Black Grief and the Elimination of the Native

9 Aug 2023

Dr Eugenia Flynn writes about the health system and it's lack of ability to see our [Mob] lives and deaths as anything other than numbers.

This Place, Again

I had so many funerals last year, I couldn’t even make it to them all. Not for want of trying but I had four people pass away on me last year, the closest ones. Beyond those four, I had many more whose soft cheeks and dry warm hands I was only occasionally able to touch, before the light in their eyes began to flicker then stop. Some quick, dark and fast, with others the light faded to a soft ember glow, then eventually turned to ash. I sobbed tears into my hands at each of their deaths. These were community members who extended my family, as well as the close ones, those four too many. Of those four, the majority passed away well before their time; one of my brotha boys was younger than me, only in his thirties. Too young, too many, too frequent. I weep tears of anger into the earth. Into Country. 

This Place, Again

I think back to those who passed the year before, and the year before that, and the many from years long ago. Mostly young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. My brothas and cousin-brothers, who died before it should have been their time. I remember the family members who died after complaining of an ache, being misdiagnosed, and left to succumb. I reflect on the multiple family and community members who are at risk of, or who have had, limbs amputated due to infection and disease. I think of brotha boy who died in his thirties, then another who was full of life but suddenly gone in his early fifties, and the brotha who almost, but then didn’t end up making it to fifty –  all of these men passed in their sleep. I think about way back when, the way we tut tut tutted and spoke quietly while shaking our heads, ‘suicide is catching’ we said, after attempted suicides followed that one successful one amongst our circle of friends. 

I am angry that this place has become a place of untimely death, of tragic and traumatic deaths, of too many deaths and too much grieving. A modern country built on top of sacred Country, a settler-colonial nation intent on eliminating the native. First through the brutality of genocide, massacre, and sexual violence across the colonial frontier. Then through the continuation of callous and dehumanising violence and paternalistic policies tucked away deep inside polite modern society. Now, settler-colonial Australia continues its war against us blackfellas, reporting on this violence through quoted statistics about deaths in custody, education and employment outcomes, and ‘the gap’ in life expectancy.

Beyond the dispassionate nature of data and numbers, are real people. Families and communities repeatedly traumatised by these insidious forms of violence, the cruelty of a modern settler-colonial state that seeks to eliminate the native. Deceptive in nature, this kind of violence is no less brutal than other forms of coloniality, of physical violence. However, the brutality is less apparent through its indirectness, lack of physical force, and of course its racist mindset that dismisses the humanity of First Peoples, diminishing the harm we experience. Such forms of settler-colonial violence are wilfully misrepresented and configured as us killing ourselves through excessive drinking and drug abuse, a propensity toward violence and crime, being neglectful or abusive parents, or more – all the racist tropes about us that have existed since first contact with Europeans. 

This Place, Again

What is hidden within this ready blame is a mindset that assumes our blackness is a negative and inherently causes us to become sick, to make bad choices, to die young. The truth though, is we are racialised as black and then the racist health system treats us accordingly.  As problem patient populations, as people who cannot be saved, those who cannot save themselves. Waanyi and Jaru medical anthropologist Gregory Phillips writes

The overwhelming thinking underlying policy and public discourse is that Aborigines and our cultures are the problem. Somehow, we seem to think, if we just tell Aborigines to eat more fruit and vegetables and turn up to their appointments, then their health outcomes will improve. This of course is a fallacy.

Beautiful black bodies and black lives are problematised by a racist health system that views them as Other and is wilfully careless with black death. The racialisation of First Peoples as black, as problematic due to our blackness, began in the annals of history – at the point of first contact, at the time of invasion, at the claiming of our lands and waters for a foreign white sovereign, despite our own identification with blackness as a positive. Settler scholar Patrick Wolfe writes of a comparable history for North America: 

For Indians…non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing “half-breeds,” a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations. As opposed to enslaved people, whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination. Thus we cannot simply say that settler colonialism or genocide have been targeted at particular races, since a race cannot be taken as given. It is made in the targeting.

