I was going to start this review with some ruminations about what makes people self-righteous or how I don’t understand how anyone could enjoy making a career out of being a spiteful shock-jock; I had also thought to share my puzzlement about why media proprietors would want to be associated with such people and programs. But I’ve decided not to. The catalyst for Am I Black Enough For You? by Dr Anita Heiss may well have had been some unpleasant redneck media commentary, but I don’t want the focus to be on them, I want it to be on Anita, one of our most impressive public intellectuals and an author of good grace and humour.
Everyone knows that Reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous people is a challenge: we haven’t come to terms with Australia’s Black History and too many indigenous people suffer racism and extreme disadvantage. But that is not the whole story, and part of the story that Anita Heiss wants to tell is that there are urban Aborigines living successful lives which are enriched by their culture. Her ‘mission’ is to make the wider community aware that Aboriginality is diverse and that fair-skinned, successful, educated, middle-class women like her are part of it.
Through her entertaining novels: Manhattan Dreaming, Not Meeting Mr Right, Avoiding Mr Right, and Paris Dreaming, (tagged ‘choc-lit’ by her friends), Anita is aiming to spread that message to people who would not otherwise read books about indigenous culture. These popular novels are about sharing the highs and lows of being an urban Aboriginal woman but are pitched at a mainstream audience. Read more about the rationale for these ‘chick-lit’ novels here.
Am I Black Enough for You? is a memoir of her life. As the book blurb says, it is a rejoinder to racist remarks made about ‘being too ‘fair-skinned’ to be an Australian Aboriginal. Such accusations led to Anita’s involvement in one of the most important and sensational Australian legal decisions of the 21st-century when she joined others in charging a newspaper columnist with breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. He was found guilty, and the repercussions continue. But while the memoir shows the author to be a passionate advocate for respect and Reconciliation, it is not a polemic, nor is there a great deal about the court case. It is actually a very enjoyable book to read. This is not a sad memoir from a victim of Australia’s past and present mistakes in indigenous policy. This is a confident, intelligent, very entertaining life story about a woman who grew up always knowing about her Aboriginal identity, always knowing who the members of her extended family were, always knowing about aspects of her culture that are integral to her sense of self. Anita’s dry, self-deprecating and down-to-earth humour shines through every chapter, and the reader can’t help but be impressed by her enormous energy, determination and initiative in crafting the sort of career that would fulfil her father’s wish that she do something that would make her happy. This kind of positivity is the best answer to shock-jock nastiness that there could possibly be, and it does so by almost ignoring it.
Anita Heiss has an inclusive attitude that others might do well to emulate:
When I have been away for long periods of time, it takes only an hour of meditation on my rock-of-reflection to bring me home properly. At other times, when on the run, a quick drive past and glimpse of the sea will sustain me. Maroubra Beach is as much a place of peace for me as a place of thanks and ‘prayer’. I’m always amused that some whitefellas think we Blackfellas have some inherent sense of spirituality, as if it is unique to us and only us; that there is a certain brand of spirituality only available to Aboriginal people. In fact, all people can find a sense of spirituality, but the truth is we can’t give you ours and we can’t help you find yours.
And we don’t own a sense of place either, like it’s something tangible we can give to you, or that can come and go with relocation. Although our connections to places are specific to us – mine is obviously Wiradjuri country and Gadigal and Dharawal land because I have spent my life growing up on it – I’ve had to tell whitefellas that they too can in fact have a sense of place. My experiences have been that for many whitefellas it is not feeling a spiritual connection to the land or place itself, but more a connection to the human/manmade aspects: their homes, their friends, their local footy club and so on. Quite often that connection changes when they move from Victoria for example, to Queensland, and they often then become Queenslanders. To me that ability to shift geographical allegiances is what sets Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people apart when talking about connection to country. (p. 45)
(My own personal ‘connections’ to place actually are a little less coherent than that. I consider myself an Aussie through and through, even though I get tackled about my English accent all the time. (Especially by taxi-drivers, what is with them??) However I find I can’t account for my very strong feelings of being ‘at home’ when I go back to London even though I haven’t lived there since I was six, and I’ve had no living relations there for a very long time. On the other hand if I’m away from my Australian home I get pathetically homesick after about five weeks and am pitifully sentimental when I finally set eyes on ‘my place’ again).
My favourite part of the whole book is the hilarious chapter ‘Sleeping Under the Stars’. It is really nice to learn that I have something in common with this dynamic woman! As you can imagine, she does a fair bit of travelling in the outback, but like me, she has an aversion to camping:
In 2007 I was excited about heading to Woodford for the Dreaming Festival at the invitation of Rhoda Roberts, where we were launching the BlackWords: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers research community, an online resource of bios, publications and histories of Indigenous literary producers. I would also read from some of my work. The annual festival is the perfect opportunity for reunions and catch-ups. My excitement levels were also raised because I knew I was staying in a hotel in Caboolture rather than the campsite during what was extraordinarily cold weather. It was so cold that one friend from Darwin had virtually cried herself to sleep with the chill, and even those who had brought coats and gloves were buying earmuffs and scarves. The thought of queuing for a hot shower after a frozen, sleepless night of drumming and other campsite activities made me even more grateful for my urban ways.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I was accused – some might say jokingly – of not being a Blackfella because I didn’t want to ‘sleep under the stars’. ‘Five stars are the only stars I want to sleep under’,’ I joked. ‘My mum was raised in a humpy on a mission. You fellas are going backwards. I’m going back to my hotel with the heater and the electric blanket and I’m going to be warm tonight. Oh,’ I added, as I walked away, ‘ don’t be asking if you can come use my hot shower. You can be as Black and cold as you like tonight.’ (p.242)
It is this kind of humour that makes this book a delight to read.
Oh, I nearly forgot. As to the title: the short answer to this question is that it’s not your place to decide.
There’s a great piece of advice about using Lillian Holt’s the Five H’s to get through ‘the thorny terrain of race relations in this country’:
This is what Anita does, and she does it so well, I would simply say about this book: go and buy it, read it, and think about it.
Anita is also a workshop facilitator and public speaker, and Adjunct Professor at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, at the University of Technology, Sydney. Many teachers will also know her as the author of My Australian Story: Who am I? She also co-edited the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature which I recommend as an introduction to the diversity of indigenous writing – see my review.
Author: Dr Anita Heiss
Title: Am I Black Enough for You?
Publisher: Bantam Books, 2012
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop in Camberwell, $34.95
Fishpond: Am I Black Enough for You?