Marcia Langton on the Apology
I remember Marcia Langton coming in and doing guest lectures in my undergraduate units on Aboriginal Australia. I don’t actually recall much of what she said, but I remember her presence, her engagement with issues that weren’t merely academic for her. I also remember that she didn’t mince her words and her investment in what she was talking about, as an indigenous scholar, made me confront my own position and investment in this subject — my whiteness, relative privilege, and merely ‘academic’ interest.
I don’t always agree with what Langton writes, but I consider the following article she has just written on the issue of the forthcoming apology to be a beautiful and evocative case for the far-reaching importance of this most symbolic of gestures.
Even the hard men know, it must be saidMarcia Langton
February 9, 2008
There are people who hate without knowing why they hate. Then there are people such as the former chief ministers of the Northern Territory, Ian Tuxworth and Shane Stone – both of whom have contributed more than their fair share of race hate to the community. The man who signed so many of the orders to remove children, the late Harry Giese, walked the streets of Darwin and attended official functions while they held the post of chief minister. I once stared at Giese from across a room wondering how he could have been so cruel and why he was a kind of demi-god to the Country Liberal Party hard men.
I am astonished to find myself saying this about Tuxworth and Stone: they both have thought deeply about their Aboriginal friends and finally, free of the shackles of electoral politics, recanted their petty hatred. They have expressed as genuine an understanding as I can imagine of the damage done to Aboriginal people by the policies of child removal.
In 1992, Paul Keating, in his Redfern speech, asked Australians to try to imagine the Aboriginal view. He said the test of Australia’s nationhood would be whether we have “managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia”.
Most Australians recognise these lines from that speech: “We took the children from their mothers … It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?”
There is a possibility that there can be healing when the hard men such as Tuxworth and Stone are able to answer these fundamental questions and to tell the truth. There is no shame in telling the truth, and the complaint that those not responsible should not be made to feel guilty is an absurd response to the acknowledgement of events that occurred historically and within our own lifetimes.
I did not believe that it was possible that the truth could be so powerful until I read their words in black and white; the momentous importance of the apology finally hit me and my cynicism evaporated as I was forced to think of my friends who have suffered so much and who want to hear an acknowledgement of events that were incomprehensible to them until someone found the words to describe the collective actions, the historical meaning and the philosophical arguments about those events.What should be said? So much, but there is one word that is so important. I telephoned one of my dear friends who was removed from her Aboriginal mother into a life of abuse and suffering. She has raised two sons, both now adults, and still finds it impossible to explain her pain to them or why it happened. We spoke and cried and talked about where we would be next Wednesday. In Cairns, she said, a venue has been organised for people to bring their family photographs and flowers and to be together to listen to the apology. I told her that at my university, Trinity College has organised a service.
Then, I realised: there will be people around Australia gathering to listen to the apology; it will be very hard to listen without crying, without thinking about our friends and all of those souls who have left the world without an apology. To do justice to the historical facts and speak above the din of the spiteful people who want to cause more suffering to Aboriginal people, this is what I expect from the Prime Minister and the Parliament next Wednesday. Is it so hard to understand how much an apology means to the thousands of Aboriginal people who were removed from their families? What it would mean for me as an Aboriginal person who has consoled and encouraged friends is simply this: I want to be in a relationship with them without the heartbreaking pain of the past 10 years, knowing that there has been a just acknowledgement of the crimes against them.
If I were to find just a few words, then I think something like the following, at the very minimum, must be said:
There are no words that could heal the wounds of those people who were taken from their families by the Commonwealth and other Australian governments with no reason other than to deny them their Aboriginal legacy and hence the future of Aboriginal society. But those people who lived through such crimes against humanity demand an apology. They are right to demand an apology, because there can be no justification for those heinous policies. And so it is incumbent on the Commonwealth to apologise; to say, as the Prime Minister of Australia, on behalf of all Australians: I am sorry. I am sorry that you have suffered. I am sorry that your families have suffered. I am sorry because your suffering has diminished us as citizens of a nation that claims to be a Commonwealth, a government for the well being of all.Those who have departed this life in the several generations affected by these policies are remembered, and as Prime Minister of Australia, on behalf of Australians, say: I offer this apology to their descendants: I am sorry for what happened to your ancestors and that such a terrible burden has befallen you; the denial of your family and cultural legacy is a terrible loss.
The nation would be healed if we could consign this history to our past by admitting that it was wrong to take children from their families in order to prevent Aboriginal ways of life and traditions from continuing. I ask that all Australians understand this part of our history and recognise that such terrible wrongs must never be repeated.
Marcia Langton is Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Read the original article here.