In this place, the negative version of First Peoples’ blackness was made in the targeting. That is, we were racialised as black in order to justify the theft of our lands and waters. We continue to be racialised as black to perpetuate this ongoing dispossession, with our blackness discriminated against by the systems, structures, and institutions of modern Australia. As Wolfe writes elsewhere: 

Focusing upon this cultural logic [of elimination] enables us to keep both the continuity and the differences in view. This, in turn, enables us to perceive the underlying coherence of Australian history, which links present government policy to the initial invasions. In this light, invasion emerges as a structure rather than an event.

Present government policies, systemic practices, institutional racism, structural inequalities. All these to perpetuate invasion, to ensure the continuation of the Australian state built on racist lies, stolen land, and on top of enduring black sovereignty. But behind the policy and practices, beyond the systems, institutions and structures are us blackfellas who live the everyday violence of the Closing the Gap statistics

The latest estimates show that in the period from 2015 to 2017, life expectancy at birth for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men was 71.6 years and 75.6 years for women. This suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, on average, live 8.6 years less than non-Indigenous men, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, on average, live 7.8 years less than non-Indigenous women. This gap has reduced over the last five years by 2.0 years for men and 1.7 years for women. This means, 71.6 is the average number of years that a group of newborn male babies would be expected to live if current death rates remain unchanged. For newborn Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female babies, the average number is 75.6 years.

Distant from the many people who may be unfamiliar with how to interpret data and statistics, life expectancy is a measure that feels less urgent than other more obvious forms of violence in settler-colonial Australia, such as police and state violence that results in black deaths in custody. Commendably, average life expectancy at birth is increasing for current generations of blackfellas, born amidst a concerted effort to close the gap between First Peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. However, while our beautiful black babies born across 2015 to 2017 have a chance of leading longer and hopefully healthier and happier lives, their Elders are dying too frequently, too soon, and often in ways that are entirely preventable. 

What space do such statistics give to the stark realities of trauma circulating in our communities? The trauma related to death and grief is continuously compounded by the sheer numbers and frequency of deaths many blackfellas must face across their lifetimes. Adding to this heartbreak is the fact many of these deaths come laden with additional cause for grief – people dying too young, often in preventable and/or shocking circumstances. While Closing the Gap statistics report a decreasing gap in life expectancy, they also detail rates of suicide that are not only higher than for non-Indigenous people, but rates of suicide are increasing.

This place, again.

Earlier this year I sat and cried in my therapist’s office, then again in my doctor’s office, thinking of the multiple deaths of close family and friends across the last twelve months. My doctor makes murmuring noises of comfort and says, “When we talk about closing the gap, you are really living it, aren’t you?” My therapist gently brings up that I am managing so much on top of the grief; my husband had a stroke the year before last and we continue to manage the fallout. They continue, “I can only imagine this brings up a lot for you in relation to the grief of losing your parents.” 

Often when I am thinking of the early deaths, the preventable deaths, the ones resulting from difficult or tragic circumstances, I imagine lives of lost potential. I see in my mind’s eye lost futures – the babies who will grow without parents or grandparents, the world that will not see the full brilliance of the most intelligent minds, the art we will no longer be able to experience from the most beautiful of artists. 

I am full of sorrow at this lost potential, yet I am angry too. And so I write. I write not for the voyeurs who secretly thrill at black pain. Nor do I write for the sympathy you may feel when reading my words, the breath you suck in as you imagine black bodies in anguish, the tut tut tut you utter when you think of the ‘plight’ of the Aborigine. I write these words in searing anger. For every blackfella who continues to be touched by the 235 year old epidemic of trauma and grief that we call modern Australia. I write to reclaim my power – I am not a statistic, I am not a number on a screen. As the late Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks once declared, “I am not the problem.”

 

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