Sunday, 24 August 2014

Words and War Black Digger Pics

By Erica Myers-Davis

Professor Bruce Scates, eminent historian and brother of Bob Scates who went to jail rather than be conscripted to serve in the Vietnam War, hosted this fascinating discussion with Wesley Enoch, a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, and the director of Tom Wright's critically acclaimed play, Black Diggers.

The result of several years of painstaking research into the lives and deaths of the thousand or so Indigenous soldiers who fought for the British Commonwealth in World War I, Black Diggers tells the story of Aboriginal men who stepped up to enlist. Undaunted, these bold souls took up arms to defend the free world in its time of greatest need. For them, facing the horror of war on a Gallipoli beach was an escape from the shackles of racism at home, at a time when Aboriginal people stood by, segregated, unable to vote, unable to act as their children were ripped from them. When the survivors came back from the war, there was no heroes' welcome – just a shrug, and a return to drudgery and oppression.  The play uncovers Indigenous honour and sacrifice, something which history has all but forgotten.

Professor Bruce Scates and Wesley Enoch in conversation
Pic by Erica Myers-Davis 
Staged in the new Education Centre at the Shrine of Remembrance, in a snug, womb-like red room, with great acoustics, the audience quickly became entombed and immersed in the subject matter.

Sharing a range of stories from Indigenous service personnel who had served during the First World War, Enoch's knowledge and passion shone through. I felt the bitter sting of tears as he shared the story of a soldier who in his will, bequeathed everything to his mother. Yet, after his death, the authorities sent his medals and war gratuities to a stepmother he had never met, believing them to be wasted on his Aboriginal mother.

Enoch views World War I as the birthplace of reconciliation between white and Indigenous Australia. The First World War and in particular Gallipoli is a huge part of Australia’s narrative and yet most non-Indigenous Australians are surprised to learn that Indigenous soldiers served alongside their settler compatriots. Enoch believes that Australia has not deliberately chosen to forget but rather has agreed on one dominant story, with its elements of mateship, courage and white soldiers.  Scates agreed, while observing that archival records of service personnel are now being digitised which will facilitate better access to information.

I would have appreciated a deeper discussion of just how these two elements: forgetting and remembrance, are juxtaposed together in our accounts of this war and how Indigenous soldiers’ stories are now, a century later, being slowly woven into the cultural fabric.

Once Scates invited questions and comments from the floor this event really came alive.  The audience willingly engaged asking questions about the play, as well as exploring the themes of remembrance, trauma, truth, culture and freedom.

With a predominately white audience, it was a fascinating but perhaps, inevitably, safe exploration of Australia’s forgotten Indigenous war history, with the focus firmly fixed on the Aboriginal experience rather than White amnesia.  Enoch closed the session by keenly articulating the kernel that lies at the heart of this tragedy: that white Australians were prepared to die side-by-side in the trenches with Aboriginal Australians but were unable to live side-by-side with them during peacetime.

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