Another Day in the Colony
by Chelsea Watego
Published November 2021
I’ve worked in Aboriginal education since 2003, in different institutions and teaching capacities, and I’ve always ignored the personal impacts of my job, stuffing them down and getting on with things the way my stoic old people always did. If I ever had to talk about the harm that educational institutions cause, I’d just focus on the cultural and communal impacts, particularly on my students. But reading Munanjali and South Sea Islander Professor Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony (UQP) allowed me to admit the personal slights and to feel them rather than repressing them.
I don’t work in the school system anymore because it wasn’t safe for me or for other teachers. They say to serve your students you must have a full plate yourself but I never had one after sitting in staff rooms day in and day out, being privy to all flavours of white saviourism and white supremacy, telling racist teachers to go fuck themselves – the very same pillars of their communities who are out there teaching our kids while having no expectations of them but that they will fail. Working in the academy as a casual has been spiritually healthier for me as I spend less time in the trenches, but the price I pay is that I don’t have any financial stability. Still, even with a bit of distance, it is a fucken traumatising job at times. Not many people have to confront their peoples’ abuse and oppression every day, let alone at work, and it was a balm to read as Watego skilfully peeled the layers off these long-buried sore spots.
As I read this book I was struck by the similarities between being black in the sandstone and being in the sunken place. This is the name given to the mind prison from Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. The sunken place has made its way into popular usage for black people describing the way we are imprisoned by white systems, not just bodily, but mentally and spiritually. In the film, Chris, a black photographer, goes with his white girlfriend Rose to her family home for the weekend, ostensibly to meet them – instead they intend to lobotomise him so that a rich white friend of the family can inhabit his body through eugenically-conceived neurosurgery. The relationship between the body and the mind is a focus of both the film and Watego’s book.
Get Out is part of the body horror genre, which deals with themes of defamiliarisation and dissociation. The genre, like Another Day in the Colony, examines the effects on the mind when our bodies are invaded or otherwise interfered with. As is typical of the genre, characters are forced to observe while their body is hijacked, molested or compelled to shapeshift. Sometimes the mind cannot stay sovereign and separate from the process, betraying the self in doing so.
Watego has an engaging, accessible voice, both unflinching and vulnerable, but also really funny, and cheeky too. Sometimes it condenses into academic lingo, but it’s never dry and it’s only ever briefly, before slipping back into her more familiar assertive or humorous delivery. As the voice of the book is lived-in and black, so too is the binang / ear of the book. Watego is very clear that this book was written for blackfellas (though she knows others will be listening in). I felt centred from the get-go knowing that this book was intended for me. So much writing isn’t for us, even some writing by us. I’m sick to death of reading writing by mob that’s marketed as black but is clearly not for us or about us. I mean, who else is gonna be in our corner if even our own people ain’t?
This book upholds knowing as relational, as bodily and experiential, which is a big fuck you to the way the academy likes to divorce our heads from our bodies. These metaphorical sites and the conflict between them are old hangovers from the heady heyday of race science. In the eighteenth century, phrenologists thought they could measure our intelligence by examining our heads, and today, our success in the academy is measured through KPIs and publishing outputs. In a part that made me spit out my cuppa and cackle, Watego says that where a white expert would once display an Aboriginal skull on their shelf, today they display our books instead.
Still though, whether residing in the skull or a book, in the academic paradigm, the head remains the seat of our intellect, and one of the many big struggles when working for a colonial institution is to resist living in the head, and to honour the rest of the mind that lives in the whole body. Yet sometimes the pendulum, as it is wont to do, has swung quite a way in the other direction. For those lucky enough not to know, certain disciplines in the academy like to talk about ‘black bodies’ as though these are separate from our minds, or as if our minds don’t also live in our bodies, or as if our bodies don’t have their own intelligence. As so much academic theory eventually does, this phrasing has seeped into social justice discourse from the top down, though it is sometimes promoted as an attempt to centre the body and its feelings in discussions of brutality. Critique of this practice holds it as dehumanising, dissociating the black body from black personhood. Although I understand its use as a strategy in foregrounding race and racism as embodied, the phrase has always given me the creeps when white academics say it, and it gives me big sunken place vibes when black people say it unthinkingly.
