THINK OF ABORIGINAL bodies. Think of Cathy Freeman, standing and waiting on the track in Sydney, lean, still, and nothing in her face except what's needed to be The Best. Think Kyle Vander-Kuyp. Nova Perris. Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. Patrick Johnson. Think speed, and grace, and Anthony Mundine with his immaculately tattooed left pec, somersaulting post-try in a red-and-white St George rugby league jersey.
These are the Aboriginal bodies we love to love. With 200 years of togetherness to look back on, parallels between indigenous and settler Australia are now easy. Here's another one – like most of you, we make the news only when we are very beautiful, very talented, or very angry. But beyond the world of the athletes lies realityville, where Aboriginal bodies come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and speeds, and various good-to-headline-inducingly-poor states of mental and physical health. The very same communities that produced Cathy and Evonne and Kyle (and Kim Scott and Ernie Dingo and Aden Ridgeway) are the same ones where snotty nine-year-olds sniff paint fumes from Coke bottles; where dope-psychotic young men find no good reason not to batter their families for the umpteenth time this month; where for many, jail is a saner option than home. What's going on?
My friend's text message, sent from far away, is confused, and confusing. She wants my help in dealing with a large white institution in the south. When we speak, she tells me shakily that there have been seven deaths in six weeks in her Northern Territory home. All were under 50. One was her 30-year-old brother-in-law. Heart attack, but the community says "sorcery". They don't believe that it's the rotten diets, the lack of exercise, the poverty, the kava, the grog, says my friend in despair. I try to tell them, she says, but they don't believe it. And anyway, she adds, flicking between cultural paradigms at warp speed, there aren't that many clevermen around for this many deaths, so quick and for such young people. It takes longer than that to sing somebody.
AT MY LOCALcinema on the Gold Coast, there is a trailer for SHREK 2. My kids are delighted when the Eddie Murphy donkey chimes in with perfect postmodern self-reference to put a new character in its place: "Ah'm sorry, but the position of annoying talking animal has already been taken." Black Americans – their voices, clothes, music and cool – are riding the wave of cultural imperialism into Aboriginal families too. "They're deadly," seems to be the indigenous consensus, while white audiences routinely reward black American entertainers the respect and wealth traditionally reserved for their own people.
Oprah rules the midday hours– a black woman somehow is now accorded the status of honorary white woman by audiences around the world. (A pretty good trick for a once-poor girl from the American Deep South). Australians drool over Denzel Washington, groove to Beyoncé and laugh at Chris Rock. An insipid sitcom with exclusively black characters occupies a primetime slot on Channel Seven. A non-white guy with an Afro wins Australian Idol over a dinky-di rural Aussie. Being black isn't the problem anymore. Overt colour-based racism sure isn't dead, but it's getting rarer, and it's pretty much okay for your body to be black, or brown, or yellow. Just as long as you don't insist on being regarded as anything other than a white person in a different wrapper. Just as long as you're not openly political about your colour; not Aboriginal, or Arabic, in which case your skin will signify not exotica, but alienation, criminality and menace.
THERE IS A riot in Redfern. No guns are fired, and nobody white dies, but it is a RIOT. Seventeen-year-old TJ Hickey is dead, impaled through his back and neck on a steel fence, but make no mistake, this is not the news, simply a footnote to the RIOT. Police are either chasing the boy to his death, or desperately trying to resuscitate him after a tragic accident. Talkback radio the next morning goes wild. The leader of the NSW Opposition, John Brogden decides that bulldozers are the answer, that there has been insufficient brute force in the history of Aboriginal/police relations in Redfern.
Kevin Rudd, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs appears on the evening news, instantly expert in Aboriginal affairs, outraged and "sickened" by the RIOT. In years of his tenure as a politician I have never once heard this man refer to Aboriginal people, let alone be "sickened" by our living conditions. NSW Premier Bob Carr is more measured, and offers wooden condolences to the family of Hickey. Over a 24-hour period, Anton Enus, as he reads the SBS news, is the only non-Aboriginal person I see who appears to be genuinely sorry that another Koori boy has died a stupid, unnecessary death.
I turn 35, my boy is seven and I start counting. Of the older Aboriginal parents that I know, nearly every one – almost every community worker, academic, artist, and businessman – has had a teenage son or a nephew die a violent death.
HOW CAN THESE two universes co-exist? In one, black people – including a few select Aborigines
– work, succeed, make money, live the "good life". In the other, Aborigines hang ourselves inside jails
and out; leave school illiterate at 14; make a pittance on work-for-the-dole, and get angrier and
sicker by the day.
A recent New Scientist ("Glitch!" 7/6/2003) posited the following serious theory of human existence. Computer technology is advancing at incredible speed, in great leaps of techno-capability. Assuming that these technological advances continue exponentially, it rapidly becomes more and more likely that rather than existing in "real" historical time, we may be living in "simulated" time within a simulated computer world. In other words, that we are all Sims-like creatures, created and manipulated by original "real world" humans, interested for some reason in a simulation of the ancient 21st century. Hello, Matrix.
Now, I belong to that kindergarten school of philosophy which says that, if I hit my head against a wall, and my head subsequently hurts, then said wall is real enough for any purpose you care to name. But my husband, a physicist and mathematician by training, read this theory and went very quiet for some days. All that could be had from him was: "It doesn't matter, we're all in the simulation anyway."
The theory is apparently far from facile, or unconvincing to scientists. If you understand quantum physics, the article says, a lot of inexplicable facts suddenly start making sense. "Our lives" may have become components in a game where characters can be created and wiped out at will by an omnipotent gamer. The interesting part is that safety within the simulation is determined by your proximity to the famous and the interesting. If you buy the theory, Australian Idol just got a whole lot more relevant.
Say you don't buy the theory. Say a wall that hurts your head "really" is a wall, and it "really" hurts your "real" head. The safety dictum still applies. Most Aboriginal people live and work – or more relevantly fail to live and work – a long, loooong way from the famous and the interesting in Australia's golden triangle. We are on TV as individuals (Cathy Freeman, Deb Mailman, Aden Ridgeway) and absent from TV in our thousands (Borroloola, Beenleigh, Kalgoorlie). Now you see us. Now you don't. It might be a long way to Tipperary, but it's an even longer way from Eveleigh Street on a quiet day to Channel Nine. The happy minority of fast, talented, interesting blacks are allowed and rewarded in the non-simulation that is Australia 2004. Go, Cathy, go. Skin of any tone can co-exist very nicely with Western capitalism and middle-class consumption-based lifestyles. But boringly unhappy, slow, fat or poor blacks? Sick blacks, who insist on dying young or placing themselves in the backs of paddy wagons as the vulnerable targets of racist police? Blacks from Cooktown, Tennant Creek, Derby, towns where jobs are almost as scarce as institutions of higher learning? No interest. Delete at will.
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Think of Aboriginal bodies. Think of a boy on a Sydney mortuary slab, lean, still and nothing in his face except what's needed to be Aboriginal, expendable and dead.