Fear of Passing

by Lucy Frost

© all rights reserved

Any construction of identity, whether individual or collective, relies on narrative to produce a defining shape. The collective identity we call ‘nationality’ encompasses narratives endorsed as ‘authentic’ in a specific social space.

In Australia the Keating government endorsed a paradigmatic narrative of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal contact which acknowledged a colonial legacy of invasion, dispossession, and injustice. The goal was to effect closure to this colonial narrative by recognising Aboriginal claims upon the historical past from which the settler society constructed its ‘nation’ and embrace a process of reconciliation. The Howard government seems determined to change the paradigm for reading stories of Aboriginality in Australia.

Of course governments alone cannot determine the narrative paradigms within which cultural identity takes shape. The authorising agencies are spread throughout the institutions of a society and the processes by which these agencies endorse and dis-endorse paradigms are often intricate and difficult to disentangle. Nevertheless, when individual stories are read within and against competing cultural paradigms, a politics may appear without reference to the conscious intention of the story-teller.

On the 20th of July 1996 I read a story I had heard circulating for weeks as well-sourced gossip, published in the glossy magazine which accompanies the Saturday edition of theAustralian. The subject of the article was the writer, critic and university professor, Mudrooroo. As written, there are two versions of his story, one told by his older sister, Betty (née Johnson), and the second by Victoria Laurie, the journalist who shaped Betty’s telling for national publication. The narratives, though entwined, serve different ends. Separated, they reveal a family politics of identity, and a cultural politics of race. Mudrooroo is under attack, but he is by no means the only target.

The Johnson telling: fear of passing

This is the story of a family — of Elizabeth and Thomas Johnson, their forebears and their descendants. One of these descendants is Betty, now aged seventy. It was her curiosity which sparked the story, and her diligent research into genealogical records which gave it direction.

Betty wanted to know how it was that her youngest brother Colin, who in 1988 changed his name to Mudrooroo, could be Aboriginal. How did his claims affect her identity? Like many researchers into family history, she seems to have had no background in historical analysis or theoretical modelling, and no inkling that this lack could make her vulnerable to narrative takeover by a political agenda. She was thinking in strictly personal terms, asking apparently simple questions. If Colin was Aboriginal, she and the other Johnson siblings must have been as well, but Aboriginality was not their experience:

If, like him, she were Aboriginal, Betty should have obtained permission from Native Welfare authorities to marry a white man — but she hadn’t. Frank should have been prevented by curfew laws from wandering around Perth’s city centre after sunset in the fifties; he hadn’t been.

Underpinning these personal questions lies a social model of racial identity in which power and space are deployed along a clearly demarcated divide. Everyone is on one side of the divide or the other. Either a person is Aboriginal and restricted or non-Aboriginal and free. Either Betty and Frank were non-Aboriginal, and entitled to the privileged positions they unthinkingly claimed, or they were Aboriginal and law-breakers, appropriating an identity to which they had no right. They were ‘passing’.

‘Passing’ belongs to a political story of racial transgression. It is a story I know well because I grew up in the American South when the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of racial segregation marked every inch of space I walked through. There were drinking fountains with signs saying ‘whites only’, but mostly signs weren’t needed, mostly people knew that swimming pools were for whites and not for blacks, knew which suburbs were white and which were black. Every institution I encountered was marked in this way. There were schools for whites and schools for blacks, ‘separate but equal’ we said, though I failed to notice that no school for blacks was accredited, failed to see the implication when I read in university handbooks that no graduate of an unaccredited high school was eligible for admission.

In this model of racial demarcation, the superiority of whites was assumed. Superiority justified privilege. It might also, whites feared, breed jealousy. Blacks might want what the whites had (never imagining that desire could flow in the opposite direction), might insinuate themselves into white space and appropriate a white identity. What if, by looking at a person, you could not see the black blood of the ancestor? What if a white-skinned black crossed over the white/black divide, ‘passed’? The boundaries had to be policed if ‘whiteness’ was to be protected, and ‘whiteness’ had to be protected because it meant power.

Reading skin and acknowledging or exercising power underlies the quotation with which Victoria Laurie begins her article, a quotation from Mudrooroo’s first novel, Wild Cat Falling (1965):
I get up from the table and she notices my clothes.
“Looks like you’ve been wrigglin’ through that drain pipe again. You haven’t been with those dirty Noongar kids I hope?”
“It’s no joking matter,” she says. “If we get seen with that mob we’ll be chucked out of this place quick smart.”
“Some of the white kids play with them.”
She starts packing up the plates. “That’s different. They belong on the white side of the fence. You’ve got to prove you do.”
Or, in my language from the American South, you’ve got to take care to ‘pass’. Otherwise, ‘we’ll be chucked out of this place quick smart.’ One member of a family can put the whole family at risk.

Surveillance must be unceasing. And along with surveillance comes denial. In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), the narrator who has been passing walks along a Chicago street one night with his white fiancée and sees his mother. He pretends not to know her. Next day he writes her a letter:

Ma, I felt mighty bad about last night. The first time we’d met in public that way. That’s the kind of thing that makes passing hard, having to deny your own family when you see them. . .