From as early on as the acknowledgements I know this isn’t a book of abstract theory: Watego thanks Dr David Singh who helped her to think about race through her own lived experience of it, and she also thanks Uncle Shane Coghill (Goenpul Yuggera) for his knowing of sovereignty as lived and embodied, not through theory. There is a world of difference between knowing about race and sovereignty as embodied and experiential rather than theoretically, that is, through other peoples’ stories. It is truly baffling when others use theory from elsewhere to try to explain us to ourselves. This kind of intellectualised, non-localised race theory is sunken place thinking.
Watego makes the point that knowledge should be embodied and relational, even though our knowledge has been disembodied by the academy and is co-opted by the newly and ambiguously Indigenous. Watego pulls no punches with the latter group: ‘We are at a time in which Aboriginal authors who have discovered their ancestry are outweighing the number of authors who have grown up Aboriginal,’ she says, a perfect articulation of why lived-in voices like Watego’s are so important in this war for our stories.
Sadly, there are more than a few Indigenous people in the arts, activism and academia trading in stories that are not theirs (or their family’s). They did not grow up in a community nor do they belong to one in adulthood, which suggests that all of their cultural knowledge has been learnt from books. It is disembodied. Still, they build careers off knowledge they have no relationship to and get lauded as experts by adoring white audiences.
Watego argues that cultural knowledge is experiential and therefore can’t be severed from the individual and collective Aboriginal body:
As a Blackfulla who gets to think about, live and feel race, I am unable to separate them out from each other. But this is not just an experience of my body; it relates to the rules that govern Indigenous knowledge production, whereby we cannot know without articulating our relationship to that which we claim.
Ideally, Aboriginal academics should have a relationship to the stories we work with in our scholarship, though some do not. In order for our work to be, as Watego says ‘emancipatory not extractive’, research must belong to the community that it is about. Nothing about us without us: this is the only way researchers can be responsible and accountable to our communities in good conscience, a point also made by Bidjara, Birri Gubba, Juru historian Jackie Huggins. I would add that this should be the case for writers and other artists too, especially those who trade in narratives of black pain without any connection to those stories. Otherwise they are only benefitting themselves, white audiences and institutions.
In contrast, part of Watego’s strategising for battle is in her identifying as a proud Black academic, unlike those who see shame in the label. She doesn’t just identify this way to tell others who she is, but who she is here for. This flies in the face of the academy’s expected direction of our labour, that it be oriented towards servicing white students and colleagues.
Watego emphasises she is not a race theorist, and this is why her articulation of race through experience is so powerful. Unlike the writing of those who’ve never been part of a community, none of what Watego writes about is theoretical, nor is it cobbled together from the stories of others. She says that the only people who can teach us about racism are those who have fought it – not previously or currently white people, or those who are treated by the world as such. ‘The inescapability of race’ means experiencing real-world racism from a young age, not making up incidents in adulthood and retconning them into a racialised childhood, despite growing up white or white passing.
Another way that Watego gives primacy to the body is through sports metaphors and anecdotes, specifically boxing, running and footy – all sports that blackfellas love and excel at, and can relate to. Watego gets a sly dig in at her siblings when she brags to us that she was a far more decorated sportsperson than they were, and she recounts a touching story of communal catharsis at the footy when her partner kicked a difficult goal after having had to listen to slurs from the stands.
In her foreword, Birri Gubba and Gungalu scholar Dr Lilla Watson says that Watego, in writing this book, is a ‘lone runner’ and she situates Watego’s body in a race against everyone and no one; Watego nods to this metaphor later. In her acknowledgements Watego recounts how Watson inspired her to reframe the book’s focus away from fighting, survival and resistance and toward standing ground, but many of these original frames remain in the book – for how can they not? Because it has always been a fight against colonisation, whether duking it out from a sovereign position or battling in less noble contexts. Indeed, Watego recounts in this same section how Uncle Shane Coghill often used metaphors of boxing, and that he was always in her corner. The feeling I get as I read this book is that Watego is in our corner too, shouting encouragement when coming to blows and strategising between rounds – and this is particularly true in the final chapter.
