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Racial Folly

Racial Folly: A Twentieth-Centrury Aboriginal Family

Gordon Briscoe
Volume: 20
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Racial Folly
    Book Description:

    Briscoe's grandmother remembered stories about the first white men coming to the Northern Territory. This extraordinary memoir shows us the history of an Aboriginal family who lived under the race laws, practices and policies of Australia in the twentieth century. It tells the story of a people trapped in ideological folly spawned to solve 'the half-caste problem'. It gives life to those generations of Aboriginal people assumed to have no history and whose past labels them only as shadowy figures. Briscoe's enthralling narrative combines his, and his contemporaries, institutional and family life with a high-level career at the heart of the Aboriginal political movement at its most dynamic time. It also documents the road he travelled as a seventeen year old fireman on the South Australia Railways to becoming the first Aboriginal person to achieve a PhD in history.

    eISBN: 978-1-921666-21-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    Gordon Briscoe is one of the most remarkable and successful Australians of his generation. He has had a profound impact, over more than 40 years, on what has happened in public affairs. But his real impact has been on peopleʹs thinking on significant public policy issues, particularly Aboriginal affairs. And yet many people who have been influenced by his ideas and his actions, or by structures he has helped put into place, scarcely know him. Or if they do, fail to recognise how important he has been not only in what has happened but how we understand what has happened...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  6. Chapter 1 My family background, 1890 to 1941
    (pp. 1-16)

    My first encounter with my grandmother Kanaki was during the early 1950s. She would travel into Alice Springs every fortnight in the white station managerʹs truck from Maryvale cattle station along with other family members to collect her pension money. Maryvale is a place Mardu people call Titjikala (meaning land of the eagle). The station truck would collect stores and generally stay one or two days in Alice Springs for weekend recreation of one kind or another. The bush camp was in an area west of the Rainbow-town cottages and south of Connellanʹs airstrip, close to the MacDonnell Ranges. Every...

  7. Chapter 2 Evacuation, Mulgoa to Semaphore, 1938 to 1945
    (pp. 17-30)

    My mother like many Aboriginal women believed in the idea that the whole group cared for a child; not just the mother. However, over her lifetime things changed. This change was bought about not only of her own making, but the white society to which she gravitated. Her life on the one hand was made particularly hard by crumbling relationships and by circumstances imposed on her by government policies. My life on the other hand was influenced absolutely by her early actions and the institutions she chose for what she thought was a more superior system of care than she...

  8. Chapter 3 Racial theory and a religious solution, 1920s to 1945
    (pp. 31-46)

    Between the two world wars racial theories abounded as to what to do in relation to the ʹhalf-caste Aboriginal problemʹ. The white frontier attitude was that bush Aborigines were devils, but as time went by they and their off-spring became a useful economic asset in the face of the absence of a white labour force, and finally there was the Baldwin Spencer and JW Bleakley idea of removing half-castes from the bush people and institutionalising them as educated labour. For my mother, racial theories meant little because in Adelaide in the post war era it just meant more difficulties looking...

  9. Chapter 4 Pembroke Street to St Francis House, 1946 to 1949
    (pp. 47-64)

    My mother, brother Bill and I left Balaklava sometime around late October of 1945. She took me to Father Smithʹs home for boys of mixed Aboriginal descent at Pembroke Street Kensington Gardens, Adelaide. My mother did this in the belief that education in a white urban setting would give me far better opportunities in life than she could offer me in Victor Harbour or Alice Springs. Hope existed in abundance on many fronts as the wars around the world were coming to an end. Father Smith had moved six boys from St Johnʹs Hostel in Alice Springs to Kensington Gardens...

  10. Chapter 5 Educated men or Christian misfits? 1950 to 1956
    (pp. 77-90)

    Let me begin by recalling how Father Smithʹs leaving affected me. Father Smith, as mentioned earlier, became a father figure not just to me but to some of the other boys too. Gradually as my eleventh birthday came and went I was beginning, like many of the other boys, to accept the fact that I was at the house for my own good and to get a better education. Along with the other boys I believed that we were there because our mothers had put their trust in Father Smith. My education continued as a series of failures even though...

  11. Chapter 6 Life after St Francis House, 1957 to 1964
    (pp. 91-102)

    The general thrust of race policies in the 1950s was ʹnew assimilationʹ.¹ For Liberal and Country Party politicians this was the status quo, which was for us to conform to the idea that Aboriginal culture, language and peoples would soon disappear, and we would become like other white people on the continent. When this meltdown was complete our citizenship would be reinstated. This notion harks back to Macquarieʹs little known proclamation of 4 May 1816 stating that all Aborigines in the British-claimed area of the continent would be British subjects and would be equal before the law.² And, in order...

