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April 18, 2016

Out of isolation

Ahead of Stan Grant's appearance this Thursday as part of the Hawke Centre's program, Connor meanders through the author's sophomore outing - Talking to My Country - and finds a work that could be one of the most important books released in recent Australian memory.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O’Brien

At the end of last year, an infographic indicating the frequency of mass shootings in the US was shared widely.

Bloody red dots, each indicating a shooting, clustered around major cities on the East and West coasts, growing darker as one was layered on top of another. When a friend shared the image, an American quickly commented: “That’s misleading. Some of those don’t count… the ones in Chicago and New York are mostly gang-related.”



Connor Tomas O’Brien is a writer, designer and creative type based in Melbourne. He is the director of the Digital Writers’ Festival, designer of Voiceworks magazine, and co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely.

As the comments unspooled, the American attempted to politely explain why black-on-black gun crimes weren’t considered worthy of tallying alongside other massacres, and why the deaths that took place in American ghettos were inexorable, inexplicable, and better off ignored.

I thought about this exchange as I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – a book that has been rightly recognised as a foundational text of the Black Lives Matter movement. The work, written in the form of a letter to Coates’ adolescent son, speaks of an America in which black bodies, once explicitly stolen, are now rendered implicitly disposable.

As a response to the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of armed officers, Between the World and Me provides a necessary corrective to an ‘arrow of progress’ narrative, in which the abolition of slavery and overt racial segregation were supposed to have resulted in a straightforward accumulation of opportunities and rights for African Americans. Written in elegiac prose, Coates’ argument is that every clear gain is met with a systematic attempt to re-engineer imbalance. The American prison apparatus, for example – which will take one in three black Americans born today, unless it is reformed – is the descendant of a system in which slavery has repeatedly shape-shifted to skirt around acts and amendments designed to prohibit the taking of black bodies.

Coates’ most pertinent point is that acts of racism are increasingly ‘elegant’, the most insidious designed to obscure their engineering by placing the blame on those who find themselves caught within them. Ghettos are “killing fields authored by federal policies,” notes Coates, “to yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”

Between the World and Me emerges from a short tradition of epistolary work that can be traced to James Baldwin’s 1962 A Letter to My Nephew, in which the subjective experiences of black Americans are passed to family members and made available to a wider audience. The conceit is a compelling one, as the reader is not invited to respond to an argument, but to listen in on a personal history in which experiences on the micro-level prove difficult to discount and help to form a bigger picture.

In Australia, we now have a work in the vein of Baldwin and Coates’ – journalist Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country. Emerging from a widely shared Guardian piece written in response to the booing of footballer Adam Goodes, the work radically expands the context of the original article to situate the vilification of Goodes in relation to white Australia’s history of violence toward Indigenous Australians.

Grant is not shy about using Coates’ book as a framework, and it is the similarities between the two that are instructive. When Grant argues that, “There is no such thing as race,” the reader is reminded of a passage from Coates: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” For both men, it is the personal histories – complicated, tangled, and characterised by struggles against oppression – that create kinship among members of oppressed groups. As they explain, attempts to enforce “racial” lines from the outside disempower individuals from determining their own sense of identity.

 Both Between the World and Me and Talking to My Country place acts that might otherwise be viewed in isolation… as incidents with deep historical antecedents.

Like Coates, Grant is wary of his country’s propensity to engage in self-congratulation for small gains made in the name of equality. Such a focus, he argues, obscures both what still needs to be done and suggests, dangerously, that it is possible to divorce ourselves from history. When, as Grant notes, Indigenous men between twenty-five and thirty are four times more likely to commit suicide, and Aboriginal deaths in custody have increased in the decades since the Royal Commission submitted its findings in 1991, we must reckon with our present as we improve our reckoning with our past.

Both Between the World and Me and Talking to My Country place acts that might otherwise be viewed in isolation – the treatment of Goodes on the field, and the taking of the lives of Garner, Brown, Gray and others – as incidents with deep historical antecedents. As Grant writes, “It is these moments – minutes in our lives but repeated over and over – which poison our souls and kill us as sure as the waterholes poisoned on the frontier killed our ancestors”.

Neither work is prescriptive, by design – there are no straightforward takeaways, but readers are invited to engage more deeply with the mechanisms of oppression. Still, a certain truth, expressed in both works, is incontrovertible: if the fundamental basis for racist acts, which change shape but not substance over time, remain unacknowledged, they will endlessly recur.

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