If our bodies are what hold us in and what allow us to hold others, and if they can be strong and fighting fit though good health and loving, then they can also get sick and run down from being cut off from all this necessary stuff, and by the stressors and traumas of racism. We can only feel pain through our bodies, though we may disassociate in extremity: Watego writes of being numb, broken, and lacking feeling after speaking on a deaths in custody panel. For some, race might be the stuff of theory, able to be debated and pondered at a distance, but our people bear the brunt of physical and spiritual colonial violence. Many in Watego’s family died too young after enduring a lifetime of this fight. Even though our people are adept at powering through these skirmishes at the time, our bodies, which includes our minds, always keeps the racial score. Watego found this out for herself in 2020, when her own body stopped for several months – and no wonder, after decades of working in health and race on top of a lifetime of living it. Having seen what racism did to both her dad and husband in particular, rather than pushing through it she instead honoured her body and took time to write these stories out.
We experience sympathy and empathy with our bodies too. As I read this book I cried, laughed, cheered and raged, I felt sick and heartsore and happy; as my pulse raced and slowed down, so did my breath. When Watego spoke of her assault I felt my own phantom pains from similar experiences as though they were fresh bruises. When she spoke of the restorative talk of race in Chapter 4, I too was moved to tears as though I were in the room with the people she writes of.
Dealing in the physical comes with considerations of space: borders, limits and delineation. Many types of boundaries come up time and again in this book. Sometimes these have been imposed on us, like the physical Boundary Street in West End in Meanjin, and the physical, legal border it was– a place of enforced curfew, patrolled by violent cops. Legally and racially too, colonisers have always tried to decide who we are, informed by their narrow conceptual parameters. Watego talks us through the physicality of marking out our battleground and donning armour for battle. Boundaries are also self-determining, a way of asserting our own sovereignty, especially when we’re considering who belongs to us and who doesn’t, and the thresholds of what behaviour we will and won’t accept, and this is why we growl at people who broach these collective boundaries.
At the end of Get Out, when Chris is strangling his white girlfriend Rose in self-defence, sirens appear and we are terrified about how this scene will look to the police, despite knowing the truth of the situation. We fear for Chris because we know how this story goes; we’ve seen this story play out on countless hours of shaky phone footage from around the world. We fear that the evil white honeypot will enlist her white protectors to stamp out the black resistance. This is what white people in their institutions do, as detailed by Watego in chapters 1, 2 and 4. These three chapters draw on Watego’s personal experiences and form a powerful and convincing triptych that argues for why we must fight in the war for our stories, and what will happen if we don’t.
Chapter 1, ‘don’t feed the natives’, rails against Australia’s history of positioning us as primitive curiosities, and explores the academy’s sick fascination with categorising us, and using this to control us. Watego traces the ways that Aboriginal identity was, and still is, constructed by outsiders, beginning with anthropologists in the academy, and how this has been perpetuated through to the present day, both inside and outside educational institutions. Most insidious is how we come to internalise this outsider-constructed identity even if we already have a strong identity rooted in family and community. Chapter 2, ‘animals, cannibals and criminals’, explores the role of colonial stories in criminalising us, through fabrications of who we are and the storying of our violence and dysfunction, through to present-day meddling and litigious editorial gatekeepers. The longest chapter is the fourth, titled ‘on racial violence, victims and victors’; itis a confronting and nuanced discussion of the spiritual violence we endure everyday as Aboriginal people, which is rooted in stories. Stories have a two-fold function in serving the colonial project: of promoting their own narratives about us while silencing ours. Our stories must therefore be defended and we must use our stories to fight back against theirs.
