Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams. UQP 2015
The David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing was established in 1988, named after the political activist and scientist to become the first indigenous author to be published in Australia in 1929. The award is given annually to the best unpublished manuscript in any writing genre by an indigenous writer and supported by University of Queensland Press. I’ve read the David Unaipon award-winning books for many years, including Larissa Behrendt’s first novel Home, Dylan Coleman’s Mazin’ Grace, Nicole Watson’s crime novel The Boundary, and Kate Howarth’s memoir Ten Hail Marys. All have been wonderful and important books, which have enriched the literary landscape in Australia and given white Australians an insight into the injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives. And so it is with the 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter.
Many indigenous authors write poetry, fiction and non-fiction that is steeped in history: personal history, Australian history, as it has affected them. Unsurprisingly, given the number of Aboriginal people touched by it, the Stolen Generations policy and its effects have often been the focus: Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Larissa Behrendt’s Home, and Ali Cobby Eckerman’s Too Afraid to Cry are powerful examples.
Lesley and Tammy Williams’ memoir Not Just Black And White: a conversation between a mother and a daughter focuses on a different aspect of the so-called Aboriginal Protection legislation: its absolute control on every aspect of the lives of those removed from their traditional lands and relocated to life in Aboriginal settlements or missions.
Lesley Williams’ and her family’s life was governed by the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld). She grew up in Cherbourg, a government-controlled settlement for Aboriginal ‘inmates’ founded as Barambah Aboriginal Settlement in 1901, where Lesley’s family had lived ever since the removal of both sides of her grandparents from their traditional lands. The beginning of her narrative hits the reader in the solar plexus when Lesley describes a tourist bus touring the settlement, white faces pressed against the windows, people disembarking with cameras ready, flashes erupting: the ‘inmates’ as zoo animals.
Lesley tells the reader much about the conditions and the way of life of Aboriginal people within the settlement during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Houses were overcrowded, poorly insulated, with an outside tap for washing bodies and clothes. The government officials in charge controlled their movements within the settlement, restricted contact with relatives and friends who lived outside, read their mail, strictly rationed quantities of food and other necessary items. ‘Permission to marry’ certificates were required, necessitating proof of ‘good character’, ‘freedom from disease’, ‘thriftiness with money’ and the ‘capability of maintaining a wife’. Somewhat ironically, Christianity, or at least attendance at Sunday School was compulsory. So was work: carpentry, plumbing, farmwork for men; sewing, cooking, cleaning for women. An analogy with a jail does not seem far-fetched.
After eight years of school, boys were sent to the settlement’s training farm or to work as stockmen in the area; girls had to do a year of domestic-science training. At the age of sixteen, girls were then ready to be sent away from home and family to work as domestic servants at a farm or city home with no say over location or conditions of the contract. The law required that wages under a set rate be paid into a state-owned bank account. It was only many years later that Lesley found out about this, never having been paid a cent of the wages she had earned, except for whatever pocket money her employers had seen fit to pay her. Similarly, a portion of the child endowment payments Lesley’s grandmother was entitled to as a result of bringing up nine grandchildren was held back and ended up in the Queensland government’s coffers. The grandchildren meanwhile growing up in abject poverty, the grandmother constantly at risk of the children being removed from her care for child neglect.
Lesley Williams describes her life in chronological order, interspersed with comments and questions by her daughter Tammy, which increase as Tammy gets older. Lesley takes us from her childhood on the settlement in Cherbourg to her various jobs as a domestic servant, some on farms, one in the city of Brisbane, with employers ranging from cold to kind to the wealthy Mrs Andrée Roberts in Brisbane, with whom she works for seven years from her early twenties. Here Lesley was treated not only humanely, but as a friend. Perhaps most importantly, Andrée boosted Lesley’s self-confidence and taught her about her rights and entitlements. Andrée also encouraged Lesley to make contact with Aboriginal friends who worked in Brisbane, but their meetings often had to be during the day or if at night, at Andrée’s house. The reason? In those days a night curfew within Brisbane’s city boundaries was imposed on Aboriginal people, which meant that they were not allowed to go to certain areas after dark. It was also in Brisbane that she met the young man whom she would marry and have children with.
The way in which Lesley transcended the difficult conditions of her young life, the poverty, the self-doubt, pain, and anger caused by racist taunts, the loss and tragedy she suffered as an adult, all the while working hard to keep her three children fed and educated, is truly inspiring. One day, after Tammy had gotten into trouble at school following a severe racist taunt against her, Lesley told her, “‘There are two ways to fight racism… The first way is to fight with your fists. But if you keep on fighting that way, sooner or later you’ll end up in goal… [The other way is to f]ight the bastards back… Except, this time, you fight ‘em with your talents and achievements…’”
In 1991 Lesley began her fight for justice. Research had found that the total amount of wages withheld from Aboriginal workers’ wages was about $200 million, with evidence of fraud and faulty bookkeeping by government officials. Her long campaign for the return of these wages included correspondence with the Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, suing the Queensland government, and speaking to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights about the issue. She tells her story straight, not omitting in-fighting about strategy among Aborigines. This amazing, feisty woman ended up winning several awards and gaining her community a significant proportion of the wages that had been stolen from them.
This 2014 winner of the David Unaipon Award, Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams is a wonderful and enlightening addition to the series of David Unaipon award-winning books, which gives an insight into yet another two major injustices imposed upon and affecting Aboriginal lives: completely controlled lives in missions and the scandal of the stolen wages. Highly recommended.
Not Just Black and White has been short-listed for the 2016 NSW Premiers’ Literary Indigenous Writer’s Prize along with Ghost River by Tony Birch, Inside My Mother by Alice Cobby Eckermann, Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven. The winner will be announced on 16 May 2016.
– Annette Marfording
Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1361/Not%20Just%20Black%20and%20White
Not Just Black and White: a conversation between a mother and daughter also has its own website http://www.notjustblackandwhite.com.au/