Reviewed By Paul Turnbull
Every year the Christmas small-talk at our family gatherings turns to Aboriginal people. This is predictable, given my interests in the shared histories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Australia, and that my sister and her partner have worked for nearly a decade as health professionals with the Yolngu communities of eastern Arnhem Land. My parents have stayed with them, met their Yolngu families, and a couple of years ago returned from a tour across the Northern Territory mightily impressed by Aboriginal tourism.
Yet before long, these Christmas conversation take a familiar, dismal track. Aboriginal peoples in Northern Australia - 'full-bloods' - are contrasted by older relatives with the 'half-caste' Aboriginal families living scattered across the same suburb. 'These people are not real Aborigines', someone will pronounce. The tragedy is seen to be that these people - not the 'full - bloods' - run Queensland's Aboriginal organisations, squander unspecified but huge amounts of public money, and of course making us all feel guilty for what might have happened in the past.
My family are not racist, and would be shocked and hurt to be called so. But through all our discussions over the years it has proved near impossible to discuss the differences of wealth and power, success and failure, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in other than easy but dangerous terms of racial inheritance. In their eyes, urban Aboriginal people 'fall into poverty' become chronically unemployed or 'turn to crime' because they have lost the inherent (genetic) strengths of 'full-blood' tribal life.
Last Christmas was particularly trying. An aged pensioner and war veteran living in a neighbouring suburb died as a result of falling after a scuffle, allegedly with several children breaking into his house. What had particularly incensed several relatives - several of whom are younger than my sister and I - was the Courier Mail failing to draw attention to the fact the accused were Aboriginal. Somehow this was another instance of undue favouritism being extended to Aboriginal people.
I remained silent, even though busting to reply that by the same logic the press should be applauded for running headlines such as 'Pommy Shop Stewards Strike Again', or 'Geordie Tyre-Slasher Still at Large in Inala'. My sister, a vegetarian, volunteered to slip upstairs to see how the turkey was progressing.
Which brings me to Pat Keating's memoir, Worlds Apart. It was impossible for my sister and I not to feel strong empathy with Keating's recollections of Christmas holidays and stunted family conversations, where it quickly became clear that she and her husband Neil's involvement with Aboriginal people was a source of irritation, if not fear. They seemed so very familiar.
However, what made Worlds Apart the most influential book I read in 1994 was Pat Keating's acute portrayal of the world she and her family entered when Neil, her school-teacher husband, was posted by the New South Wales education department to the Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission settlement in the early 1960s.
Several copies of this book have already gone as belated presents to parents and several relatives, with the hope that Pat Keating's remembrances of the world of black and white in all its richness, complexity and contradictions, will make future Christmas conversations longer and perhaps a little wiser.
In writing of this book I use the word world decidedly. Certainly, the title Worlds Apart serves to emphasise the differences between living black and white in rural New South Wales during the early 1960s. As it stands, the title also reflects Pat Keating's hopes that we non-Aboriginal people of younger generations remain mindful of the nature and extent of white indifference to the fate of Aboriginal people marking the assimilationist era. Indeed, some of the most vivid and distressing sections of Worlds Apart are those in which the author recalls how members of the Brewarrina Mission community were treated by Welfare Board staff, the police and health professionals. This was a world where to be black and determined to have basic rights could loose you everything - your children, your partner, the roof over your head.
However, many non-Aboriginal readers will find most disturbing the author's recollections of times when she and her children inadvertently crossed over into the world of living black. She tells of how, shortly after her arrival at the mission, she took her baby Megan to the local doctor with a rash, only to find herself offered vitamin C tablets, before being shooed impatiently out of the surgery with the advice, 'Go on, my dear, you'll be given something to fix the rash. It's all right. It won't cost anything.' Having given the mission station as her address, the doctor assumed she was Aboriginal. Some months later young Christopher, the Keatings' fourth child, accidentally drank half a bottle of kerosene. In the rush to get the unconscious child to Brewarrina hospital he came to be admitted by the mission manager. Pat Keating arrived shortly afterwards, thankfully to be told he was out of danger but that she could not see him as he needed complete rest. The next day she rang the hospital only to be told that Christopher was doing well but that 'my visit would serve no purpose and would most likely disturb the child unnecessarily.'
