The very title of Anita Heiss’s new memoir and manifesto – Am I Black Enough for You? – challenges the idea that you have to be black or look like a desert Aborigine to know that you are Aboriginal. It is her rejoinder to Andrew Bolt on behalf of nine light-skinned urban, tertiary-educated Aborigines who claimed that Bolt had vilified them by suggesting that their ‘choice’ of Aboriginal identity had advanced their careers. They charged him in the federal court with breaching the Racial Discrimination Act and won. Her memoir covers far more than the litigation. It is a story of her life as an Aborigine, a blow in the ‘identity wars’. But it begins and ends in the federal court. The case was ‘the most important thing I will ever do’. She will not change anyone’s mind on the overriding question of freedom of speech, but she may deepen awareness of what motivated the co-plaintiffs.
H eiss comes through as likeable, gregarious, glamorous, bubbly, ambitious, self-important but also enigmatic and a little mysterious. She laughs at Aboriginal stereotypes invented by Whitefellas. She wears Clinique, not ochre. If she eats kangaroo it is from the supermarket. Her sense of her Aboriginal identity comes from being told as a child that she was an Abo; from growing up with only her mother’s Aboriginal family around her (her father’s was in Austria); and from being darker-skinned than her sisters at school. She speaks no Aboriginal language. ‘I am a bi-cultural Blackfella’, as she put it in a poem. But ‘no-one has ever called me a coconut’ – brown outside, white inside. (Japan made her feel like ‘a Westerner’.) Today most of her Aboriginal friends are on boards and community committees. She discusses politics with them over green tea, goes to the gym, does Zumba, gets waxed. She writes poetry, children’s books, ‘commercial novels’ (‘I am still the only Aboriginal author of commercial fiction in Australia’) and ‘chick-lit’, sometimes called ‘choc-lit’, about women like her – ‘Aboriginal women who did not appear in Australian women’s fiction until I put them there.’ Yet her literary range is extraordinarily limited. She decided at university that English literature is mainly the work of ‘dead white males…irrelevant’. She is above all an activist. ‘All [her italics] my work is for the betterment of the Aboriginal community’, although she has almost nothing in common with the ‘bush Aborigines’ whom she represents at international conferences. She regrets she has no children – ‘no-one to pass the activism baton on to’. She employs a life-coach. She is ‘spiritual’, although she has given up ‘believing in the Christian God’. (She keeps rosary beads blessed by the Pope in her laptop bag.) She still occasionally goes to mass but she places her trust ‘in the universe and Biama – the creator spirit of the Wiradjuri people’ of central New South Wales. She has spent most of her life in Sydney’s Matraville (‘between’, she says, ‘the Malabar sewage works, Long Bay gaol and the Orica industrial estate’) but ‘I am always Wiradjuri’ from her mother’s ngurumbang or country. The great moments in her life were Barack Obama’s inauguration which she watched in Harlem; Oprah Winfrey’s performance at the Sydney Opera House where she queued with 6000 other pilgrims ‘in an eery peaceful silence’; and Kevin Rudd’s Apology on Parliament Hill. ‘I have always thought big, wanted big, expected big, behaved big, and sometimes I’ve delivered big.’
So how did Heiss, ‘artist and academic’, respond to Bolt’s column of April 2009: ‘It’s So Hip to Be Black’? She was ‘gob-smacked’. She decided to join eight co-plaintiffs in legal action against him and his newspaper for several reasons. His column was ‘likely’ to offend others. It contained errors. It was ‘a slight’ on her ancestry, heritage and family. It led bloggers to make hateful and hurtful comments. Bolt himself had written : ‘I’m not saying any of those I’ve named chose to be Aboriginal for anything but the most heartfelt and honest reasons.’ (That word ‘chose’ outrages Heiss.) ‘I certainly don’t accuse them of opportunism.’ But some of Bolt’s readers, often pseudonymous, did. Heiss read their comments and sobbed. When she heard the news that she had won, she spent five hours in a Redfern bistro taking calls and emails and being congratulated in person. The court ordered Bolt’s newspaper to publish ‘a corrective notice’. Among her last words in her manifesto are : ‘I wrote this book to honour my family.’ The question remains whether her triumph was a Pyrrhic victory. It generated enormous publicity but its depreciation of free and frank speech may have set back her cause for years.
What about Bolt? He has not changed his mind. But his lawyers advise him that he would be foolish to repeat opinions held to be unlawful. He is gagged on these issues. (Expect no memoir, no manifesto, no reply to Heiss from Bolt!) Some say that it is not his opinions that breached the Racial Discrimination Act but the manner in which he expressed them. This is not Heiss’s view (although she notes it.) It is the opinions, however expressed, that she finds objectionable and actionable. But the decisions of the Australian federal court cannot restrict debate on the American website of Amazon books where the issues canvassed by Heissare freely debated. The exercise of what we thought is our birthright now depends on American traditions of freedom. But don’t count on journalists to stick up for free speech in Australia. Some do. Many don’t. At least the Institute of Public Affairs has set up a Fighting Fund.