They made us change our names: black history
This weekend just past was a weekend of delving into history for my family and I. As I wrote once before, the “N” word is banned in our house, yet none of my family arrived with the historical knowledge to understand why, apart from what little I told them. The history is scary and I wanted to introduce them slowly to a past they did not know in depth. This weekend in Australia a wonderful telemovie was broadcast: Mabo, by BlackFella Films. While many Australian readers will be aware of the history, new arrivals may not be, nor may overseas readers.
Mabo is the story of Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo, a man who was horrified to discover in 1973 the land his family had farmed for many, many generations was no longer, under white laws, his. He fought the system and on June 3, 1992 the High Court of Australia returned ownership of his land to him, overturning the laws established when white men arrived in Australia of the land being considered unoccupied: the fiction of terra nullius. Sadly, Eddie had died six months before of cancer: he didn’t live to see his victory for his people.
The movie was directed by Rachel Perkins, who also produced Bran Nue Day and First Australians. Rachel has an interesting family history herself as her father, Charles Perkins, was the first First Australian to graduate from university.
Miss O 1 has been learning about the history of the New Zealand Maori people. So as a family we had all this history swirling around, all of it involving the contrast of darker and lighter skin. Mr O and the kids had been asking me for some time for some detail about slavery in the USA, given I banned the “N” word. Millions of the people taken into slavery originated from Nigeria, so for my family it is part of their history.
Mabo showing on TV triggered further discussion. We recorded Mabo. Miss O 2 and Mr O Jnr 2 watched it live with me, while Mr O and the older two watched a video on YouTube, The History of Slavery in America and will watch Mabo later. I think the two younger ones probably need to see it twice to comprehend the seriousness of the material.
Mr O was devastated. [Edit: I did not mean he did not know of the slave trade. He did. He was not aware of the trauma experienced after they left their native land.] Later, when were alone, he was telling me about what he knew of the times before independence in Nigeria, when Nigerians were forced to change their names to English names. I know Mr O’s indigenous name is of more importance to him personally than the name on his birth certificate, yet as it is not an “official” name, he cannot yet use it. We have talked about the possibility of lodging a formal change of name after his permanent residency is finalised so he can have his indigenous name as an official part of his name.
We talked about how back in those days it seemed many white people believed black people were less than human. I find it hard to believe, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for any black person to comprehend this was actually a belief held by many. Yet my reading of historical documents tells me this was indeed a common belief. The laws here were such that indigenous Australians could be shot on sight.
1816 Martial Law (NSW). This proclamation declared Martial Law against Indigenous Australians who could then be shot on sight if armed with spears, or even unarmed, if they were within a certain distance of houses or settlements
1824 (Tasmania). Settlers are authorised to shoot Aboriginal peoples
Slaves in America could be killed on a whim also, as most readers will know. “They lost their identity”, Mr O observed, shaking his head in sadness. Not all, but I am sure many did, given they were prevented from being families in many cases for hundreds of years.
He understands my perspective that although I do not personally feel responsible for the history, I do feel we have a responsibility to rectify what we can. I know some disagree with me: so be it. We talked about him reading a book years ago that said Michael Jackson whitened himself because white Americans “kicked against him”. I do not know the book and Mr O does not remember the name, but he remembers reading it. I don’t know if Mr O yet realises just how popular Michael Jackson was. We talked about some much more controversial topics related to the history of his homeland, which are not be addressed in this article.
For my family, they see the sadness of the treatment of their own people in the USA and other places involved in the slave trade during that time and also the sadness of the treatment of the First Australians: in a country they now call home. There is an emotional connection between the two that cannot be ignored. The discussions in this house are wide-ranging. Native Americans have also been discussed at length and researched.
I cried, watching Mabo, as I have cried watching other historical movies about such topics. Yet I was also uplifted by the fact Australia is a country in which such a case could be won. In many other countries around the world, as my husband pointed out, the plaintiffs in the case would just have disappeared. Slavery ended in the USA and the UK. Many lives, black and white, were lost during the American Civil War.
As a species, the human race is learning. A little too slowly for my liking, but we are learning.
On a personal note, I am struck by the fact yet another date of historical significance coincides with a personal date of significance. I have noted before that my birthday falls on June 12 (yes, today) which is the anniversary of the Loving v Virginia case in the USA. June 3 is both the date my family came home and the date the Mabo decision was handed down. I am sure many people have such coincidences in their lives: maybe I just notice them due to the make-up of our family.
I cannot recommend “Mabo” highly enough. The acting was wonderful and the story is compelling and important. For my family I am on a hunt to find the series “Roots” on DVD. I know it is old now, but I still remember it clearly. If anyone knows of a better film or series for my family, please leave a comment with the details.
Initially, I was hesitant to write this article. Through a fluke of timing, I wasn’t born in Australia, I am white: none of this is my personal history. I felt perhaps I didn’t have the right to write. Yet it IS my history and the history of my family in a wider sense. This is not a history (or law) lesson: I write to illustrate history does not exist just in history books lying gathering dust on library shelves, for many everyday people it is real and personal: there are connections. Mabo is part of the history of the country we all call home, for as much as it is black history it is also white history: it is Australia’s history. The slave trade is directly part of the history of this family’s ancestors. The two histories are entwined in this home.
If we learn nothing from the past, where are we going in the future?