Sorry Day

Sorry Day may well be over by the time this post is online (one of the inherent problems of writing from the other side of the world). I was thinking through a theme or two on the subject when my friend Jonathan Shaw sent me a link to Church Mouse Journal, a blog from St Vincent’s Redfern Catholic Church. The latest post, on Sorry Day, “beggars belief” in Jonathan’s words, and he’s right. 
Sorry Day may well be over by the time this post is online (one of the inherent problems of writing from the other side of the world). I was thinking through a theme or two on the subject when my friend Jonathan Shaw sent me a link to Church Mouse Journal, a blog from St Vincent’s Redfern Catholic Church. The latest post, on Sorry Day, “beggars belief” in Jonathan’s words, and he’s right. I really know little at all about St Vincent’s. It is the church that ministers to the Catholic community of Redfern, the major indigenous suburb of Sydney, which is under increasing pressure for gentrification and the dispersal of the Aboriginal population. The former pastor, Father Ted Kennedy, was by all accounts an almost saintly man. His long-standing partnership with MumShirl was one of legendary accomplishment and care for the Aboriginal community. In 2003, Father Ted was in failing health, and two priests of the reactionary “neo-Catechumen” movement were assigned by the conservative Cardinal Pell to take over his place in the parish. Father Ted died on May 17, 2006.

So how cruel can it be, and in some ways how representative of the troubles of recent days, that Father Ted’s successors have the temerity to announce from the pulpit that “Sorry Day is an occasion for Aborigines to apologise for the trouble they have caused.” Go read it for yourself. Gobsmacked is barely adequate. Even the Pope is on the side of reconciliation and apology, but these “neo-Catechumens” take no heed. I usually pay no notice to what churchmen say, one way or the other, but the tragic irony of this situation was too great to pass over silently.

My own reflections on Sorry Day have been in a state of some disarray, as my mailbox has been flooded with story after story on the sex abuse scandals, the town camps at Alice Springs, petrol, grog, and violence, too many reports to quote here. Amidst all this news, there is talk of government policies that teeter between the need to protect helpless children and the creation of a new generation of stolen children. I read of proposals to close down remote communities, or reward people for moving to cities and assimilating. I’ve begun to wonder if anyone remembers 20th century history. And then, last weekend, Nicolas Rothwell ended his piece in The Australian, “Cry of the Innocent” with this reflection:

It is time for the unthinkable to be put on the agenda. One logical course of action would be for the federal Government to declare a state of emergency in many of the communities and ghetto camps of the centre and the entire north, and to employ the army or a civic service volunteer corps to provide viable settlements with proper facilities and to impose a system of benign social control. This is an unpalatable prescription for those who fancy the ideals of Aboriginal self-determination. It is hard to imagine a more disturbing alternative, except the one that exists today.

Following that, John Hirst, writing in The Australian on May 25, went on to imagine what the means of “benign social control” might look like and how to “lift the burden placed on Aborigines.” In today’s issue of the newspaper, Miriam Cosic looks at the gulf between the status accorded to Aboriginal art and the mean condition of most of the people who produce it, but can come to no conclusion other than to say that “sorry business engulfs the indigenous world.”

And in that conclusion, she mirrors my own sentiments and confusion. In conversations with people about Aboriginal art and culture, the comparison is often drawn between the indigenous populations of Australia and America. And while I won’t deny the many parallels, for me the more resonant congruity lies between the black populations of the two countries. African-Americans are likewise a deracinated community, taken 400 years ago from their homelands and stripped of their culture and language. “Black culture” in the United States today is seared by drug abuse, violence, and despair. And despite the wrenching battles for civil rights in the 1960s in America, and despite truly significant changes in American society as a result of that unrest, there is still an appalling rate of incarceration among young black men, welfare dependence among young black women, many of whom are single mothers, and black on black violence. Reconciliation is hardly even a concept in this country and all the television news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina took us no closer to a real conversation about the problems of race in this country.

In some ways, the situation in the United States is even worse than that in Australia. The indigenous Native American population is also wracked with problems of alcohol abuse and poverty. In recent years, Native American leaders have worked the legal system, founded in part upon treaties concluded a century or more ago with the U.S. government, to pump economic life into their communities through the mechanism of legalized gambling casinos. Sadly, while bringing in the white man’s dollars, these casinos have also brought in organized crime and a new flavor of exploitation. 

In recent weeks the debate here over immigration from Mexico has created yet another backlash against poor minority communities and raised problems of economic inequality which puts all sorts of racial pairings, Latino and white, black and Latino, even black and black, in conflict. White vigilante groups have begun patrolling the borders–even the border with Canada! And the wake of the 9/11 attacks has encouraged calls for racial profiling and made Muslims of any color–including white–suspects in their own country.

I wish I had something constructive to add to the conversation on either side of the Pacific, but I don’t. I thought, however, that today was an appropriate moment at least to acknowledge the issues here. I hope that in Australia the new Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, can make some headway and do no harm in the process. 

When all else fails, a librarian turns to his books, so let me leave you today with the recommendation to seek out Gillian Cowlishaw’s work. Her study of life on the Mainoru Station, Rednecks, Eggheads, and Blackfellas: a study of racial power and intimacy in Australia (Allen & Unwin/Univeristy of Michigan, 1999), is a superb, human story of entwined cultures in northern Australia. Even better, though, is Blackfellas Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race (Blackwell, 2004) which won the Gleebook Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism last year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. A few months before she began her fieldwork in Bourke, an outback town in north central New South Wales, a fight erupted in the main street on December 5, 1997. Police responded to the disturbance and the fight turned into a riot. Cowlishaw followed the aftermath of the riot for months afterwards, interviewing people both sides of the racial divide. The resulting book is a compelling combination of first-person stories and keen analytical insight that speaks to the issues of race identification and relations not just in Australia but in the United States as well. Whether she is writing about the “public” culture of Aboriginal people (offensive to Bourke’s whites, who prefer to do their drinking and fighting behind the walls and closed doors of their private homes) or the issue of welfare distribution (to poor, unskilled indigenous people trapped in remote communities or white wheat farmers strapped by drought who receive subsidies to send their children to school in larger cities in addition to other forms of government assistance), her observations were often quite literally arresting: they made me stop in mid-page to ponder their relevance to my own attitudes and persuasions. By forcing one to slow down and reflect in this moment of chaotic charge and counter-charge in the news media, Cowlishaw’s works may be more important now than ever for their thoughtful exposition of the underpinnings of the clash between races and cultures.

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