Inheritance

by Stephanie on June 19, 2009

What troubles me most is an attitude of mind that could come to prevail amongst white Australians: a feeling of irritation apparently based on a conviction that we are saddled with the responsibility for problems not really of our making, and by their nature probably insoluble. (W.E.H. Stanner, 1978)

It’s the evening of Tuesday, February 12, 2008. I’m standing in the hallway of a Kilmore farmhouse while my second-cousin Phil, a giant of a man, digs through his bookshelves. They’re about as high as his knees. He’s piling my arms with books that he thinks might help me—Daly Family Languages, an ANU research paper on the mission and Peppimenarti, the Malak Malak land rights claim book, even a heavy hardcover on Top End Native Plants—but he’s looking for one in particular.

‘I’ve always found it really useful,’ he says. ‘It was written by a man I knew out on the Daly, a friend of mine. I still go back and read it when I’m confused about something—Ah! Here it is!’ He straightens up, grins at me through his beard and presents me with a very plain-looking hardback in a slightly scuffed, brown dust jacket. It’s a collection of essays by an anthropologist named W.E.H. Stanner, called White Man Got No Dreaming. ‘Start with that,’ Phil says. ‘But be gentle with it and don’t lose it—it was a present from the man himself.’

Later the same night, I’m holed up in one of Phil’s kids’ old bedrooms. I can’t sleep, so I decide to start on the Stanner book. There’s a looseleaf piece of notepaper folded inside the cover signed with Stanner’s name, thanking Phil and his wife, Willy, for their hospitality and friendship. I am careful not to crush it, and start reading.

Immediately, the four-page preface (the source of the above quote) has me scribbling notes in my journal. The opening essay, ‘The Aborigines’, completely blows my mind. I note the date it was written in incredulity: people were saying this in 1938?! I power through three and a half essays that night and wake up the next morning with my mind still buzzing. At 9am, the new Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd moves that parliament issue a formal apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were removed from their families as children, and all I can think is, ‘We’re only just getting to this now?!’

Three years ago, Aboriginal Australia was nowhere on my radar. I had minors in drama and history—none of it specifically Australian—philosophy and English majors, and Honours in creative writing. I had studied Germaine Greer but not Marcia Langton. I knew about the Redfern speech but not the Tent Embassy. I knew more about postcolonial India than I did about colonial Australia. Every piece of information I had about Aboriginal Australia was incidental and through a white populist filter, and it wasn’t until I was considering alternative topics for a PhD that I thought: there is something wrong with this. A year later, having suddenly found myself surrounded by anthropology, politics, Native Title legislation, political correctness, and the history wars, as someone who was looking to write a novel, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d accidentally walked into the topic through a side door. Stanner’s essays jolted me awake: this is relevant to me, I realised, I’ve seen this happen, and no wonder we’ve been getting it wrong for so many years.

A few years ago, Robert Manne tried to find a copy of White Man Got No Dreaming for sale and came up with nothing. The book had been out of print for decades. In April 2008, I was doing the same thing—hunting through secondhand stores and sending emails to every bookshop I could think of, desperately trying to dig up a copy. My university library had one—extremely aged—but it was always checked out or on reserve, and anyway, I wanted my own. I knew Stanner’s work couldn’t tell me everything there was to know about Aboriginal Australia, and that his observations came from a specific cultural milieu and political context. But he wrote ‘without condescension and without sentimentality’ (something so many other white male scholars in the field have been unable to do) and his observations about white Australia’s relationship to Aboriginal Australia still resonated so deeply half a century later—71 years in the case of the first essay—that I couldn’t believe it was so hard to find. Eventually, after a fruitless search, I got BiblioQuest onto it. It took them six weeks to call me and tell me they had found a copy, and it could be mine for $214.50. I paid.

In March 2009, Black Inc. republished most of the essays from White Man Got No Dreaming, including the highly influential Boyer lectures and a posthumously-published article on Aboriginal humour, in one paperback. It’s called The Dreaming and Other Essays and includes an introduction by Robert Manne. I found it last night in Readings and shrieked with excitement. If it was a sign of the times that Stanner’s essays had been so neglected, then perhaps their republication signals something positive—a slight shift in the wind, or a stronger push toward understanding Aboriginal Australia for its own sake. Or perhaps that’s just speculation. But for now, you can buy Stanner’s essays for $32.95—one sixth of the price I paid for them. And dammit, you should read them.

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