In Get Out, those who want to colonise Chris conduct a conspiracy against him, collectively deceiving him in different ways. Rose lies to Chris, and lulls him into trusting her and the rest of the Armitage family who are in on it too, as are the members of their grotesque secret society, who place a premium value on blackness. This mix of fetishisation and racial gaslighting may seem cartoonish but it is rife in the academy.
These three were the heaviest chapters for me as they reflected back to me exactly what’s at stake in these places every day. I felt sad and tired, thinking about all the ways we are bashed about by experts all our lives, and the shit we endure over a lifetime of going through school, then uni, and working in jobs where we have to constantly fight back. I raged, reading this recognition of what we go through with students, with colleagues, with management, and when we come to the academy with lived experience as Aboriginal people – not as late identifiers who got their CoA from the university – we hold knowledge that we are strong, clever, creative and joyful people, and that we are ‘not the problem’, as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks says, yet we have to teach and learn as though we are, and we have to defer to others’ ‘expertise’ on us. All we ever hear from these self-proclaimed experts are the deficits of Aboriginality. It’s so fucken insulting being told by people who have never lived in our communities how deficient our people are, especially when you know that our mob are the only people who are actually fighting for us. We are not the problem, but to the academy we pose a big one because we are not malleable enough for them – because we’ve already been shaped by our communities. They want us cut off from our people and even from our own bodies. And those of us who do not bend to their will are eventually going to snap or break.
The spiritual states Watego describes in these chapters are sunken places that trap the soul and torture it, and try to stamp it out of the body. She describes the ‘haunted look’ of those who have sunk so low: the horror of realising that white people own your body (or, your labour and therefore financial security) and you fall, retreating into yourself for protection, and all you can do is witness this happening through the window of your eyes, powerless to respond.
Watego says that ‘it was at my lowest that I knew I had to act’, and her refusal of the sunken place prison is what David Singh calls ‘sovereign divergence’. This remedy only happens once you first understand that you’re in the sunken place, and that you need fight the fuck back to escape. You can’t give up trying because, unlike other people, you actually have skin in the game. Watego’s strategy of being sovereign to escape the sunken place is an embodied knowing of who we are through our bloodlines and the (real) violence inflicted on us.
In chapter 2, Watego recounts how the board of the Australian Feminist Law Journal vetoed her paper in a special issue of the journal guest edited by Alison Whittaker (Gomeroi) and Dr Nicole Watson (Yugambeh, Birri Gubba). I squealed when I saw that chapter 3, ‘the unpublishable story’, was this vetoed paper and I screamed when I saw the chapter’s opening document – an image of the cover of the AFLJ issue in question. Though they were not allowed to include Watego’s paper in the issue, the guest editors were able to choose the cover art: a photograph of Watego standing with hands on hips, looking staunch as hell, her head lifted proudly and gazing straight into the camera lens, as she wears a Vernon ah Kee shirt that says ‘did you forget whose land you’re on?’ Her physical stance, coupled with the message of her shirt, evokes a solid embodied presence.
In the preceding chapters Watego casts her eye over her own life and the institutions she moves through. In this chapter she turns her laser focus to one specific text and while this is the most scholarly chapter of the book – as it was originally written for the AFLJ – it’s not dense or dry. It’s a delight. If the previous chapters were about making a case for the damage stories can do to us, this chapter makes an example of one particular book. This is what good academic writing should do. It’s a masterclass in cold and calculating critique, and such a pleasure to read.
Before jumping into her main analysis Watego reiterates the stakes in the storytelling war, and the danger of incomplete stories. In the first section ‘Finding Eliza’ Watego discusses Larissa Behrendt’s book of the same name, and her rigour in rounding out our characterisation from the colonial accounts that sidelined us, focussed through the lens of Eliza Fraser’s story. Watego dismisses the way that racist narratives are excused as ‘of their time’, as these narratives are of all-times. She shows this in the next section, hilariously titled ‘Finding Caffey’, which is the nickname of Cathy McClennan, whose 2016 memoir Saltwater is the subject of Watego’s scrutiny. McClennan, a white lawyer who went to work in the exotic tropics, tells the story of her time with the natives. Watego quickly lays bare the deceit of McClennan’s Palm Island case – that is, that a middle-aged man driving young boys around could ever be an ‘innocent’ murder victim.
