Oodgeroo Noonuccal has fought all her life against racism, for the defence of her land and people. To the indigenous peoples of Australia, she indicated a path, a dream, a hope.
In the poem Segregation, which she wrote a few years before the historic 1967 people’s referendum gave Aboriginal people full citizenship, she points the finger at racism and criticizes, in the words of Pope Francis in 2018, the “hypocrisy of the righteous”, which reduces faith to “social habit”.
She has been a poet, an artist, a political activist for the rights of indigenous peoples, environmentalist, and educator. For decades, she has been unanimously regarded as one of the most significant voices in 20th century Australian literature and is counted among the founders of contemporary Aboriginal writing.
An exemplary history and journey. She was born in Minjerribah (now known as North Stradbroke Island) in 1920. This is the Quandamooka area, in Moreton Bay in southeast Queensland, where Australian Aborigines have lived for at least 25,000 years. Many of them were driven from their lands when the British government that established a penal colony near there in 1824.
Oodgeroo speaks directly, unsettlingly, bluntly about the drama of racial discrimination. Her poetry, as in prophecy, lays bare a reality that no one wants to see, nor hear, nor touch. She rereads the colonial past in a critical manner, rewriting history with other perspectives, other paradigms and other terminologies. As she recounts a humiliated and destroyed world, which is changing or disappearing, she hopes for a future in which different traditions, languages and beliefs can coexist in harmony. It is the politics of reconciliation that Oodgeroo advocated until her death.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was the first black woman in Australia to publish a book, and the first black author of poetry. From 1964 onwards, her English-language verses spread and shook the nation’s consciences in their ability to evoke images familiar to all. Among these, the Christological images are striking:
I am black of skin among whites,
And I am proud,
Proud of race and proud of skin.
I am broken and poor,
Dressed in rags from white man’s back,
But do not think I am ashamed.
Spears could not contend against guns and we were mastered,
But there are things they could not plunder and destroy.
We were conquered but never subservient,
We were compelled but never servile.
Do not think I cringe as white men cringe to whites.
I am proud,
Though humble and poor and without a home…
So was Christ.
Oodgeroo was born to an Aboriginal mother and a white father. She embraced this cultural-spiritual hybridity, although the awareness of her indigenous roots would eventually radically connote her identity. Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, married Walker, in a striking gesture, in 1988 she changed her name to Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe, in protest at the bicentennial celebrations of the landing of the British navigator and explorer James Cook on the Australian continent, because for the Aborigines that landing represents the beginning of the dispossession of their land. Australian Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright recounts, “In 1920, when Oodgeroo was born [...], Aborigines were still being shot in many parts of the Country. Oodgeroo grew up with the memory of the past, through the stories told by her parents and grandparents, stories of massacres and slave labor on lands stolen from them”.
In the poem The Teachers, dedicated to her mother “who was never taught to read or write”, Oodgeroo addresses the “holy men” who have come to impose their laws by force, and reclaims education as an instrument of freedom:
Holy men, you came to preach:
“Poor black heathen, we will teach
Sense of sin and fear of hell,
Fear of God and boss as well;
We will teach you work for play,
We will teach you to obey
Laws of God and laws of Mammon…”
And we answered, “No more gammon,
If you have to teach the light,
Teach us first to read and write.”
Oodgeroo’s Gospel reference (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13) evokes the admonition uttered by Pope Francis in April 2022 during his audience with the native peoples, saying “How many times the gift of God has not been offered but imposed, how many times there has been colonisation instead of evangelisation! God preserve us from the greed of new colonialisms”.
In her role of socio-political critic, Oodgeroo prophet - from the Greek for front, but also in place of and speak - and therefore spokesperson and witness, does not indulge in despondency. On the contrary, instead of emphasizing the errors of the past, she aims to instruct and guide the new generations, injecting them with hope and a desire for renewal. In My Son, this is how she addresses her son Denis:
I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind,
I could tell of crimes that shame mankind,
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign,
Of rape and murder, son of mine;
But I’ll tell instead of brave and fine
When lives of black and white entwine,
And men in brotherhood combine –
This would I tell you, son of mine.
With this in mind, for Oodgeroo, her poetry is an instrument of intercultural and intergenerational dialogue. It is an instrument of “dadirri”, in the Ngan’gikurrunggurr language “deep listening”. By writing poetry, the author reads and interrogates the world. She listens not only to the other from herself but also to the other in herself, coming to terms with her own past:
Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
Let none tell me the past is wholly gone.
Now is so small a part of time, so small a part
Of all the race years that have moulded me.
Moreover, it is in this balance between past, present and future that Oodgeroo’s message resonates prophetically and universally, offering food for thought and calls for renewal that are still valid today. On the environmental protection front, for example, a value framework emerges from his poetry that refers to Aboriginal culture, according to which our planet is not an object to possess and exploit, but a Mother to protect. In the poem entitled Mongarlowe, similar to a Marian prayer, the Earth is a scarred and bleeding woman:
Oh Virgin Earth
I hear your cries of pain
As you toss and turn,
My much needed sleep.
Ravished by man’s rape
In the ugly past,
He left you
Out of time.
Gum trees twist and turn,
Sadly shedding eucalypt tears,
Which merge with your split blood
Seeping, souring your tormented soul.
wails by the creek.
To your lost virginity.
This personification of Mother Earth is both a reference to the bond with nature proper to native cultures and a powerful portrait of a suffering world. A portrait that recalls the incipit of the encyclical Laudato si’ which, as the Pontiff emphasized, is not “a green encyclical” but “a social encyclical”.
In addition, if the Pope speaks of “the common home”, in Oodgeroo next to ecologism another prophetic theme is collectivism. The Aboriginal culture that the author passes on is founded on the principle of “share what you have”. Numerous poems refer to this logic of the gift, unhinging the pillars on which the western way of life is based and anticipating authors such as Vandana Shiva and Genevieve Vaughan advocates of a gift economy. An economy inspired by a caring role such as the maternal role, which does not envisage repayment and which eschews the economy of exchange, of quid pro quo.
Can we really counter our system based on private property with an alternative concept of the Common Good and Common Goods that alleviates incipient poverty? We have fewer resources, less water, a growing world population. What can we learn from Oodgeroo? What do Aboriginal epistemologies teach our 'civilization’ ”?
We who came late to civilization,
Missing a gap of centuries,
When you came we marveled and admired,
But with foreboding.
We had so little but we had happiness,
Each day a holiday,
For we were people before we were citizens,
Before we were ratepayers,
Tenants, customers, employees, parishioners.
Oh, we have benefited, we have been lifted
With new knowledge, a new world opened.
Suddenly caught up in white man’s ways
Gladly and gratefully we accept,
For this is necessity.
But remember, white man, if life is for happiness,
You too, surely, have much to change.
Between poetry and prophecy, the courageous provocation of Oodgeroo, who died in 1993, remains open today in our hands. A harbinger of inventiveness and hope.
By Margherita Zanoletti
Curator of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s book My People / La mia gente, Mimesis