Then it started: a daily farce of ringing up and being fobbed off with the same vague reassurances and the same embargo on visits. We were now convinced that some dire complication had set in and on the fifth day when the same dispassionate voice relayed the same vague message, I exploded.
Eventually getting through to the hospital matron, Pat Keating got the same bland and patronising assurances, before having the phone abruptly put down on her.
A call to the doctor treating Christopher revealed the reason for the child's lengthy isolation and the bland reassurances. The child had come to the hospital in the arms of the mission manager. It had been assumed that he was Aboriginal.
Neil Keating arrived at the hospital shortly afterwards to take his son home, only to meet with further resistance from the nursing staff. His voice raised in anger led young Christopher to appear in the corridor, ...'a forlorn little figure in a singlet and nappy, wide-eyed and apprehensive.'
Pat Keating tells us that it took years for Christopher to overcome fully the affects of his separation, and it left her and Neil painfully aware that such traumas were the common experience of many Aboriginal children.
While vividly recalling how Aboriginal people living in the Brewarrina district were treated, Pat Keating rarely fails to do so without leaving the reader aware of the complexity of relations between black and white. Doctors, nursing staff and police were perfunctory and patronising in their dealings with Aboriginal people. But as the author is quick to stress, they were sincere people who saw themselves as making the best of meagre resources. If they failed it was in their incapacity or unwillingness to question the racialist assumptions of the time. Aboriginal people would often tailor their behaviour to prejudice, often so as to subvert and overcome its worse effects.
Worlds Apart reveals how common racial assumptions in post-war rural Australia were in fact challenged by black and white. For as the Keatings soon learnt, the township of Brewarrina had 'two faces':
At first we thought it a totally cold and heartless town with the Aborigines pushed to the outskirts, harassed by authority and despised by most of the white inhabitants. But we were to learn of the ones who were without prejudice, those who mixed as comfortably with the black half of the community as they did with their colleagues, whether from the hospital, the school, the shops or the local stations...
Of course, being white gave the Keatings privilege and power in their negotiations with Aboriginal people. However, living in the ramshackle school-teacher's house sited on the mission station, Pat, Neil and their five young children all soon found themselves in relationships, obligations and friendships, some of which remain strong to this day. It was a world of material poverty and often arbitrary use of power. But even so, questions of race, identity and power were never clear cut, as we learn from the author's recollections of her day to day relations with the mission superintendent, an Aboriginal man of strong evangelical faith, and his European wife.
The mission lay at the heart of a world few whites knew to be rich in spirit. Aboriginal people were determined to maintain their culture and identity. The Keatings, willing to accept their Aboriginal neighbours as equals, soon found themselves at the centre of this world, as persons trusted to use what authority they could command on behalf of the community. It was never an easy position, as several incidents recounted in the book make painfully clear.
Worlds Apart is an important and beautifully written contribution to our understanding of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples' shared histories. It offers much that will be of interest to specialists in the field of Aboriginal studies, but merits a wider audience. People involved in reconciliation groups especially, should seriously consider reading and discussing Worlds Apart together with Ruby Langford Ginibi's My Bundjalung People and Evelyn Crawford's Over my Tracks.
Hale and Iremonger have produced a text of high quality. They deserve especially to be commended for going to the expense of issuing Worlds Apart as a paper-back in an attractive colour dust-jacket designed by Megan Smith. It hides a cover that one can only assume was designed by someone who had not read the book. The cover uses the photograph of an unnamed Aboriginal woman dressed as a bridesmaid or possibly a debutante. Given that this work speaks so eloquently of the determination of Aboriginal people to freely control their own identity, why did the publishers not use a photograph which more accurately represents the fact that, in spite of all they weathered as the hands of white officialdom, the Aboriginal people of the Brewarrina mission were not mute victims? Similarly, stressing the material poverty of the mission, the publisher's copy on the back cover describes Worlds Apart as a 'shameful and shocking indictment' of 'Australia's version of apartheid.' Yes, there was poverty and neglect. However, as Worlds Apart attests, there were also Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people determined to create a just future.
Paul Turnbull teaches history at James Cook University. Amongst his recent publications are: (With Henry Reynolds and Ian Clarke), Sharing History: a Key Issues Paper for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and 'To what Strange Uses: the Procurement of Aboriginal Peoples' Bodies in Colonial Australia, Voices, Spring 1994.