So far into this book, Watego has shown her skill as a great memoirist and as a scholarly writer, but this chapter shows off Watego’s skill in literary criticism. She’s a damn good reviewer. As Watego deftly picks McClennan’s story apart, she concurrently criticises the way McClennan tells her story. Without a lick of shame or self-reflection, Caffey exposes her own racial prejudices via her projections onto Aboriginal people – describing Aboriginal people as animal-like, lusty, threatening, sly and unwashed. McClennan focuses on the ‘black bodies’ and the physicality of those she writes about, mirroring the way that the white Armitage family of Get Out relate to blackness by constantly commenting on Chris’ and others’ attributes. Both McClennan and the Armitages are who you are supposed to think of as good white people, regardless of their regressive vocabularies that wouldn’t be out of place in an eighteenth-century race theory lecture. But as the white people who are able to get closest to us, they also do the most harm. Give me an out and proud racist over these types any day. At least I’ll know where I stand.
Although Watego eviscerates McClennan’s memoir in such a satisfying, forensic way, this was a rage-inducing read. As I read my breathing deepened, heart beating harder. I can’t imagine how Watego felt reading this text so closely. I’m burning up when I read cherry-picked examples of how McClennan spoke to her Aboriginal clients, including children, and how she describes Aboriginal people to her readers. I’m not angry because this is a shock to me, but because I know people like Caffey and my body remembers how it feels to be near them. I’ve seen and heard this stuff all my life.
In a satisfying conclusion to this chapter, Watego circles back to the original point – people like Caffey, who see hope in our individual and institutional demise, are a dime a dozen, and Watego draws the connection between McClennan’s personal and literary success in the year that Palm Islanders were suing her employer. Reiterating the point of the preceding chapters, celebrated stories like Eliza’s and Caffey’s are dangerous because they keep us down. Watego’s critique reminds us that these types of historical and contemporary narratives are used as weapons against us.
Now we come to the two riskiest chapters – one which satisfied me no end, and one which brought up more questions than it answered.
Expanding on the discussion of the ‘inescapability of race’ in Chapter 4, Chapter 5, ‘ambiguously indigenous’, is about the people who can and do escape the realities of it, avoiding the responsibilities while making lucrative careers off tenuous connections.
Roasting is my love language, and this was a delicious chapter to get stuck into. Watego is at her best when she is strident and cheeky and she comes in guns blazing here. I rubbed my hands together with glee as I read and my mind skipped around to everyone I knew who would be flinching from these blows, sweating bullets or scrabbling to come up with counter-arguments. Long have I lamented the proliferation of fake and gammon blackfellas, especially those race shifters in blackface who perform their identity for clout and credibility; I could have written this chapter myself, but the way Watego guts these people is a joy to read.
‘It is jarring and most distressing to walk into a room one has considered private and find it ringed with cameras, spotlights, and insistent strangers claiming long acquaintance and making plans to move in and redecorate without being invited,’ says Margo Jefferson of the way white people stole rock and roll from black Americans – but she could well be talking about the surreal experience of watching previously white people shift race, and seeing what they do with who they think we are. It is truly something else to have your identity cannibalised, plagiarised, magpied, leeched off and drained so that someone can top up their social capital. Jefferson also says that, ‘Imitation is a form of cannibalism. And the imitator is never content to merely nibble; oh no, every so often, when life becomes dull or frustrating, he becomes greedy. Nothing will satisfy him but the whole, body and blood.’
