Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Anne Curthoy's Freedom Ride

Now that I have decided to take my history of New England to the end of the twentieth century, one book that I have still have to read is Anne Curthoy's Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers.

In some ways, the decision by a group of Sydney University students in 1964 to get on a bus and go visiting some New England towns to protest against prejudice and racial discrimination against Aboriginal people has achieved almost mythic status. The original idea came not from any local knowledge, but was a response to the US freedom rides, so the students themselves were to face a major shock.

Generally, the ride has been interpreted in the context of changing national attitudes towards Australia's Aboriginal people. I am interested in the way it fits into New England history, a very different perspective. How did people respond to these outsiders? What was the local impact? How did it fit into changes that were already taking place?

I don't have an answer at this point. I have come across a number of passing references, but they don't provide any pattern. It may be that there wasn't a pattern, that outside any broader issues and responses, local impacts varied greatly.

I do need to know these things. However, I am also struggling with a broader question.

Writing as an historian, I have to deal with things as I see them. The more I dig back into Aboriginal history, the greater the conflict I find between my role as an historian and attitudes towards Aboriginal history and culture.

At the moment I am still researching New England's Aboriginal languages. I struggle with the idea expressed by some that I must not do so unless I get approval from particular groups of Elders and indeed at the extreme allow them to clear my writing.

I am dealing with the historical record. The reason why so much of the New England Aboriginal languages have survived is because of non-Aboriginal recorders. The very if still limited success of the Aboriginal language revival movement is due to the fact that the Aborigines involved had access not just to their own knowledge but to non-Aboriginal research.

The tragedy for the Language revival movement lies in the fact that just when it was still possible to record in the seventies, non-Aboriginal interest seems to have declined.

It seems to me, I stand to be corrected, that some current attitudes effectively place Aboriginal Studies back in the ghetto that Aboriginal people as a whole are still trying to break out form.     

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