Family, Language, Love, Dance, Land: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

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By Nayuka Gorrie

Black Australia is a patchwork – there is no homogenous black culture or experience. Adequately capturing the essence of hundreds of nations is no easy feat, but Anita Heiss has pulled together an incredible bunch of voices that reflect the humour, intelligence, strength and diversity of Aboriginal people in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.

It’s no industry secret that readers are largely white women – the white gaze is often unavoidable. But this book wasn’t created for white dinner party fodder; it is concerned with telling the truth or many truths with nuance.

As an anthology, it is not structured uniformly or neatly for the white reader to easily disseminate lessons to make them better allies. Each of the 51 contributors – spanning different ages and experiences, with some household names and others still in high school – has been given creative license, which for the black writer is a rare delight.

I am hopeful that white readers will be left mulling over some stories – but more importantly, that many black people will read it and see bits of themselves reflected back at them, as I did. I saw my late night messages with my younger brother in the conversation between Alice and Susie Anderson. I saw Christmas holidays with the cousins in Natalie Cromb’s yarn. I saw my queerness in Allison Whittaker. Tony Birch made me ache for Fitzroy.

I am hopeful that white readers will be left mulling over some stories – but more importantly, that many black people will read it and see bits of themselves reflected back at them, as I did.

We are given generous glimpses into some deeply personal annals and vulnerabilities. Evelyn Araluen tells us about her childhood ratty face and teeth; Terri Janke tells us about her skin; Deborah Cheetham admits that she feels she is still growing up Aboriginal. Birch without hesitation tells the reader there were no tribes or totems growing up; this is honest and in some part vulnerable. Aboriginal authority can be bound in connection to land, but Birch, staunch and confident in his own Aboriginality, reminds us that not knowing because of circumstances forced on us is Aboriginal too, and that is okay.

The question is, what ties these stories together? Which is to ask, what is the black experience in Australia? One thread woven throughout the book is colonisation and whiteness. Almost every second story spoke of being asked how “much” Aboriginal they are. How often they are or were forced to explain themselves to white people. Perhaps the only thing all contributors have in common is the extent to which colonisation has shaped their lives. This has left me pondering – what is blackness without whiteness? What are we when we aren’t responding to trauma, to colonisation, to white supremacy?

There are moments in the book when there are no white people, or where there is no whiteness. It is family, it is language, it is love, it is dance, it is land. These are all so precious because of the pressure placed on the writers by white supremacy and colonisation, so once again I ask myself, what is blackness without whiteness? This book helps us to get closer to the answer.

What is blackness without whiteness? What are we when we aren’t responding to trauma, to colonisation, to white supremacy?

The other day I was discussing with a friend whether or not things are getting worse. We have national broadcasters spreading dangerous myths about us. If it were not for black protest, the right of reply would never have been carried out. We need black voices and black truths. It seems more pertinent than ever that this book exists; it is one I will revisit over and over again.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is out now through Black Inc.


Nayuka Gorrie is a Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman. She is passionate about self-determination and culture.

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