Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss


I learned about Anita Heiss from ANZ LitLovers‘ review of the book. Perhaps the most appealing thing to say about her is that she is hard to describe in a single sentence. Her mother is Aboriginal, her father an Austrian; she completed a Ph.D. and has published books about Aboriginal literature and she writes popular fiction for urban women called by some choc-lit; one of her first jobs was with Streetwize Comics doing outreach to aboriginal youth to improve literacy. She is a much-traveled, hard working woman who makes intense friendships and loves having lunch with her many women friends. She loves dressing well, thinks about losing weight, and wrote a book called Avoiding Mr. Right.

The book begins with quotes from an inflammatory newspaper column in 2009 by Andrew Bolt. The column impuned the professional reputations of several people and along with factual errors about her, stated that Anita Heiss defined her identity as aboriginal in order to help her career. ┬áMore than once while reading this book, I was reminded of those who decried Barack Obama’s advantage in being an African American in the 2008 election. Bolt’s column was challenged successfully in court on the basis of a provision of the Racial Discrimination Act, though the two year struggle for her (and other litigants) took a toll.

She is such a cheerful person and expresses such joy and love for her family and friends that this was ultimately an inspiring book. It begins, however, with the lying, ugly statements in the column and with a description of the horrors of her maternal family’s life. Her grandmother was taken from her family and sent to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls, then to a Catholic institution for girls. She went into service for an English woman in Sydney, and later on a sheep station until she married in 1927. Her grandparents lived in one of 21 houses on Erambie Aboriginal Station in Cowra where the mission manager’s wife checked the houses each week with the threat that they could be deemed unfit, resulting in the removal of the children.

She grew up in southeast Sydney in the Matraville area and attended Catholic school where she was the only aboriginal. She says

One of the most surprising impacts the article [by Andrew Bolt] has had is that only since its publication have I been referred to as a ‘light-skinned Aborigine’ or a ‘white Aborigine.” I was always the dark one when compared to whitefellas. Now whitefellas are not comparing me to themselves but to other Blackfellas, and all of a sudden I’m ‘light-skinned.’ Does that mean they now accept me as one of their own?

And later

It’s not a coincidence that all those mentioned in the article have succeeded in their chosen fields. Is it possible that this is because of an underlying notion that high achievers can only do well if they are white and not Black? That if you are educated, professional, savvy and smart, then you can’t possibly be Aboriginal?

And if that weren’t bad enough, she is occasionally attacked by other Aboriginal people:

Unfortunately, it was in this job that I first experienced Black-on-Black prejudice. It was during a comic-writing workshop I was running with Kooris [a term used by those in New South Wales and Victoria for aboriginals in the southeast area of Australia] from around Sydney. One male participant in his twenties essentially claimed, ‘You’re not even Black. You wear lipstick and your mum drives a Pajero!’

A copy of this book is at the UVa library.

Anita Heiss, Am I Black Enough for you? Bantam, 2012, 346 pages.

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