Hanging With The “Blackfellas” Down Under

By Runoko Rashidi

This documents many of the fascinating places in Australia visited by research specialist, writer and lecturer Runoko Rashidi in 1998. His concern was for what is now the minority population of Australians who lived in Australia long before it was called “Australia”—I daresay, long before the beginning of the concept of time. Rashidi reports that some of these people like to call themselves “Blackfellas”.

Alice Springs

Alice Springs At noon on 24 November 1998, I left Darwin and flew to Alice Springs—a relatively small city in the very center of Australia. This part of Australia is sometimes called “the red center” and I must say that the soil itself has a dull orange-reddish hue with sparse vegetation and strange rock formations.

In Alice Springs, I was met by representatives of the Central Land Council. They were extremely polite but seemed a little uncertain as to how to act towards me. Very few of the Aboriginal people of Australia that I met on the trip had had much experience with Black folk from America and they knew almost nothing of me personally. They only knew that “an African professor from the United States was coming to Australia” and wanted to visit them. The “African professor” will be eternally grateful to them for I must say that it seems that every brother and sister that I met in Australia looked after me, and, once they knew something about me, became very anxious to talk with me. With two sisters, I toured the city of Alice Springs; visiting every institution and facility directly affiliated with or run by Blackfellas.

aboriginal lady Perhaps the highlight of my visit to Alice Springs was a tour of a women’s Center. The center was for Aboriginal women, many of whom had been the victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a major problem in Aboriginal communities in Australia and much of it stems from massive alcohol and drug abuse. Such is the degree of despair and hopelessness among them that many Aboriginal people seemed determined to drink and drug themselves in a state of oblivion. In the women’s center I was introduced to many sisters, including two women of about fifty, although they looked much older. Life had not been very kind to them. Through a translator I asked them many questions. Questions like where they were born, their life stories, their goals, etc. At first they patiently answered my questions, but all at once they began to ask me all the questions! Basically they wanted to know who I was, what I was, what I wanted and why! It soon became extremely obvious to me that these sisters, who probably spoke for most of the Black people in Australia, knew almost nothing of their brethren in America. So I told them our story. aboriginal painterI talked to them at length of mighty African empires and how we came to America. I talked to them of our enslavement and the door of no return. I told them how our families were separated and how our names were changed and how we were forbidden to speak our own languages. These sisters became more and more agitated and told me that they had never heard anything of what I was telling them. It was a very emotional experience. I told them of our struggle for justice and some of our great leaders. I then told the sisters in some detail about lynchings in America and they started to become visibly disturbed. It was at that time that one of them stopped my narrative and questioned me in a sad and plaintive way. She asked, “Do you want us to help you?” It was my turn to wipe away the tears.

In the women’s center I was introduced to many sisters, including two women of about fifty, although they looked much older. Life had not been very kind to them.

Uluru National Park

Creation Time Of all the international trips that I’ve taken, my visit to Australia during November and December 1998 is very hard to top. It was a unique experience. Indeed, there were times on the trip that I momentarily thought that I was in another world. Rather than the primitive people that the Blackfellas are often portrayed to be, they turned out to before me the most complex and spiritually profound brothers and sisters that I’ve ever encountered or read about. Truly, Australia was both a delightful and vividly insightful experience. I felt continually that the ancestors were with me—guiding and protecting me, keeping me safe and strong. I prayed regularly and passionately and had few worries along the way.

On 26 November I flew from Alice Springs to Uluru. White folks commonly call Uluru “Ayers Rock.” Uluru was one of the places on the trip that was not on my original itinerary but, certainly, I had hoped to travel there from the very beginning and I was prepared for it. Uluru is 273 miles from Alice Springs and I was the last person to board the plane. Naturally, I was the only Black man on the flight. That was the norm for the trip.

Old aboriginal paintings on the Rock After a very short Qantas flight I departed the plane with the hope that someone would be at the airport to meet me. After about an hour sister Joann Wilmot, accompanied by a another lady, swooped me up. It didn’t take me long to realize that the brothers and sisters in Australia, apparently like brothers and sisters everywhere, had their own sense of time!

Because I had no idea as to where I would be lodging, Joann—who was a kind of Aboriginal director for Uluru and the designated person to escort me around—invited me, if I had no problem with the idea, “to stay with a Blackfella.” It sounded good to me. Once again, I was in the company of two Black women. And because I’m a brother who happens to adore African females I was quite content and felt in good company.

Aboriginal people attach great spiritual significance to Uluru. It is one of the world’s largest monoliths and rises more than 1,100 feet from the flatness of the surrounding plain. More impressive than its size, though, is its color—a brown to bright glowing red that changes throughout the day. About forty miles from Uluru lies another fascinating rock formation—Kata Tjuta. Indeed, some view Kata Tjuta as even more spectacular than Uluru. Uluru, however, as it was my understanding, is viewed by at least by many Aboriginal people, as the “navel of the world” and the center of creation. Although many visitors climb on top of Uluru I was forbidden to even touch it! With Ms. Wilmot I drove around Uluru and heard “dreamtime stories” of the beginning of the world.

Within a couple hundred yards of Uluru lies an Aboriginal community forbidden to non-Aboriginal people. Signs warning trespassers to stay out were liberally posted. Well, I didn’t see myself as a tourist, and quite naturally, it was the place where I most wanted to go, and sister Joann was only too happy to take me there. Indeed, she was the person in charge and was gently deferred to within the community.

The road to Kata Tjuta Although I ached to be with my brothers and sisters, I had found in Kakadu National Park that an Aboriginal community, for me, wasn’t always the most pleasant place to be. Squalor, disease and poverty were the rule. I have to say that Black children running around dirty and naked with mucous running down their faces is not an endearing sight but it is reality.

After touring the community, Joann invited me to dinner. She asked me if I had any preferences and, because I felt lucky to even be there, naturally I said, “Well, sister, anything that you cook will be just fine for me.” And then she told me that we’d have kangaroo tail and a whole host of second thoughts ran through my mind! She was determined to treat me to a real delicacy and all the polite excuses from me about her not going to any trouble were fruitless. As a result, three large kangaroo tails (which she called “whippers”) were purchased from the company store. She even shut down her office a little early—just for me! She then picked up her “skin mother” and granddaughter. We were going to have a feast.

Buy this book at Amazon.com! To cook the kangaroo tails, she accumulated quite a bit of dry wood and started a fire. As the fire began to blaze the whippers were tossed on top. They were purchased frozen and the fire would warm them up and burn the hair off. Suddenly I was not hungry, but, again, my protests that I didn’t want to be the source of so much fuss got me nowhere. After about fifteen minutes on the fire the whippers were taken off the fire and the hair scrapped off with a knife. Where the fire had been, a hole was dug, the whippers placed in the hole, the burning wood put on top of the hole and an hour later dinner was ready.

Uluru National Park is wonderful place and the Blackfellas were extremely friendly to me. In July 2000, I plan to take a group of brothers and sisters there to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the Aboriginal community. And while I will remain forever grateful to sister Joann Wilmot for her hospitality, the next time the dinner menu will be decidedly different.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Runoko Rashidi is a historian, writer and traveler engaged in a love affair with things African worldwide. For the latest news on the activities of Runoko Rashidi please link to his web pages.