries that Ralph is headed for “utter social damnation” and persuades Nellie to clear out. For Ralph, however, true love must run its course.

What initially looks like a case of forbidden sexual love across racial boundaries is soon revealed as something both more complicated, and less so. Ralph himself turns out to have been a “half-caste,” the identity of whose father has been obscured by the maternal but foolish Ann Thornton. Even her own husband knows only that Mary Sinclair, the Thorntons’ cook, was the biological mother. Nineteen years earlier, Ann’s own baby had died; Mary had given birth to a boy at the same time. On her deathbed, Mary admitted to Ann that the father was King Henry, an Aboriginal man. Mary died – “because of my sin,” she says – and Mrs Thornton adopted the baby as her own.

For his part, Bony turns out to be a racial theorist of no mean ingenuity. For many years, he says, Ralph’s upbringing and education had held the “black strain in his blood” in check, but with Ralph’s return from college to “the native bush of his father” his “reversion to ancestral blackness was accelerated.” “In no case,” says Bony, “does a half-caste rise to the status of his superior parent.” He observes Ralph’s transformation – for example, his “growing love of colour in his clothes” – when at last comes the “fatal yet inevitable surrender. ... He was betrothed to a beautiful white girl, he was heir to a great estate, yet he fell in love with a gin.” As Bony explains to the understandably bewildered Kate, “Crimson lips and black velvet cheeks were a greater magnet than your lily complexion and azure eyes.” In a remarkable piece of do-it-yourself physical anthropology, Bony even claims to have observed Ralph’s skin “slowly darkening” as he reverted to his ancestral origins.

A few years after the publication of The Barrakee Mystery the “problem” of “half-castes” passing as whites was raised when the Western Australian parliament debated a bill in 1936 to prohibit sex between white men and Aboriginal women. J.J. Holmes, a pastoralist, pointed to the problem that some “half-caste” women were “absolutely white” while some white women who spent their time lying about on beaches with few clothes on were “doing their best to make themselves like half-castes.” Would a young man charged with having had sex with a “coloured girl” be able to defend himself by declaring that he thought she was white?

ANDREW Bolt largely turned this kind of thinking on its head. The “problem” now, it seemed, was that “whites” were attempting to pass as Aborigines. They were doing so, Bolt suggested, in order to advance their careers and claim special benefits. If these benefits didn’t exist, he implied, they would identify as white or European Australians and abandon any pretence of Aboriginality.

Yet the recent attacks by New Limited journalists on Anita Heiss, one of the litigants in the Bolt case, in the wake of the publication of her memoir, Am I Black Enough for You?, confirm that there is really something other than tenderness about taxpayer dollars involved in their running commentary on Aboriginality. The Australian’s Caroline Overington, peeved that Heiss refused to grant her an interview on the grounds that she worked for News Limited like Bolt, spent much of a long article in April complaining about the rebuff, about Heiss, and about well-off Aborigines who gain “benefits” they don’t really need – and she did this all under the cover of a faux live-and-let-live shrug of the shoulders. Sure, Heiss wouldn’t talk to her, but it’s a democracy after all, says Overington. Sure, Heiss’s grandfather might not have been Aboriginal, as Heiss claimed, but it really doesn’t matter anyway because “Aboriginality isn’t about the number of Aboriginal ancestors you have” – and so on. All of this sweetness and light might have been a little more convincing if the article hadn’t been accompanied by a silhouette of a woman – obviously Heiss in profile – entirely black except for the bright rouge lips and expensive-looking jewellery around her neck.

Heiss’s book is a lively, good-humoured and spirited answer to Bolt and his supporters. I should declare a personal interest of sorts. Although we are not close friends, I know, like and respect Heiss, having sat on a state government literature and history committee with her in the early noughties. We also share an admiration for TV’s singing cowboy, Gene Autry. Since our first acquaintance, she’s become a successful author of what she and her friends light-heartedly call “chock-lit,” a chick-lit sub-genre that features the lives, loves and losses of successful Aboriginal women. Heiss has also written children’s books, poetry and a doctoral thesis in the field of Aboriginal writing and publishing.

Her career is a remarkable success story, not least because her literary achievements have been accompanied by a lot of hard work promoting reading and writing, especially in Indigenous communities. Heiss has a life coach and her book underlines why she might need one, hinting as it does at the kind of well-meaning requests to which a successful Aboriginal woman is subjected. There is an expectation that educated Aboriginal people will be experts on everything Aboriginal, a demand no one thinks to make of a white Australian. A “concrete Koori” she might be, according to her own description, and it’s hard not to envy the travel to New York and Paris she discusses in her book. She makes much of her attachment to city comforts and dislike of roughing it. But she also seems to spend quite a bit of time in out of the way places in the Australian bush, working with children who are unlikely otherwise to encounter a real live author, and whose chances of encountering an Aboriginal one seem even more remote.

Am I Black Enough for You? appears to have been conceived before the Bolt business; while the court case figures, it doesn’t dominate her narrative. Indeed, the book is at its best when Heiss talks about the intimate world of her own family. Her account of the courtship between her Australian immigrant father, a cabinetmaker, and her devoutly Catholic Aboriginal mother is deeply moving. That Heiss’s life has been lived as part of the Aboriginal community could not be clearer. Her message is that there are many ways of being Aboriginal and her own – that of a middle-class, educated and professionally successful woman who lives in Sydney, loves shopping and drives a nice car – is as legitimate as any other. Aboriginal authenticity does not come from the darkness of one’s skin, or from a desert lifestyle.

Some Aboriginal memoirs are survival stories – the performer Noel Tovey’s Little Black Bastard (2004) being a wonderfully vivid example. Others, in their quest to solve puzzles and uncover secrets, take on some features of the detective novel: Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987) is the best-known of these (her family put it about that they were Indian). But the historian Lynette Russell’s A Little Bird Told Me (2002) is in many ways the more challenging.

Russell does not regard herself as Aboriginal but as having an Aboriginal heritage, one wiped from the family history by her grandmother. As a result, Russell lacks the “social experience and shared history” that might have produced a sense of Aboriginal belonging. In her thoughtful memoir, she doesn’t present her discovery of this heritage as a quest for her own “true” Aboriginality. Instead, she recognises that our identities are influenced by decisions made by others, such as family members, who came before us. Russell’s effort to uncover her hidden family story is a reminder that in the past Indigenous people have recognised the penalties they would suffer for identifying themselves as Aboriginal. Some have understandably sought to avoid those penalties by passing as white.

Heiss has not produced a survival story, nor a book of the “search for secrets” type. Russell might regard her as fortunate in being the inheritor of a strong sense of Aboriginal identity, one encouraged by her Austrian father. But Heiss had suffered for her Aboriginality long before Bolt published his article attacking her. When she was five, a group of boys would taunt her: “Coco pop, chocolate drop, abo, boong and coon.” She wasn’t apparently regarded as a “white” passing herself off as “black” on those occasions.

Soon after her book was released, Bolt complained on his blog that Heiss’s publisher, Random House, and the ABC were censoring comments about Heiss and her book on their websites. Bolt helpfully provided his own readers with a link to an Amazon site in the United States, where they would be able to breathe in the much freer atmosphere of the great republic. The site was soon inundated with condemnation of Heiss by Australians, much of it predictably nasty.

It’s perhaps fortunate that Heiss, like many Indigenous people, has long experience in dealing with bullies. •