Sally Morgan, My Place, 1987: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 358 pp
The blatantly genocidal policies practiced against Aboriginal people in the first century of Australia’s colonial history are now more often acknowledged but still frequently fobbed off as some unfortunate incidents from the dim past. When the Aboriginal people survived after facing dispossession, massacres, rape, poisoned supplies, missionisation and the introduction of diseases and alcohol the invaders changed their approach. The new philosophy was assimilation. Assimilation is just as genocidal but is not often acknowledged as such.
My Place is the story of one family’s fightback against genocidal assimilation. It is a family history which combines the author’s autobiography with oral history biographies of her uncle Arthur, her mother Gladys and her grandmother Daisy.
The first third of the book is full of delightful but painful stories about Sally’s childhood days in a new working class suburb of Perth. Domestic violence is an everyday part of her early childhood reality. But dealing with her alcoholic war veteran father is not kept private. The whole family just ups and moves next door to a neighbour’s place until the situation passes. Dad is a contradictory figure, both much loved and an exasperation. He is constantly in and out of hospital and when he dies you get the sense that despite the grief, it is kind of a relief to everyone.
Despite an enormous economic struggle, life goes on. The household comprises Sally, her mother, Gladys, her Grandmother, affectionately called Nan, and numerous sisters, brothers and pets. The cantankerous but loveable Nan is central to the household. Stories about her many habits, which her grandchildren learn to live with, weave a rich thread throughout the book. At times they rebelled but mostly they knew it was hopeless to protest.
“I arrived home from school one day with the facts from a science lesson freshly imprinted in my brain, and proceeded to inform Nan that when it came to eradicating germs, onions were totally useless. For years she had been using freshly chopped onions to sterilise our house and it was the first time I’d ever criticised any of her theories concerning our health.
“Nan was cross, she said high school had gone to my head and then accused me of being silly as my mother. I pointed out that none of my friends ever got sick and they lived without the stink of moulding onions. Nan retaliated by asserting that one day they would probably fall down dead and then they’d wish they’d known about onions.”
Sally’s mum Gladys intervenes in the debate on Sally’s insistence. “Mum! I screamed. ‘Well, perhaps you should leave it for now, Nan’, Mum suggested tactfully. ‘Put those ones in the bathroom.’ For the next few days, my room remained onion-free. But then one day, as I lay on my bed, a strong oniony smell came wafting through.”
Nan was also incredibly fearful of government people and spent years constantly ‘buttering up’ the rent man so as not to fall foul of such a powerful person. The youthful Sally could not comprehend this aspect of her grandmother’s personality:
“Nan, I half laughed, ‘no one from the government is gunna come round and do that!’ ‘Oooh, don’t you believe it. You don’t know what the government’s like, you’re too young. You’ll find out one day what they can do to people. You never trust anybody who works for the government, you dunno what they say about you behind your back. You mark my words, Sally.’
“I was often puzzled by the way Mum and Nan approached anyone in authority, it was as if they were frightened of the government. I knew that couldn’t be the reason, why on earth would anyone be frightened of the government?”
Throughout Sally’s childhood she had no explanation at all for such things as fear of government authorities. She didn’t know about children being stolen from their parents by government authorities. She did not know she was an Aborigine. Any inquisitive comments about the past brought a sharp but uninformative response and Sally was told to tell classmates that her family was of Indian descent!
When Sally arrived home early from school one day she got an uncharacteristic outburst from Nan who was sitting crying at the kitchen table. When Sally asked what was wrong, Nan said: “You bloody kids don’t want me, you want a bloody white grandmother, I’m black. Do you hear black, black, black!’… For the first time in my fifteen years I was conscious of Nan’s colouring. She was right, she wasn’t white. Well, I though logically if she wasn’t white, then neither were we. What did that make us, what did that make me? I had never thought of myself as being black before.”
Late that night Sally discussed Nan’s outburst with her sister Jill who had rejected the Indian line for a long time. “You know what we are, don’t you?’ ‘No what?’ ‘Boongs, we’re Boongs!’ I could see Jill was unhappy with the idea. It took a few minutes for me to summon up enough courage to say, ‘What’s a Boong?’ ‘A Boong. You know, Aboriginal. God of all things, we’re Aboriginal!’ ‘Oh’ I suddenly understood. There was a great deal of social stigma attached to being an Aboriginal at our school.”
But despite Jill’s assertion, Sally’s mum denied that the family was Aboriginal and continued to argue that Nan had come out on a boat from India. Sally said, In fact she was so convincing I began to wonder if Jill was right after all. She still could not be sure of even a flimsy identity.
The search for her identity becomes a passion in the Sally’s life. Nan is cajoled to “reveal all” at regular intervals and despite letting occasional fragments of information slip she basically remains tight lipped.
Nan’s brother Arthur is the first to really talk. He allows Sally to record his story which helps to piece together some of her own. However, he makes it clear that he will not reveal any secrets that aren’t his to share.
Arthur Corunna was a proud man who fought to maintain his independence. “You see the trouble is that colonialism isn’t over yet. We still have a White Australia policy against Aborigines…They say there’s been no difference between black and white, we all Australian, that’s a lie…the white man’s had land rights since this country was invaded, our land rights.”
Sally’s mum Gladys is next to agree to tell the story of her past and it is only during this recounting of the past that Sally finds out that her mother was brought up in a children’s home. She had always been lead to believe that Gladys had spent her childhood with her mother Daisy, who worked as a servant for rich white people.
Nan, Daisy Corunna, is the last to tell the story of her early life. It is a tragic tale of forced separation from her people at an early age. It is a tale of exploitation as she is forced to work as a domestic. It is the story of always fearing what the authorities could do to destroy her relationship with her young daughter, Gladys who was living in an institution.
Sally finds out about when and why her mother and grandmother decided to deny their Aboriginality from the children. After an horrific visit from a government “welfare” officer, Gladys and Daisy, fearing the loss of the children, decided: “we would definitely never tell the children they were Aboriginal. We were both convinced they would have a bad time otherwise…Aboriginals were treated the lowest of the low. It was like they were the one race on earth that had nothing to offer.”
Cut off from their own vibrant communities, Gladys and Daisy spent the whole of their lives as ‘fringe dwellers’ on the edges of white society trying to protect the new generation from the brutal truth of racism against Aborigines.
My Place is a book that made me angry, made me cry and made me laugh. And it should do all three because it is hilariously funny, devastatingly sad and a book that should make any progressive reader mad as hell about the injustice of it all.
Despite two hundred year of colonialism, Sally Morgan and her family have survived. They have resisted assimilationist cultural genocide by taking up the battle to find their own identity. In My Place Morgan proudly tells us that with the Aboriginal people she has found “her place”. It is only when Aboriginal people find their place” that they have the pride and the strength and the support to consistently resist.