Building independent black media with Presence
I aim to continue writing into 2021 in a way that honours black resistance and presence
Welcome to my first Presence newsletter of 2021. Last year my publishing schedule was a bit sporadic, but I’m going into 2021 with ambitions to make this a weekly publication. I hope you stay with me!
I began this Substack largely out of frustration. While I have worked with some amazing editors and publications over the past 14 years, I have started to think about how modern journalism techniques do not support Aboriginal interests. Sometimes, these methods work against Aboriginal ways of storytelling and knowing. This was a key concern that has emerged over the past two years as I conducted my PhD research into media representations of violence against Aboriginal women. It’s an issue I hope to explore in more detail this year.
In mid-2020, there were two events that drastically changed the world. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic. The second was the brutal murder of African American man George Floyd by a police officer, which ignited anger and coalesced in international protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. These two events also altered my own perception of both my journalism and my research in academia.
At the beginning of the pandemic, as anxiety grew and small wars were launched in supermarket aisles, Aboriginal communities were largely left out of media coverage. That was despite the fact that Aboriginal communities would always be most vulnerable to the effects of COVID and economic fallout. Because of this, the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector had stepped up and had begun making plans even ahead of the national public health response.
Not only that, Aboriginal communities themselves were actively barricading themselves and asserting their sovereignty to control the lives and wellbeing of their own people. Many communities made the decision to lockdown while the rest of Australia were debating whether the football should go ahead. When Aboriginal communities were mentioned, it was in deficit language, or in language in which they needed ‘saving’. This was a lie.
Because of this, I wrote a story for The Saturday Paper which was intended to highlight the strength of the Indigenous health leadership even in the face of chronic budget cuts that had under-resourced Aboriginal community-controlled health care for decades. My approach was based upon my research, and I realised then how my work in academia could aid by journalism, and vice versa. It was my way of doing research that also aligned with Indigenous research values of reciprocity. I realised my work in journalism and academia did not have to be mutually exclusive, and that it was interconnected, even when I was writing about topics that did not directly link back to my research question.
When George Floyd was murdered, Australians were outraged and angered at police brutality and the devaluation of black lives. The evidence was there for all to see, and the anger was swift and contagious. The Australian media gave the Black Lives Matter movement the priority it deserved, but in which it had never prioritised similar protest movements on our own shores. One day, I was watching the news while in lockdown, and I saw another short, sparse news clipping from the West Australian newspaper that reported the cop who had shot Aboriginal woman Ms Clarke in Geraldton, had entered a not guilty plea. He had been charged with murder, a historic occasion and highly significant.
A few months before, the cop who shot Warlpiri man Kwementyaye Walker in Yunendemu had also been charged with murder. These were blatant cases of police brutality which had only created attention because of the swift organising by both the Geraldton Aboriginal community and Yuendemu community. These communities had in turn been supported by Aboriginal people across the country, who had organised snap rallies in solidarity and to force attention for accountability.
But although there had been media reporting of both the death of Ms Clarke and Mr Walker, it was nowhere near the level of attention paid to that of overseas cases. It was this hypocrisy and apathy that drew me to Substack as a platform to publish my own work independently. Over the next few weeks, I continued to write widely on the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, with a large focus on Aboriginal women, and I began to realise that writing I was doing on violence could not and should not be divorced from the academic work. The work informs the other.
That’s part of the reason I am here on Substack, writing to you. In turn, I’ve been supported by Substack with a fellowship programme and an advance to get this newsletter up and running. I want to use this platform to pursue journalism that aligns with a methodology of ‘Presencing’, which I have begun developing. It builds upon the work of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. This is the work I am doing within the academy, but it is also the work I am using to further develop my journalism as a tool directly aimed at fighting for Aboriginal rights. That’s why this newsletter is called ‘Presence’, and over the next year, I aim to show, rather than tell you, what I mean by this.
I can’t say I have all the answers, but this newsletter is where I aim to put my research into practice. I want to build this platform as a form of independent black media. This newsletter will not be confined to one style - I will present a mixture of analysis, opinion, reporting, investigative journalism, profiles and human interest stories. In the future, I will begin offering paid subscriptions to ensure that I can continue this work, although the majority of content will still remain completely free. I hope that you see the value in the work to perhaps support it in the future. Journalism is an essential public service, and yet it can be expensive to produce.
I am always open to feedback and comments so if you have any thoughts, please leave a short note below!
DAY BREAK: Remembering as an act of resistance
This piece was originally published in IndigenousX and the Guardian
Black children are often left out of national conversations. Yet, their welfare is often invoked by governments and commentators to support white agendas and position non-Indigenous Australia as benevolent rather than violent.
First Nations children are silenced even though the most brutal acts of colonisation were perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated against them. The attempted destruction of Aboriginal families and communities was central to the settler-colonial project, and those who were most victimised, who suffered the most hurt, were black children.
These past policies directly aimed at destroying Indigenous families and removing black presence from stolen land did not disappear, but instead took on new forms, evident in the justice, child protection and health systems.
Not all Indigenous children have experiences of detention or child removal, but they all share an inheritance of this trauma, and they all experience the violence of the education system, where they are taught a false history about this land.
This is slowly changing and it is largely because of the efforts of First Nations people across the country.
An example is the work of my sister Hayley McQuire and her colleagues at the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC) who have just launched their Learn Our Truth campaign to encourage school leaders and educators to prioritise First Nations history in their teaching. NIYEC is the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth-led organisation solely committed to asserting our Indigenous rights to education.
