“Continental Spaces” by Richard Ali
Australia, of all the countries in this world, fascinates me.
Because it is a country the size of a continent.
Because its people are all lovely shades of black, like me.
Because its people, because they are black, were placed on tables and carved into psychological and geographical chunks by greed and a bureaucracy.
Just as my continent and I were, at a conference in Berlin, in 1884.
After which, there was a scramble.
Across the world away, in a place down under, live family with whom I share scope and experience.
There is a scene in the 2008 Baz Luhrmann film Australia where the hero, the boy Nullah, sings stampeding cattle to a stop, himself at the edge of a cliff. It has remained in my mind for many years after. For in that scene is a powerful idea—that music is a universal language that comes from the soul which can affect nature and all in it, that even the powerless, at the precipice of death, can take up agency, do have power.
But the very nature of the medium, film, with its plotlines and creative license, the primacy of the story, makes it equally unreliable. A story is, very often, not the truth. Baz Luhrmann is, of course, not an Aboriginal Australian and can only have tried, honestly perhaps, to mimic Nullah’s existence. Therefore, there is another power involved here—of funding, ideology and the potential to subvert—possessed by Luhrmann, which cannot be denied or downplayed.
Would an Indigenous Australian filmmaker have been able to raise the funds for this same film? In what ways, were this to happen, would this film have been different? And, to your answers to both questions, a third question—why? Do you now see?
Truth arrived in my Opera Mini browser inbox a day ago. The Australian PM, Scott Morrison, was set to deliver an apology to the victims of sexual abuse at various Australian institutions, including schools. The victims are, for the most part, members of the Stolen Generation, Indigenous people who were forcibly taken from their families by the State. Most of these were “half castes”, people like Nullah. The notion of a “half caste” is taken from eugenics, the discredited pseudo-science shared by the Australian State with the Nazis, white supremacists all throughout American history, and the Apartheid South African regime.
The purpose of this policy, which ran until the 70’s – within living memory – was to convert these persons into white citizens. It was alchemy, no less, but done with lives, with the aid of a bureaucracy and the complicity of human beings who should have known better.
In the days after, I have been unable to stop thinking of these people—what they saw, what was done to them, what they endured.
The Prime Minister in parliament gave the apology, yet, I was astonished to see some coverage of it describe it as “rare”. If an apology for a crime is rare, does that not mean it was not a crime, in fact, but rather just a lark gone wrong? Yet, that was simply not the case. A State, mobilizing thousands of civil servants and agents, many of whom are still alive, over decades, perpetrated this pillage of human beings systematically and deliberately. This was not a mania, this was premeditated. And of course, further reading shows that the effects of European meddling in Australia continue even to this day. So what does an apology mean? What does this apology mean?
I’m a traveller and a writer. Lives matter to me – the exploring of geographies and memory, and what Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor asks in her epic novel, Dust, “what endures?”
I was born in a small cosmopolis named Jos in central Nigeria, sitting pretty 4000 feet above sea level. In Jos, there is no modesty about the nature around us; everywhere one looked was impressive, nothing was half done. Perhaps this explains my fascination with the world of Nullah— the Australia of wide-open spaces and dust and water, and people dark skinned like me, slim and secure in their traditions.
Research and news over the years have exploded the previous sentence with the truth of irreparable disruption, the white racial tyranny, and eventually, the madness that is alchemy with lives.
I have a yearning for wide-open spaces, an innate love for travel that, years down the line, continues unabated. And, sometimes, I recognize that I too seek to achieve a sort of alchemy, only my medium is not lives but rather the experiences of others. To place this side by side mine. To make them mine.
I have always desired a more nuanced identity to match a greater sense of self. Which is how I have wound up here at the terminal at Aeroport Charles de Gaulle—an African pondering Australia, while thinking in images about books and films and make believe things. Thinking of language.
Continental spaces can be overwhelming, as can be seen from the tension between specific injury and inclusive identity, a stolen generation, and a need to conform everyone into Australian white.
I have to think of Africa.
When I say I am an African, it is a potential thing. No such thing as African, in the way I want it to be, exists. It is not a country though I wish it were, in the way I need it to be. Africa is, in today’s sad reality, a continent of over fifty different countries with just as many complementary local elite, all in tacit cooperation to keep we, the people, apart. There is something about the unity of Black that scares the world, and those who partake of the system of this world, even if they too, in skin, are black. Fanon, in this was prescient.
In trying to find my Africa, I have had recourse to music, to rebel music especially.