Similarly, Betty’s story of the Johnson story is permeated with denial and the accusations of denial. During her family research, she reads a booklet about the settlement of the West Australian town where her parents had lived. In this booklet ‘she found her father’s name under the entry, “T.C. Johnson (an American Negro).”‘ She was incensed and ‘sent off a terse note to the author that her father was Australian-born; his birth certificate showed that Thomas Creighton Johnson had been born in York Street, Sydney, in 1874.’

Foreign birth she will not have, but ‘Negro’ blood she accepts, apparently on this evidence from the booklet, together with a copy of her grandfather’s marriage certificate which says ‘he was a migrant from North Carolina who had, in Victoria in 1868, married an Irish woman from County Clare.’ She writes to ‘a distant cousin in the US’ who tells her that ‘if Thomas Johnson was an “American Negro” born in 1833,’ he ‘would have been born into Southern slavery.’ Betty is satisfied: she is not Aboriginal on her father’s side. She then investigates her mother’s family, traces it back to the first white child born on the Swan River in 1829, and is delighted. She is not Aboriginal, her Australian origins are pioneer white.

Erasing ‘Aboriginal’ as unauthentic, Betty the family historian can stop worrying that inadvertently she and her siblings have spent their lives ‘passing’. None of them other than Mudrooroo ever identified as Aboriginal, and none has begun identifying as African-American. Betty’s conclusions take visual shape in a photograph of four generations celebrating a reunion of family. Without the youngest brother.

The Second Telling: Who’s Passing Now?

I would never have heard Betty’s story, never have heard of Betty, if her brother had not been a recognised name in my world. Because Mudrooroo holds an eminent position in Australian writing and criticism, his unknown sister’s amateur sleuthing has interested the national press, and the story has moved from family history in the private sphere to representative history in the public. The meanings are no longer personal; they are cultural, they are meanings directed at me as a reader of the Australian newspaper and a member of Australian society, and they contribute towards the pressures to change the narrative paradigm for reading Aboriginality in Australia.

The narrative with reconciliation as a closure to colonial history is, it would seem, to be replaced by a narrative determined to relegate the past to the past, and insisting that in the present everyone must be the same. No special favours for blacks. They can assimilate. The Australian’s account of the Johnson story fits in nicely with the new narrative. Here’s a family whose ancestry includes slave-blacks, but they aren’t going on about that, aren’t complaining or asking that history be redressed. They’ve assimilated. Mudrooroo, however, refuses to join his siblings in white space, and it is an attack on this defiance which structures Victoria Laurie’s narrative.

Initially in the journalist’s story, Mudrooroo is a powerful figure. Laurie in her opening paragraph acknowledges him as a writer ‘at the pinnacle of his literary career,’ but from this moment, his literary reputation is questioned by bringing into doubt his Aboriginality. Laurie, like Betty and with the help of Betty, has done her own research, and from it she tells the story of the Johnson children, an impoverished family split up immediately after the death of their father and before the birth of Colin. Records generated for Colin at the Child Welfare Agency and the Clontarf Boys’ Town confirm a childhood in which skin-colour is crucial to personal identity. Colin is described as ‘a dark-featured lad, very promising in school’; later, he becomes a school leaver for whom it’s difficult to find accommodation ‘because of his fairly dark appearance (part-native blood)’; another welfare officer suggests ‘Dash of Indian or Negro’. Then he’s in court on assault charges. ‘He claims he is a bodgie’, says the arresting officer. An outsider without reference to skin. Victoria Laurie’s narrative reinscribes him as outsider, outsider to the Johnson family, outsider to the Nyoongah community who ‘invited Mudrooroo to put his case’. He didn’t. By the end of the article, the words of the writer ‘at the pinnacle of his literary career’ have vanished altogether, and it is Betty who effects closure: ‘I’ve got to say my bit, don’t I?’

It’s Betty’s ‘bit’ that makes it possible for the journalist to convert a private narrative of anxiety over passing into a politically charged narrative about assimilation. Passing subverts the power grid; assimilation yields to its mapping. And it is to a paradigm of assimilation that the federal government has now shifted, rejecting the previous government’s drive towards reconciliation.

Assimilate: that is the message underlying the telling of the Johnson family story in the Australian. The Johnsons in erasing their blackness are depicted as truthful, their stubbornly ‘black’ brother as a liar — because his identity is not the one uncovered by his sister. He’s not Aboriginal black, he’s African by way of American slave black, so he’s not what he claims to be, not a writer whose words are to be trusted. He says Mudrooroo, they say Johnson, sounding English by origin, sounding ordinary Australian today, mainstream, belonging. ‘Johnson’ is also the name they have inherited from a slave ancestor, a name used to erase Africanness, but Victoria Laurie doesn’t mention this. Her article, attacking the integrity of Mudrooroo while supporting the integrity of his siblings, arouses suspicions about other ‘so-called Aborigines’, a phrase heard with increasing frequency in these days of the Prime Minister’s new ‘freedom of speech’.

If Mudrooroo is unauthentic, only passing, the article by implication asks, how many more are doing the same? How many more are passing? The narrative of assimilation is shadowed by the unassimilated, the Other, and when the Other is Author, his words become vulnerable, subject to appropriation, denial, erasure. The future then looks like a past to which I hope we will not return.

Lucy Frost is Professor of English at the University of Tasmania.

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