Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Coming right way

Three of us journeyed in my car. Two Davids and me. I nicknamed them front-seat David and back-seat David for the purpose of telling them apart. As we shared stories and snacks on the trip, front-seat David kept referring to my "dilly bag" whenever I asked him to retrieve an item for me, and I enjoyed that gesture of inclusion. We were headed for the third workshop held by Quakers and First Nations People to explore connections, racism and sovereignty. When the three of us tumbled, late, into the first session, the smiles around the room welcomed us. There were some people I hadn't seen in two years, some I had kept in touch with, and new faces.

my dilly bag
And as we fell into a rhythm of discussion sessions punctuated by meal times and sleep, it became clear that my role was to listen. I listened to stories of youth suicide, stolen children, rape, racism,  hopelessness, incarceration, deaths in custody, mental health, the white man's poison, anger, addiction, activism, hope, resilience, unconditional love, support, and forgiveness. As always, I had to guard myself against the strong emotions that always well up at these types of occasions, knowing that even being able to take care of myself is a privilege afforded those of us for whom the personal is less political.

When I think of the suicides I think of my friends who took their lives. I think maybe I can empathise somehow. Because I've received the phone call, tried to make sense of it, felt overwhelmed and angry and unsure. I've said goodbye to that beautiful, gentle soul: somebody who, in that moment, didn't think life was worth it any more. But I know it's different. To see suicide touch so many young people in the same community is not the same thing at all. What is happening for them is collective hopelessness; the collateral damage caused by decades and centuries of structural violence and racism.

When I think of the children taken away, I think of my brother, who was taken from his mother at birth. And again I think maybe I can empathise somehow. The lost years that you never really get back, the what ifs that go through your head. And how you know he is always trying to catch up on a family that he wasn't part of as a child. But again I know it's different - for them it was a deliberate attempt to deny children their heritage, to breed out the black. And it continues - now it's called "The Intervention", or "stronger futures" or "concern for little children". People shared stories from all corners of the country of children taken away and it became clear to me that they never stopped taking the children away. But some, like front-seat David, came back, determined to reconnect and reclaim their lost heritage.

"What are you Quakers going to do?" they ask us, and we are eager, but unsure. They want concrete action. Sometimes it feels as if we are very much "the other", "the enemy", and I am aware that I benefit daily from the structures that hold them back, but there are moments of solidarity. When we talk of collective action it feels like progress. I know that there is more that the women would like to say, and I could have done more to listen to their stories over meals, or during the times when I selfishly chose to spend snatching up missed sleep.

Halfway through the second day, back-seat David and I took a walk up the mountain behind the centre and looked out over Lake George, letting the strong feelings settle. I am aware that, while friends and colleagues continue to campaign against apartheid around the world, we are the oppressors in a similar scenario here in Australia. We are complicit in and benefit from two centuries of genocide. Will we have the courage to stand up and be counted among those who see and name the racism that exists in our own country and in our own hearts?

Silver Wattle Quaker Centre, Bungendore
At one point, somebody made a distinction between Quakers and other Wadjula, and I felt a sense that we were beginning to come right way, a concept introduced to me by a very wise Quaker many years ago. The idea is that, by listening and hearing stories of what has happened, we can start to build a relationship with the First Australians, and eventually start to right the wrongs of the past. When we first came to Australia, we came wrong way. Now we are being given the chance to come right way.

We gather at the tree to say goodbye to the Kooma mob who are heading home. They have fifteen hours of driving ahead of them just to get to Brisbane. Then another couple of days due West. Suddenly Koko realises that I never got one of the sovereignty t-shirts. He looks me up and down, mumbles something about needing to find a large one, and produces an XXL and thrusts it into my hands. Gratitude prevails over indignation.

One man, a gentle, thoughtful soul who I felt I connected with over the weekend, was standing  beside me. "When are you coming back to Cunnamulla?" he asks me. "Oh, when front-seat David invites me again" I reply, because we'd already established that I'd visited back in 2008. "I'll invite you", he says. "I'll show you around". I try not to let the wetness in my eyes show. After two days of listening to how my people have wronged another, I can't believe that I might have made another friend. I feel I am another small step closer to "coming right way".

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