Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 8, 2019

Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan

Growing Up African in Australia (2019) is part of a series: Black Inc also publish Growing Up Queer in Australia (Aug 2019, which you can pre-order here); Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (2018, see here, and read my review); and Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008, see here).  These books are revelatory: they share a diversity of experiences from multi-voiced; multi-cultural; multi-origin; and multi-gendered Australians.  The stories can be heart-warming, poignant, challenging, confronting and even nakedly hostile, but all of them will change the reader’s perceptions and misconceptions about what it’s like to be part of a minority.

The minority in this book is the Afro-diaspora.  The anthology includes writers with origins in Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, South Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zambia, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Kenya but also (because of the ongoing impact of slavery) those of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Guyanese and Afro-Brazilian descent.  Some contibutors came to Australia as middle-class skilled professionals, others as refugees, and many were born and educated here, some with African-Australian origins that go back many decades.

I was intrigued by the composition of the 35 writers featured in Growing Up African.  Although there was a diversity of contributors, so many of them worked in the arts: in dance, theatre, spoken word performance, visual arts, and music.  I liked this, because we don’t often hear directly from people working in the arts… after all, if they wanted to express their ideas in words, they wouldn’t be doing it in other art forms, eh?  But there were also other contributors in other fields and some CVs are impressive in any context: activists, a journalist, a litigant, a gay Imam who runs a support group for young Muslims questioning their sexuality, and a doctor.  Some were writers by profession or ambition, while others were busy doing other things but contributed an essay anyway.

I’m going to focus on two essays because they stood out to me.  Other readers will have their own favourites.

‘Both’ by Vulindlela Mkwananzi writes movingly about the parents he hardly knew.  His Australian mother was travelling in Zimbabwe when she met his father, a printer.  Both were activists: he was fighting apartheid from Zimbabwe while she was a campaigner for women’s liberation.  But they were both killed in a car accident when he and his twin brother were three, and they were raised by his birth mother’s Australian best friend.

It wasn’t until I grew older that I started to ponder how controversial it was for both my parents’ families to have mixed-race grandchildren, for different reasons. […]

For my family in Zimbabwe, it meant that my brother and I might grow up not knowing our culture — we might not be raised the ‘African’ way.  For my mother’s family in New South wales, it was a shock to have ‘coloured’ children, a point of shame and a source of exclusion from a conservative white community that prided itself on its self of ‘Australianness’.  (p.101-2)

Mkwananzi goes on to say that he can’t express in words how thankful [he] is that [the best friend’s] family took us in, as they truly are very special people to my brother and me. 

Yet, he also says, recounting an example of everyday casual racism, that his stepmother had no idea of the experience of growing up as African-Australian.

I realise her pain in her powerlessness to protect us from what our physical appearance means in Australia.  It also makes me realise that she can have all the compassion in the world, but will still never quite understand what it means, and what it really feels like, to be in our skin here. (p.103)

And he discovers that he was naïve to think that he would fit in, in Zimbabwe.  There, it’s his light skin that’s pointed out and remarked on, with people asking us why we had African names but were so white.  

I began to comprehend the strange position of being from two distinctly different cultures — there is literally nowhere on the planet where the majority of people look like you. (p.103).

The title of his essay is explained in a plea that comes from the heart:

I always find strange that people with parents from two different cultural backgrounds are called: half-caste, mixed race, coloured.  Why do I have to be half?  Why caste? Why mixed?  I am both: it is what makes me who I am, and in my romanticised moments, I see my birth as proof that love conquers all. (p.102-3)

(This is quite a different viewpoint to the contributor Keenan McWilliam who writes that my parents’ ‘Love sees no colour’ t-shirts were inadvertently erasing the identities of my brother and me.’)

It won’t surprise regular readers of this blog that I was also very taken by the essay ‘Negro Speaks of Books’ by Inez Trambas.  Trambas has parents from the Central African Republic and of Greek origin, and she’s baffled by Tasmanians of Mediterranean origin who are not very empathetic towards new generations of migrants, considering the postwar hostility they experienced themselves.  (This was the subject of Felicity Castagna’s thoughtful novel No More Boats (2017). It’s a must-read.)  Inez had the good fortune to have a fabulous school librarian:

Despite its isolation from mainland Australia, my primary school did a pretty good job of having lots of different kinds of literature.  I didn’t read any books by African authors in primary school, but I was exposed to lots of South-east Asian authors.  This was due largely to my fabulous school librarian.  She always let me read in higher grades than I was supposed to.  She would also always give me the new releases she got in.  I often think about her, because she exposed me to the only brown characters I knew.  The only books with brown characters I read were because she put them directly into my hands and said, ‘I’ve checked this out for you already.’ (p.185)

Only teacher librarians have the time and skills and knowledge of what’s available to tailor reading to the needs of the individual child.  We must get back to funding teacher-librarians in primary schools!

Growing up in a home where books and literature and poetry were valued turned Trambas into an inveterate reader, and (using her city library card) she read beyond the curriculum when she went to an elite girls’ secondary school in Melbourne on a scholarship.  She has some excellent suggestions for how schools could be an excellent place for learning about critical issues like the intersection of race and gender and she began an Instagram site called Negro Speaks of Books which is an allusion to the Langston Hughes poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.  I think this is a very powerful form of activism (and there are other impressive activists included in the book) because I know how my own beliefs, attitudes, and yes, prejudices, have been altered by reading books that made me look at things differently.  And I really liked her concluding paragraph:

I read for enjoyment and fun, and I read to find out about people’s lives, to imagine how my life could be: it’s not for any grander reason than that.  But we do ourselves a great disservice, whoever we are,  when we don’t read widely.  When you read work written by black authors and Indigenous authors worldwide — when you’re reading at the intersection of so much, from people who’ve been underrepresented for 500+ years — you come to understand how the world works.  They have all the stories to tell, and without them, every other story will be inaccurate. (p.191)

You can read an extract from Growing up African in Australia here.

Finally, a shout-out to my niece who worked on this book at Black Inc. K, the Acknowledgements thank you (and others) for your unwavering support—I’m proud of you, and delighted to see you upholding the family tradition of contributing in fields that make a difference:)

Editors: Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan
Title: Growing Up African in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2019, 280 pages
ISBN: 9781760640934
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Growing Up African in Australia

 


Responses

  1. Maxine Beneba Clarke is a HERO – so cool to see that she edited this. (And that your niece is following in family footsteps!)

    Like

  2. Yes. Let’s hear it for school librarians! I had only had one that I remember, in fourth form, but she did a great job introducing me to left politics. And just introducing me to talking about stuff other than football. My primary school library introduced me to William books, but that’s another story. Sounds like a great book.

    Like

    • We had a new teacher for French today so we had to introduce ourselves and so I had occasion to talk about My Past Life. Apparently they don’t have school librarians who teach, in France!

      Like


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