Hungry for the Ocean of my Ancestor’s Care

This piece was written 21st August 2019 for a uni assignment. My lecturer’s original comments and edits are included below. I’m publishing it here, now, on 15th March 2022 because Jess messaged me on Sunday and asked me to publish it.

Walker was 19 when he died (a few months after I wrote this piece). My son is 19 now. I’m so angry.

*

Cause: Hungry for the Ocean of my Ancestor’s Care

Last year I heard Natalie Harkin use the term blood-memory and haunting. Her voice giving shape and texture to the itching beneath my skin. I wanted to leap up from my chair and hug her. I wanted to call my Nana and ask her to tell me. I wanted to cry. Big fat, shuddering I can’t breathe cry.

I sat silent. Still. Contained.

It was a panel after all, and I was just another face in the crowd[AH1] .

*

The man who killed Elijah Doughty was granted parole after serving 19 months in prison. He was sentenced to just three years in jail. Just three years. For killing a 14-year-old boy.

In various reporting about the case, Elijah’s grandfather Albert Doughty is quoted as saying, “It sends the wrong message: you kill a black and you can get away with it.”

Of course, the man who killed Elijah was found not guilty of manslaughter – and certainly not guilty of murder. He was jailed after being convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

The jury that convicted him did not contain a single Aboriginal person.

*

I fucking hate cops. I really fucking hate cops. The way they swagger with their hands on their hips, bristling with guns and radios and power. The way they shine a torch in your eyes and assume they know who you are.

*

You kill a black and you get away with it.

You kill a black and you get away with it.

You kill a black and you get away with it.

This whole country is killing blacks and getting away with it.

*

“Disadvantaged and dying young. All odds against you before your life has begun.”

Jessica Wishart, Bidjara woman, and mother of two Arrente boys sings from the stage. Her right hand lightly touches the swell of her growing pregnancy. A third Arrente boy on the way.

“Two years in your sentence, you take your own life. The land cries for you, your mother weeps. Her greatest fear, a death in custody.”

Jess is my friend and I’ve heard this song before. This time she has a full band behind her and a captive audience. She’s asked me to record her singing this song on my phone.

I hold my hands steady. I hold my breath.

“Dark-skinned boy we don’t speak your name. But the problem is, nor do they.”

*

You kill a black and you get away with it.

*

I’ve never watched Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I’m afraid of horror films. They give me nightmares.

I read the script for Get Out last month. I thought a lot about the Sunken Place after reading it. A dark cavernous place where no-one can hear you scream. A place where who you are is stripped from you completely.

In 2017 I visited the Beechworth Gaol. There is a cell – just one – that was for mothers who had breast-feeding infants. It has a private courtyard for outdoor time so that they weren’t put out into the yard with the rest of the prisoners. The room is small, narrow, cold and dark. As I stood in the cell – I was there on a social enterprise tour in a $60,000 leadership program – I tried to imagine being locked in there with a screaming hungry baby.

That cell was a Sunken Place[AH2] .

The prison closed in 2004 – the same year I finished Year 12. My son – my screaming hungry baby – turned two a week after my last Year 12 exam.

*

The Guardian has an interactive database that tracks every known Indigenous death in custody in Australia from 2008 to 2018.

Filter by

Year

Cause of death

Issues flagged

Display by

State

Gender

Location of death

Coloured boxes with silhouetted figures appear when you enter your filters. I click on a blue square (New South Wales the colour code tells me) with a thicker silhouette.

A pop-up box appears.

“The young man made two attempts at self-harm before taking his own life in his cell.”

The other information in the box tells me he was 20.

I click on a yellow square (South Australia) with the same thick silhouette.

Male, 18, SA.

Cause: Self harm.

*

My son is turning 17 in November. He has pale white skin, blue eyes and shoulder-length hot pink hair. Our next door neighbours – a husband and wife with two young kids – are both police officers. My son has never met them. My daughter, aged five, keeps asking to meet them.

*

Elijah Doughty would have turned 17 this year.

*

My Nana was 17 when my mother was born. The same age as I was when my son was born[AH3] .

*

The Uluru Statement from the Heart says “We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them.”

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was written in 2017. The same year I visited Beechworth Gaol[AH4] .

*

My Nana holds my history hostage. She doesn’t know that she holds it hostage. Or maybe she does.

I remember my mother saying “..and don’t you ever bring it up. Some things are too painful.”

There are lots of things my family don’t talk about.

Things I don’t talk about.

*

My dad grew up on a farm called Karinya. That is not an English word. My grandma – my dad’s mother – remembers my great-grandfather buying fish from Aboriginal people who lived at the bottom of the cliffs. The Karinya homestead sat at the top of those cliffs.

I’ve never been there.

*

You kill a black and you get away with it.

*

I saw The Secret River, a play produced by Sydney Theatre Company a few years ago and I thought about Karinya and the cliffs my dad grew up on.

In the play, the Aboriginal cast spoke in Dharug and it wasn’t translated into English. Unless you spoke Dharug (I don’t), the only perspective you had access to for most of the play was the English characters. Most of the audience when I saw the play were old white people.

*

You kill a black and you get away with it.

*

My mother remembers playing with her darker-skinned cousins. She remembers their nicknames but not their legal names.

*

Jordan Peele tweeted in 2017 “We’re all in the Sunken Place.”

2017. The same year I visited Beechworth Gaol. The same year the Uluru Statement from the Heart was written. The same year that I tweeted this about Elijah Doughty: I’ll trade you/ one life for a motorbike/ one story to hold the life/ one mouth to ask why//

We are all in the Sunken Place.

“No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.”

*

Earlier this year Jess Wishart and Nancy Bates were performing at a Reconciliation Week Event. Both of them are singer/songwriters. Both of them are teaching me that my voice matters. That our voice matters. That we have to keep screaming.  Writing. Talking. Listening. Singing. 

“If you won’t take our hand

If you won’t understand

If you won’t see that justice

is something we don’t have.”

When Nancy Bates – a proud Barkinji woman and friend – sings, you listen. When Nancy says “Please sing. Please sing, everybody.”

You sing.

And they did, the crowd of old and young that filled the Adelaide Festival Centre Quartet Bar in May this year, they sang. Together they sang the song that Nancy dedicated to Elijah. 

Elijah who would have been 17 this year.

“Please take our hand

Let’s make a stand

Help shine a light

On our Human Rights.”

*

I am made of fragments.

Fragments of history.

Fragments of memory.

Fragments of song and skin and trying to let the light in.


 [AH1]I think we need just a touch more context for this – the reader doesn’t know exactly what Harkin meant, so can’t parse your reaction.

 [AH2]I want a little bit more here – maybe a comment on issues of race and incarceration in Australia?

 [AH3]Doesn’t add as much as other vignettes. Maybe relevance not as clear.

 [AH4]Like connections but not everything needs to be said.

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