  12. Chapter 7 Race relations, work and education, 1964 to 1968
    (pp. 103-118)

    I returned to Australia in 1964 to find Aboriginal issues in New South Wales very different from those I left behind. In South Australia bureaucrats identified Aborigines as being persons of ʹfull-bloodʹ, others of Aboriginal descent were regarded as ʹstate wardsʹ, mainly those who were living on southern reserves. Then there were those people of Aboriginal descent who were classified as non-Aborigines because they had been given a State government exemption from the Protection legislation. Persons holding an Exemption Certificate had what was known in common practice as a ʹdog tagʹ. And finally, there were those people of Aboriginal descent...

  13. Chapter 8 University and Aboriginal politics, 1969 to 1971
    (pp. 119-134)

    Canberra was not initially a daunting prospect for me, mostly because in my mind I was deluded that my education problems were all behind me. On arrival in the national capital I went straight to John XXIII College at the Australian National University and was given a room. From memory, this was a Roman Catholic College run by the Jesuits and the Dean I recall was the Reverend Dr John Eddy, who later figured prominently in my life. It was here in John XXIII College that I began my 40-year long association with university life.

    I began attending lectures and...

  14. Chapter 9 Redfern and the early 1970s
    (pp. 151-164)

    Being unemployed in Sydney with a family and a wife to support were frightening thoughts. This was the second time that I had put myself in this predicament and I did not relish telling Norma what had happened. We had only recently returned to Sydney and our savings were meagre; the future for us looked grim financially. But as it sometimes happens in life we made one of our biggest commitments at a time when we had least money. One of our major concerns was the growing number of primary schools that Aaron had been to mainly due to our...

  15. Chapter 10 The Northern Territory, 1972
    (pp. 165-176)

    The 1972 Federal election was a time of heightened tension among interest groups in Australia. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had been in power since 1949 and all politically minded people sensed a change. All except those in power. Aboriginal poverty, high infant mortality rates and the question of Land Rights left Aboriginal leaders wondering how they could contribute in the political milieu they were confronted with. Charlie Perkins had been telling me for three or four years that he wanted to ʹget rid of this governmentʹ, in particular to show his contempt for the Country Party. Charlie at the time...

  16. Chapter 11 A new era in Aboriginal politics, 1974 to 1981
    (pp. 177-190)

    The Labor Party initiated three programs that made life more tolerable for Aborigines when it came to office in 1972. The first was the Woodward Royal Commission into ʹLand rightsʹ, the second initiative was to grant the Northern Territory some measure of independence that opened up the prospect of Aboriginal people representing themselves, even if as Party members. The third initiative was to implement a ten-year plan to improve Aboriginal health. Events moved at pace. By mid-1973 the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service had been set up as a democratic and ʹself-determiningʹ service with a number of off-shoots in other towns...

  17. Chapter 12 The education years: 1980s
    (pp. 191-202)

    Governments tend to swallow up people when they gain power. Though some win and some lose, after each governmentʹs rise to power, their supporters either profit from the success on the outside, or are brought in to bring a change of political emphasis to the bureaucracy. That is the way it was with me and many other Aboriginal people; the challenges of the Whitlam government were long gone and the realities of conservatism had arrived. I was not the only one struggling with the new reality, and I can recall daily struggles between Barry Dexter and Charlie Perkins over when...

  18. Chapter 13 The 1990s and beyond
    (pp. 203-214)

    The 1990s bought with it the joy of our first grandchild, Mitchell James Taylor-Briscoe. Mitchell was born on 4 October 1993, a seven pound plus baby with big blue eyes and a beautiful face. He was and still is the pride and joy of us all, including his proud parents Aaron and partner Meredeth Taylor. Meredeth was born in Melbourne where she spent her early childhood years; during which time her father was a fireman with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. They later moved as a family to rural Victoria, where her mother established, and became Principal of a school for...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 215-220)

    This memoir covers my familyʹs reach across the twentieth century and in so doing is a story that covers race relations policy development and implementation throughout this period. The beginning of the twentieth century was chaotic for Aborigines and policies were made without much thought. On the one hand half-castes were institutionalised as useful labour, on the other people of full descent were concentrated on reserves and missions. By the 1920s the Federal government began to take an interest, albeit ambiguously, in Northern Territory Aborigines, on the one hand retaining aspects of the old protection policy while on the other...

  20. References
    (pp. 221-226)