Whenever outsiders suddenly become black (or tread close enough) they always come off as unnatural, weird and stiff, much like an AI bot that has studied and stolen our ways. Because to them it’s all cosmetic and aesthetic, so they endeavour to read the right books, wear ochre, fake tan and blackened-up makeup, adorn themselves with feathers, flag tatts, Aboriginal prints and black clothing brands. I worry that Watego’s book might get co-opted in this way too. In a similar vein, in her essay ‘So White So What’, Alison Whittaker says of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s seminal Talking up to the White Woman, ‘Twenty years after the book was published, the vague and dripping over-praise of the work I get from non-Indigenous lovers is a turn-off, and the speed at which they devour it is not at all believable. Patronising. A flip through.’ Will Another Day in the Colony be the next book in line for this treatment?
Get Out interrogates the problem of race shifters – both the aforementioned white people who become black, as well as already black people who act white. Regarding the latter, on my re-watch of Get Out I was more interested in the different types of black characters than I was in the banal evil of the white ones, as I had been on my first watch. I noticed how, although they looked black, and were related to as black people by other black people, the sunken blacks never thought of themselves as such and neither did any of the white characters – because none of them were really black anymore. Well, maybe somewhere deep down inside they were. They were now, in Watego’s words, ‘ontologically white’. There are a few famous sunken Aboriginal people out there, some of them infamous, who’ve made whole careers denying the abuse of blackfellas and climbing over the bodies of their own people for a pat on the head. It’s sad and it’s shame.
Like the sunken place black people of the movie, these ones are beloved of the sunken place gatekeepers because they have been lobotomised of their own essence and filled – colonised – with a white soul, something rejected by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, whose powerful and infamous ‘I am not the problem’ speech Watego quotes in her Introduction. In this speech, Kunoth-Monks says ‘You know, I have a culture. I am a cultured person.’ She speaks Arrente to show this, then, in English, ‘I am not something that fell out of the sky for the pleasure of somebody putting another culture into this cultured being… in spite of whiteness trying to penetrate into my brain by assimilationists – I am alive, I am here and now.’ Earlier in the book, Watego discusses the 1955 film Jedda, the titular character played by a young Kunoth-Monks herself. In the film, Jedda had white culture poured into her black body all her young life, though her black spirit was stoked back into wakefulness by the untameable energy of another black person, Marbuck. You might say that Jedda was only able to escape her sunken place thanks to this sovereign blackfella.
Sunken blacks are so jarring precisely because our own assumptions are used against us. We expect comradery, or at least some kind of cultural connection, but they are so suppressed by the white soul that colonised their being that you’ll only get a flash of recognition, and only in very specific circumstances, if you’re lucky – and it doesn’t always go well for you. You can see this when the sunken Andre/Logan doesn’t punch Chris’ hand back in greeting. It happens when we ask other blackfellas ‘who’s your mob?’ and they can’t answer, then cry lateral violence for asking.
On that note, Watego knows this chapter will be misread by others projecting their insecurities onto her. She anticipates this backlash because it never not comes. How tiring it is to write defensively like this. This is paranoid writing – related to paranoid reading, where we’re arguing with rather than enjoying the text – and we must always be thinking three moves ahead and explain everything meticulously.
But how many bad faith social media discussions must we endure about how Aboriginal community protocols, misrepresented as laterally violent gatekeeping, supposedly harm the newly Aboriginal individual? Rarely do we hear about the harm they do to us, collectively, especially in the way that white Australia defers to these people over life-timers – giving them funding, platforms, think pieces and positions. I’ll let Jefferson take the mic again: ‘The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.’
This chapter is Watego’s right of reply to all those people. Her final word to them: ‘You don’t get to extract other peoples’ stories, histories, languages or mannerisms to pass off an Indigeneity that doesn’t belong to you.’
If I loved chapter 5 because it felt like I was yarning with my people, I felt alienated from the conversation in chapter 6, ‘fuck hope’. The last thing I want is for my sore little feelings about this to derail the much bigger picture – which is that I dearly loved this book, which fortified me and brought me such solace – but I must be rigorous in my accounting.
