BOOK REVIEW: Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss

Posted on October 31, 2013

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Am I Black Enough For You?

Anita Heiss

Random House

2012

am i black enough for youSometimes you read something that makes you think. Or laugh. Or feel absurdly pleased with things. Or maybe ashamed. Am I Black Enough For You? covered all those bases with me.

At the risk of sounding ignorant, I originally knew Anita Heiss as a writer more so than as an Indigenous Australia. Don’t bother asking me why as I don’t have answer for that. It was only in more recent times as I have been far more exposed to what it means to be an Aboriginal in Australia by a dear friend of mine that I started paying more attention to things. This particular title by Anita Heiss went onto my To Be Read list and I finally grabbed a copy from my university library.

I find it a joy to read something that is so easy to read. I don’t mean simple or dumbed down. I mean well written in a conversational style as if you were sitting down having a yarn with the author over a cuppa. And that is precisely what I found Am I Black Enough For You? A great part of the charm was the wit, wry humour blended with reflection and Heiss’s own exploration of issues. And yes, there is some anger in there as well.

In some respects, Anita Heiss received more of a public profile through her participation in a law case against alleged columnist, Andrew Bolt. I say alleged as in my opinion he is a piece of filth who is a disgrace to writing and journalism. Heiss and her fellow complainants against Bolt and his outrageous accusations against them for being ‘professional’ Aboriginals (ie only claiming Aboriginal status when they stood to gain something from it) pursued him under racial vilification legislation. They were there to make a point, not wanting his money. They were far more generous than me. If I had been defamed by Bolt as they were, I would have been going after ever buck I could get out of him and the Herald and Weekly Times by pursuing defamation proceedings. But that case and that experience are in many respects at the heart of this book.

One of the things that I really enjoyed was finding the points of similarity between us. For example I suspect our fathers had a bit in common. And it was nice to learn that I am not the only one who still writes letters. Admittedly I mainly only write to Mum, and not as widely or as prodigiously as Anita, but we both enjoy that act of writing.

Anita is right on the money about how little we are taught about the history or even presence of Aboriginals in Australia. For example I only learned of the Myall Creek Massacre in quite recent times and was absolutely horrified. My great-great-grandfather was the first to select property on a former squatter’s run in in Central Victoria. Various snippets of family ‘history’ survived to an extent over the years. But not one mention of any contact with the original inhabitants. Yet it is easy enough to find evidence of that Aboriginal presence – an excellent example exists on the creek bank of where bark was cut from a tree to make a canoe.

I am 50. I come from a time as a youngster where it was often generally acceptable to tell ‘abo’ jokes. But never at home! My Dad had some odd ideas about Aboriginals but neither he nor Mum would have stood for any of that sort of talk at home. As a young man Dad went shearing for a couple of seasons. I recall him expressing his bewilderment. There was a young Aboriginal shearer on the team. And he was a lot better shearer than Dad. But Dad couldn’t understand why ‘Billy’ was paid a lot less than him despite doing a better job. Obviously that was well before the Referendum. Odd ideas at times from Dad but a fair go for everyone was impressed on me from a young age.

In reading Anita’s book, I found myself feeling embarrassed, even perhaps a little guilty at times. I was never a deliberate racist, a white supremacist piece of garbage, but in reviewing those times as a lot younger and possibly (probably?) stupider, I realise just how I viewed Aboriginals as different and not necessarily in a positive way. The stupidity of it all – as a youngster I had only knowingly seen one, perhaps two Aboriginals. I knew nothing of them as a people other than the little I had read from time to time, the reality of which I greatly doubt. A puzzling point about that is I had a great curiosity about so many things, reading widely, questioning, yet for some reason Indigenous Australians never really crept onto that horizon. Again, don’t ask me why as I don’t have an answer. As I grew older, I simply considered Aboriginals as just other people. But there was still no knowledge about them.

It was finding myself with a very dear friend who is Aboriginal that I actually began learning more about Aboriginals in Australia. I want to keep learning. Anita Heiss has just stimulated that desire even more. And there is plenty to learn.

From my friend and through the likes of Anita, I am left with distinct sense of difference. My society does not have anywhere near the sense of family, or place. Don’t get me wrong, to my late Dad his family was everything to him. But not in a sense beyond the immediate family. And I find myself feeling envious of that sense of place and people so amply demonstrated in our Indigenous communities. Maybe that lack is a contributor to how screwed up aspects of that society actually are?

The engaging conversational approach to the writing did more than leave me feeling as if Anita had been talking with me. It also left I with a desire to just sit down and talk about stuff with her, things we have in common, things we disagree on. And it is a rare thing for me to be left with that sense of engagement. All up, a thoroughly engaging read that a helluva lot of Australians should be reading.

Thoroughly recommended.

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