This is a review of Not Just Black and White by Lesley and Tammy Williams, our Bloc Club book of the month.
Lesley Williams is a Murri Elder and Aboriginal rights activist. Her daughter Tammy Williams is a barrister and one-time Australian ambassador to Michael Jackson's Neverland. Not Just Black and White is their story, the combined struggle of two Indigenous women to make right the injustices inflicted on them—framed around Lesley’s battle against the Queensland government for her stolen wages from the many years she worked as a domestic servant along with thousands of other Aboriginal workers who were never compensated for their labour.
The result is years of struggle through the Justice for Aboriginal Workers campaign which took the two women all the way to the United Nations in Geneva, and saw them recruit Michael Jackson as an ally. In 2002, they won, and saw the Queensland State government deliver an historic reparation package of $55.4 million to Indigenous workers who had their wages and savings controlled and skimmed by past governments.
Lesley’s story begins in the Cherbourg Aboriginal Community—a government-run settlement which operated under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897, which severely curtailed Indigenous rights, and exiled groups to segregated government reserves. We are taken back to childhood and Lesley’s depiction of the harsh reality of what it was like to grow up in an Aboriginal Settlement in the 1950s. Through her eyes, we witness the struggle of Indigenous Australians in rural Queensland; real and relentless.
Life ‘under the act’ is oppressive, and her childhood is spent in a state of anxiety and fear, particularly of white people: their authority, and their abuse of it. It is not totally bleak: she has a loving family that brings joy to her life, but the reality of the situation is crushing: from birth it was determined she will be a servant for white families and homesteads far from her own.
Written as a ‘conversation between mother and daughter’, in Not Just Black and White, Lesley and Tammy tell their life stories in the oral tradition, interjecting on each other’s narratives to add extra information or ask for something to be clarified.
It’s a device that translates to the page with mixed results. The conversational tone makes it tricky work for the authors to wrangle the messy business of life into a cohesive narrative arc, a difficult task in any circumstance. It has its weaknesses, but it plays well, for the most part. The conversational tone makes Not Just Black and White accessable—which is good, because many of the revelations in the book don’t make for easy reading.
When Lesley moves to Brisbane to work in 1966, when other women her age are embracing counter-culture, LSD, feminism, rock and roll— she is still a second class citizen, at best. Certain areas of the city are off limits to her, patrolled by undercover policemen, a hangover from an era of more explicit segregation. How many people living in Boundary Street, Brisbane know that this was once the line that Aboriginal people were exiled beyond the boundary of in the evening, a line protected by troopers armed with stock-whips?
The startling thing about Lesley’s life is that it might be considered quite normal:—to work, to raise a family, to strive towards happiness—if she hadn’t been blocked at every turn by racism, both political and systemic. It is the journey of a person from servitude, in which every aspect of an Indigenous life was controlled and curtailed, to something closer to free citizenship.
The arbitrary movement of people, the removal of family members, overseer brutality, the sexual predation of young Aboriginal girls by their employers, the disdain shown to her white husband for marrying a black woman, all of it described so matter-of-factly that it becomes litany, and the reader can’t help but realise how widespread and normalised these practices were.
It’s startling to read the hardships of two generations of Indigenous women, the deprivations of living ‘under the act’ and an entirely new set of problems which beset her family after Indigenous people attained greater rights in the early 1970s.
The back-and forth between mother and daughter is also illuminating. Tammy occasionally finds herself shocked to hear what youth was like for her mother, even though she has her maze of discrimination to navigate. She grows up in an era where she does not risk being stolen from her mother for being of mixed race, but is still called a ‘nigger’ in the schoolyard. She finds a role models in Claire Huxtable, the fictional lawyer from The Cosby Show, a revelation that black women can be successful—as an aside, The Cosby Show was banned in apartheid-era South Africa because of its urbane portrayal of African Americans.
This, perhaps, is what makes this book so important—why I would urge any Australian to read it. It eloquently demonstrates that racial inequality in Australia is not comprised of just the historical genocides and documented atrocities but a complicated gridlock of laws deliberately designed to erode black self esteem and eradicate culture.
Many of the policies that made the White Australia era; immigration bans, the restriction of first inhabitants to arbitrarily designated homelands and missions, the denial of citizenship were developed in tandem, based on, or inspired the draconian and now universally reviled apartheid regime of South Africa. The fact that an Indigenous woman who’s early life was common to her generation can, simply by speaking of her past, evoke so visceral a reaction in the reader is testament to the insidious cruelty of the Aboriginal/European realpolitik.
There are many heart-breaking moments in Not Just Black and White, but one of the saddest is the fondness and sheer gratitude with which Lesley recalls her employer who treats her with respect and basic human dignity; as a person.
Stories of Aboriginality tend to ignite binary responses in public debate; angry denial in conservatives, flagellant sorrow in liberals. Here, the authors have, for the most part, steered clear of political commentary, instead sharing lived experience with calm dignity.
When ignorance floods the playing field, the myriad historical cruelties inflicted by the past can seem like flotsam. Without it, they become visible for they are: bedrock, upon which we all walk.
Australia, today, is at a cultural moment where, no matter what our political allegiance we tend to react swiftly and angrily to the other side of any argument and fewer issues are more divisive than the settlement of Australia by Europeans, an act for which the moral and legal ramifications have yet to be resolved, and act which, in our own way, we all live under.
Not Just Black and White is a story that all Australians should read. It picks no fights; it pulls no punches. It’s just a proundly touching story of two generations, by two women, a conversation between mother and daughter.
Liam Pieper is the former Editor of Writers Bloc. His 2014 memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of The Year, was shortlisted for the National Biography Award and a Ned Kelly award. His most recent book is The Toymaker, which was long-listed for best debut fiction by the Indie Book Awards and won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Fiction Award. @liampieper