The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming
As Stan Grant sits in a cafe in Broome, with his latte and carrot cake, his gaze wanders across to the city park where a fight is unfolding. The flailing arms of men in cowboy hats, some sprawled on the ground, others propped against trees; Grant says it’s become “lunchtime entertainment” for passing tourists. “If ever I realise the gulf between me and other Indigenous people,” he writes in his new Quarterly Essay, “it is today.”
He could intervene, but doesn’t. To these locals, Grant, a Wiradjuri man and television journalist of international repute, and arguably one of Australia’s moral leaders, is another foreigner. The words are hard for Grant to write, not because it reminds him of a scene he covered 20 years earlier for the ABC, nor that it suggests nothing has improved for Australia’s First Peoples. Nearly a quarter of the Australian landmass is now under Aboriginal title, providing mining royalties that support Indigenous entrepreneurs and “healthy self-determination”. In the Torres Strait, there are Islander-run communities as prosperous as any middle Australian suburb, with two-storey houses, two cars and boats in the driveways, and kids in school. There are also five Indigenous members of the federal parliament, about the same percentage as the Indigenous proportion of the population.
The real pain for Grant is that Indigenous Australians are often forced into a choice not demanded of others – be black or be mainstream. “We live in a world and an era of sharp identity politics that is wreaking devastation,” he writes. Aboriginal people have a right to the unique identity that policies of assimilation tried, often brutally, to erase. They should preserve the kinship that means “with just a passing nod in the street, we can tell each other we are still here”. The differences between Grant and his own white wife, for example, are “the grit that polishes our relationship”.
But if there were ever an Australian entitled to call himself a universalist, it’s Grant, whose journalistic achievements have taken him to China, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. He is as much a man of the European Enlightenment as he is of the Aboriginal songlines he cherishes. Grant doesn’t turn away from challenges still facing Indigenous Australians – the challenges he saw in the Broome park – but he also demands for his people the right to diversity and choice in their lives, loves and culture. “Can an Aborigine be a Smiths fan? I can be whatever I damn like.” PT
Quarterly Essay, 114pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Stan Grant, The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming ". Subscribe here.