Today is the fourth anniversary of the Parliamentary Apology to the Stolen Generations, delivered by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
I wanted to mark it – just sitting at my desk in the study – by playing Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away.
It is an autobiographical song about his own removal from Framlingham station. It was the song that woke me to this chapter in history, soon after arriving in Australia.
I put on the song. It was going to be a moment of simple, quiet reflection, to remember and to give respect, even if no one saw.
It didn’t last long. My mind unexpectedly flashed to an image of my little son. I imagined him being taken away, for no more reason than that he is half-white (which he is, though not Aboriginal).
In a heartbeat, I turned into a mess. Ridiculous, noisy sobs took over as the music played on. My child is four years old, at the age which many Aboriginal children were removed from their families, to be institutionalised and adopted out, forever caught in the chasm between white man’s ways and their black identity and heritage.
I imagined not being allowed to visit my son, not seeing him again. I understood with new meaning why many women died of heartbreak during the time of the Aboriginal Protection Boards.
We sometimes make excuses for the sins of the past, explaining that race-based transgressions were a feature of the time, that people then did not know better or were misguided. But this speaks merely of a failure to imagine, an incapacity to put oneself in another’s shoes. Could anyone really argue that black mothers of the time felt about their children differently than white mothers then, or even today? How would we feel if it were our own children, our own powerlessness?
I find many things turn out to be complicated. But this is not one of them. Forcibly removing children from families without requiring authorities to establish neglect or mistreatment is an injustice. But it is not one that sits in the past, as some might like to believe. It remains in vivid, living memory for many who walk among us. It manifests in the continued fragmentation, within families, between individuals and their culture, between Indigenous and non Indigenous.
The Apology was never about gluing together these fragments; it was about acknowledging what was broken. It wasn’t about feeling guilty; it was about being sad together. Sometimes, we just need to be sad – together. And as in any relationship, it is not for those who’ve done wrong to say when to move on. It is for them to sit beside, and be still.