There were a few reasons I didn’t vibe with this chapter, the first being that Watego was not really speaking to me, or to anyone I know for that matter. I suspect this chapter was written for those fresh black academics with stars in their eyes, and for other blackfellas who have hope in Australia, but I just don’t know any who do. Perhaps it was addressed to a younger Watego herself, when she was still in the Martin Luther King camp, before she’d moved over to the Malcolm X camp – before she’d embarked on the battles touched on in chapter 4 and detailed in her Meanjin essay ‘Always Bet on Black (Power)’. It is evident from reading these sunken place struggles that Watego’s been much deeper into the fight than I have, so I’d like to chalk this up to a difference in intended audience.
Still, despite agreeing with Watego in principle, I couldn’t totally get on board with the messaging of this chapter. The title ‘fuck hope’ is repeated throughout, but what it gains in catchiness it sacrifices in nuance. Much of the writing feels too totalising, missing the texture I admired in the previous chapters, and shoehorned in to fit the purview of a snappy slogan. Watego briefly mentions some potentially interesting counterarguments, but rather than considering their complexity and engaging with them fully they are quickly sanded down to such smoothness and smallness that they appear to no longer pose any threat to the central thesis of the chapter. But I wasn’t always convinced. As one example close to my heart, Watego quickly posits (but doesn’t explain further) that an overreliance on hope is a reason for Aboriginal suicide, but every suicide note I’ve ever read and written begs to differ.
Finally, this chapter was dismissive of the kind of hopeful action that gets things done. Although I have never had hope in white systems, I do use hope as a propellant energy, particularly through my engagement with speculative fiction and abolitionist politics, both visionary fields that I care deeply about (and which sometimes overlap). Neither one deals in the hope that Watego argues against: neither in the deceptive hope of utopia, nor in a passive hope for white governance. The hope is not that colonial systems will roll over without a fight. The hope is pragmatic: that our people will do what needs to be done, as we always have, and that we’ll eventually chip away at the shackles. The hope is in the doing, and the hope is the reason for the doing.
Hope is an energy we use to reach a goal. It’s not the final destination. To use a footy analogy: when kicking a goal, especially from far out, you have to aim far beyond the goals even though you know the ball will never get there. The ball will fall short – but it will hopefully fly between the posts. Another bodily metaphor: if you want to punch someone in the face and really hurt them, you should aim for your fist to stop behind the surface of their face. You know your hand won’t go through but you use this as a strategy to do damage anyway. If you aim to stop two inches beyond the face, that will do some real damage, but if you aim to stop five inches beyond, that person ain’t getting up.
Watego brings the ruckus in ‘a final word… on joy.’ This is a lovely and loving end to this book and I wish it went on for longer. This outro is partly a roll call of staunch blackfellas who Watego admires and a love letter to them. Metaphors of battle and fighting alongside allies, and against enemies, are elaborated on before she argues against the self-focused, commodified version of self-care popularised by wellness influencers. She says that fighting for our people is care, and that it’s important to find joy in the fight, and not away from it. The best laughter is hard won and often comes at the end of abject horror.
What saves Chris in the end of Get Out? It is black joy and love, personified by his best friend Rod, the TSA officer who, on second watch, is less comic relief and more the lone voice of reason who never gave up even though he was ridiculed and ignored. Rod is a symbol of our own black cultural selves: our related, collective, communal selves who – whether through family and community ragging on us when we big note ourselves (though still supporting us), or through our own loud voices of conscience telling us not to take our roles in colonial institutions too seriously, urging us to be aware when our guts tell us there’s something wrong, and to not be seduced by white flattery and to always dig deeper into little white lies – encourage us to always be able to laugh with our people and at ourselves.
It can be mighty lonely in the sunken place, a feeling that has always been my baseline in the academy as I live and work on the cultural and intellectual margins. There are not many of us Indigenous academics out there, and we are more atomised than ever. Reading this book made me feel a little less alone.
The best writers are relational and relatable. They bring their readers with them as they go. And they don’t just tell stories; they get under our skin. When they are fierce, we want to be fierce. When they expose their souls to us, they peel away a little of our armour too.