A few years ago, I sampled reggae artistes Bob Marley and Luciano along with Fela to make an argument in my essay, “Rebel Music and the African Country” published in Jalada Africa.
“Rebel music remains influential, its prophets stay large than life even in death, because they have provided definitions. Clear. Prescient. Positive.
The absolute poverty of our present intellectual elite is eloquently demonstrated in the Africa-Is-Not-A-Country trend of thought. They have failed, in contrast to the rebel musicians, to tell us what Africa is. What it is not is quite besides the point. It is true that a tiger does not declaim its tigritude, to borrow Wole Soyinka’s famous quip, but neither does it go on long drawn out fits of barking over its non-dogitude, or squawking about its non-chickenitude, or similar concessions drawn on the true roar of a tiger, made in favour and in honour of the deprecations of anyone who says a tiger is a dog or a tiger is a chicken respectively.
To follow the present intellectual elite down to their own kennels and coops, they have failed further to tell us what the countries Nigeria or Algeria or the ethnicities Motswana or Kikuyu mean either. In the supreme snobbishness of negation, in the same breath as the giving up of the very agency of definition, they fail to define anything. It is in this West-centric lockstep that my sympathy with Olatoun William’s character, Oyinda, finds itself firmly ensconced. We have no reason to have a bankrupt intellectual account, no reason to excuse our intellectual elite being merely acadas, yet here they are, not observing and experimenting with ideas, not applying ideas to lives, not inspiring any material culture. For so long as we are reacting to what the West says, for so long as we refuse to DEFINE, we are merely mimics of other people’s voices, moons to suns, adjuncts to predicates.”
So, here is a music break —
Where and how do we find the immense strength to be human?
—the National Socialists
—the Afrikaner Broederbund (and the state they animated)
—the entire gamut of American history
—we must add the Zionist Israelis in occupation of Palestine
DID NOT BELIEVE that other people were less human than they were but
THEY WERE AND ARE WILLING to act as if this was so,
and they pay the price with their dehumanized lives
and broken societies
Where do we find the strength to be human?
“But when you get the white man over here in America and he says he’s white, he means something else. You can listen to the sound of his voice – when he says he’s white, he means he’s a boss. That’s right. That’s what “white” means in this language. You know the expression, “free, white, and twenty-one.” He made that up. He’s letting you know all of them mean the same. “White” means free, boss. He’s up there. So that when he says he’s white he has a little different sound in his voice.”
“I have observed that not many of us can say, or sing: hallelujah. Perhaps it is because one first [must] descend into the valley, where one learns to say: Amen. If one can find in oneself the force to say, Amen, it is possible to come to Hallelujah. But Amen is the price. The black experience in the valley of America remains, my friends, America’s only affirmation. We have sung the Lord’s song for a very long time, in a very very strange land […] Perhaps that is why so many like to say that only black people can sing the blues.”
“By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a Black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life… In this debasement of and definition of Black people, they debased and defined themselves.”
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Ponder on these.
If we are to survive, we must find ways to collaborate that incorporate nuance, blending a curiosity and empathy for the specifics of others with a general need to fit all within a simple humanity. There are no stories to this, there is only truth. And all truth can only be found by getting on the road, real and metaphysical, exploring terrain and memory alike.
At the centre of curiosity must be the idea of the equality of all cultures, the correctness and relevance and truth of communal lived experience passed down. It is the lack of accepting this equality that saw to a generation stolen and abused, and wounded. Needlessly. By the Australian state.
To be human is to refuse to dehumanize ourselves in the ways we treat other human beings, no matter what the benefits are. It is to understand that the price is not worth it. Not the money gotten from the exploitation of migrant labour, not the edifices built with resources extracted from the backs of slaves, not a society that cannot survive without the disenfranchisement of Australia’s Indigenous people.
The task of conscious people is to continue to find ways to put the human being back, in humanist terms, at the centre of this rock we share.
Fractions, categories, where these can be exploited by politics to create Others, must be rejected. The lived experience, especially where this is negative and from which resentment flows, must be acknowledged and amends made. There can be no excuses for doing this. We have to reclaim our agency.
Which leads us back to the essence of a scene in a film made with the limitations of that medium, of a boy on a rock, who sang a universal language even when he was very, very afraid. New ways of understanding and seeing is what is called for. If we dare.
Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer, poet and author of City of Memories (Parresia Books 2012). He is a founding member of Nairobi-based Jalada Africa and sits on the board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation (Uganda). Twitter @richardalijos. Website: www.richardalijos.wordpress.com
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