“For the past two years, NIYEC has been going around the country talking with young mob about our differing experiences with education, and the theme that was recurring was the impact of feeling erased when you don’t hear your true history about what happened during colonisation,” Hayley told me.
“It’s not just black history that silenced, it’s the violence of settler-colonisation and how that impacted First Nations people that is never talked about. It’s the way that history is described and that narratives that are continued which obscure the extent of what settlers actually did.”
Hayley said that similarly, in discussions with young people who did go to schools where they were taught true and accurate accounts of history, they reported feeling empowered and included.
There is a reason why so many Indigenous children reported feeling silenced. The lies about the ‘settlement’ of this country were not innocent; these lies had a purpose. That purpose was to secure white supremacy in this land, and to erase black presence and black resistance. Our children are asked to participate in a system that is still predicated on what Associate Professor Chelsea Watego has called the ‘myth of the dying race’.
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children begin their acts of resistance at very young ages. Some of them stand up on tables and call out the lies. Some of them sit down during the national anthem. Some of them go up to their classmates at recess and tell them the truth. Some of them stay silent, but that does not mean they are not resisting, because silence can be a form of passive resistance as much as a survival tactic.
First Nations children are constantly thinking, learning and weighing up what they are taught with their own experiences. They hear different narratives of history from their elders, and they are actively decolonising in their own ways. By their very presence on what is stolen black land, they offer up a counter-narrative to the mythology of Australian history that was about removing us from this land; displacing us to make way for a white settler-colony.
These are the resistances I wanted to pay tribute to in ‘Day Break’, a new children’s picture book about January 26, illustrated with Matt Chun and published by Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing. The book is about how First Nations families and children enact their own sovereignties on this day; which represents a national celebration of genocide.
When Matt and I were thinking about what we wanted to portray, we kept coming back to the act of remembering as a form of resistance. Australia Day is at its heart about amnesia. Every January 26, Australia tells us to forget and to move on or be co-opted or assimilated into ‘celebrations’. We wanted to contrast Australian displays of amnesia with Aboriginal ways of remembering. This is what occurs in every First Nations community on this day – it may come in the form of protests and rallies, or it could come in the form of a grandmother telling their grandchildren about the truth of this country. This is where ‘truth-telling’ is actually happening at the ground level, and it is happening first and foremost with black families.
The book also celebrates the strength of the black family, despite the two centuries of settler-colonial attempts to destroy it. But it is also a book for all children because children ask vital questions of the world which expose ‘accepted’ ‘truths’. Children are incredibly smart and know more than we give them credit for.
The questions asked by adults on this day are often loaded and convoluted. But sometimes, simple questions are the most important. This January 26, if your child asked you why we are celebrating a day that represents an invasion, what will you tell them?
I can’t remember ever celebrating Australia Day growing up, and I have never celebrated it into adulthood. Like most blackfellas, I have always felt a sense of exclusion and erasure on this day. It makes me angry and sad at the same time. It frustrates me. I have spent the day at the Tent Embassy, at protests, and sometimes curled up in bed, with the internet off.
I feel like the sentiment around the day is changing, although I can’t agree with national calls to ‘Change The Date’. As you can read below in more detail, I agree with Prof Watego, Birch and Gorrie that any change the date would be meaningless until we deal with the underlying, core issue: the theft of land and the violence that was wrought upon blackfellas to secure this land.
When I was younger, I saw more overt displays of nationalism on this day, but in recent years, it feels like there is almost an embarrassment or guilt that comes with ‘celebrations’. And yet, there is also a growing realisation that Aboriginal viewpoints must come first, and there is, I feel some sort of show of allyship - the protests through capital cities every year have grown in number, and I feel are a testament to this. I’m interested in what you think.
How have your views on ‘Australia Day’ changed, or perhaps remained the same, over the years?
What will you be doing on this day?
Do you know whose land you are on, and do you know the history of the ground you walk upon?
As we gear up for January 26 next week, read BLACK and read widely. Every year, First Nations people are asked to rehash the same debate, answering the same questions, arguing similar points. Every year, mob come up with new ways to address old, tired questions. Here are some of my favourite pieces to reflect upon as we go into next week:
How did you get to that place and who might’ve been there before you? Do you know about the nation on whose land you stand? If not, ask yourself why you don’t know the stories of your own country? Hey, maybe you could even step out to one of the marches taking place in our capital cities and commemorate January 26 with your fellow Australians – the first peoples of the land that you proudly call home.
Associate Professor Chelsea Watego: The Day I Don’t Feel Australian? That Would Be Australia Day.
Australia shouldn’t be celebrated. It’s not worthy of celebrating. Changing the date is about shifting the day of celebration to a day white people feel less guilty. Changing the date would still be accompanied by tacky polyester flags, still be accompanied by nationalist fervour, still about the white nation birthed by black death. There is no day appropriate for this.
This is a nation built on genocide, that imprisons children and adults seeking asylum, that allows land to be destroyed and sold, that kills black people. It is a nation that regularly lies, is rarely the bigger person, is embarrassingly intimidated into wars, only helps other nations if there’s something in it for them.
I would assume that those campaigning to change the date would argue that such a move would be indicative of a “gesture of inclusion” or “one step towards reconciliation and healing”. Such is the rhetoric of symbolic gestures in settler-colonial societies incapable of countenancing either the relinquishment of power, or the contemplation of genuine remorse. A change to the date of an unreflected national pageant will do nothing to shake the collective psyche from a pathological need to wave a flag dominated by the symbol of Imperialism and bloody conquest.