As the jib of yet another January 26 sails into view, the attention of media swings abreast to survey Australia’s cultural landscape from the vantage point of a new decade, and the smudged silhouettes of Blak writers and commentators are again brought into focus.
Each year, as January 26 approaches, we appear: with the escalation in numbers of bodies on the street joining the demonstrations to decry the ongoing colonial expressions of the state towards the continent’s First Nations peoples, comes a related rise in the presence of Blak columns and guest spots.
It’s a role we've sought, and one we've demanded – Blak voices discussing national issues, with our perspectives as centred as the viewpoints of the status quo. But with this responsibility (for myself and for other Blak writers) comes an annual trauma rehashed again and again.
The function of our hot-takes can feel like we've been press-ganged into the provision of false balance, co-opted to confer a semblance of self-awareness to the overall celebratory spectacle.
Once the distended Christmas stomach starts to ease - say, around January 3 - the land fall begins. We suddenly become hot commodities and for the next 23 days can feel besieged with proposals that ultimately each require from us a 'fresh' countervailing perspective on the memorialisation of the declaration of a colony.
But the supply of this product demands a toll from Blak bodies too. Sometimes it can feel like a minor, personal trial to address the topic of January 26. With each fresh take comes an expectation for controversy, for starters. An article that incites readers to comment, share, Like and otherwise engage is considered a successful commission.
But when an article or interview ‘does well’, it also becomes prominent, exposing its author to a legion of trolls.
This January, for example, in the wake of that latest cringeworthy national tourism advertisement and after weeks and months of catastrophic bushfires, the related environmental impacts, and a government ideologically adverse to the widely-accepted science on climate change, it might seem timely to cheekily frame an inquiry of Australia Day in the marketing parlance once spruiked by our current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, by asking, “Who the bloody hell are we?”
That angle would provide fertile ground for the cultivation of all the components desired by a keen-eyed editor or producer. Once posted on the social media platforms the column would, sure as chips, bring all the gronks to the yard, and in the ensuing scrap, the author would cop streams of crafted and well-honed personal abuse, intended to ridicule her, humiliate her and generally deter her from daring to write in a similar vein again.
Then there’s the demands on a blackfella’s time.
Speaking with renowned Blak writer Celeste Liddle last week for NITV News’ Take It Blak podcast, I asked her to elaborate on the sentiment of a Facebook post she made on her Black Feminist Ranter page in 2018.
“Okay, perhaps this may seem like a slightly forward and possibly aggressive post,” Liddle wrote, “but the annual Festival of Racism (2/1-26/1) is exhausting - conversations are circular and the amount of emotional labour expected of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is extraordinary.
“The media requests are endless and ruthless. We are asked over and over again to explain our views on Invasion Day and as someone who has been writing, and speaking, her views for several years, it can feel like folks aren’t listening.”
Liddle then provided the URL links to her Australia Day columns going back to 2015. Although she could have gone back further still to really labour the point.
In a South Melbourne pub over a sneaky pint, Liddle relayed to me what not just Blak column writers experience, but what Blackfellas in general experience in the lead up to and on Australia Day.
“I think it takes a huge toll – and even if we weren’t talking ‘emotional toll’ –because the emotional toll of reinforcing our sovereignty over and over again, trying to prove to people who basically haven’t really cared [over the course of the year] why it is that our fights are important and what we hope to achieve with them, the sheer ask on time of any Aboriginal commentator (and indeed key activist) is just extraordinary. And that time, apart from a couple of written pieces, is expected to be freely given.
“So, you’re expected to freely give your knowledge and your experience to white organisations over and over again without any form of renumeration, and you’re expected to drop everything to do it. There doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of what that places on us.”
This lack of recognition of the effects of requesting Blackfellas to annually re-enact our objections to the jingoistic nationalism imbued in the date of January 26 remains rooted in the same discredited doctrine of Terra Nullius by reinforcing what W.E.H Stanner in 1968 termed as The Great Australian Silence. Which is to say, to put it more plainly, that it perpetuates some of the worst base-level aspects of colonialism.
Liddle’s act of refusal then becomes the only reasonable, sensible course.
Yet, here we are in 2020, with Liddle and myself, and scores of other Blak commentators and Aboriginal Rights activists, advocates and allies, back on the streets, the airwaves, the bandwidths and in the columns, participating and engaging with the spectacle.
Which either marks us as suckers for punishment or committed proponents for a more considerate, considered and inclusive nation.
NITV’s #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe programming includes The Vigil, hosted by Jack Latimore and Rae Johnston, from 7pm on Saturday January 25 and the Sunrise Ceremony on January 26 from 6am(simulcast on SBS, SBS On Demand & Channel 10)
Join the conversation on social media #NITV #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe