2006-11-21

Australia’s blackest sporting moments: the top 100 / Stephen Hagan. (Ngalga Warralu, 2006) Review

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by Neil Godfrey

Caveat: I am one of 14 contributors to this book. Anti-caveat: I receive no remuneration whatever from this book!

Compiler and commentator academic and aboriginal activist Stephen Hagan is highly controversial, especially in his (and my) hometown Toowoomba which the Bulletin once reported was voted the most rednecked town in Australia. Toowoomba has been the centre of his years-old campaign to have the name “Nigger” removed from a local sporting stadium, a campaign that has taken him to the Australian High Court and even to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Hagan wrote of these experiences as part of his biography in “The N Word” which won a Deadly Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature at the Sydney Opera House in 2005. With this background one might expect this new book to be a list of the sins of the whites, but Hagan with engaging honesty confronts the racism found among both the blacks and whites on Australia’s iconic sporting fields.

To create this book Hagan compiled 100 newspaper and television reports of racism, shared his selections among 12 nonindigenous associates, including yours truly, asking them to make their own comments on each, which he prints beside his own critiques. If some felt that it was a mark of over-sensitivity to read genuine racism into a remark (such as Australian Ray Martin addressing Cassius Clay as “boy” on his TV show — to those in the US, Yes! definitely; but to Australians?) Hagan does not shy from including their view and explanation as well, admitting that his purpose in seeking a range of views was to avoid charges of personal bias. (The “14th” contributor is Perth indigenous cartoonist Julie Dowling, an Archibald Prize finalist.)

This is a confronting book, forcing readers to face a too easily marginalized issue entrenched not only among field competitors but also among sports administrators and media reporters. The #1 moment listed relates to perhaps one of the most universally loved indigenous sportswomen in Australia, tennis star Evonne Goolagong. How many Aussies will know, recall, care, be outraged to learn that Evonne was brought to tears on hearing a white opponent remark at the end of a match: “That’s the first time I’ve ever been beaten by a nigger”?
The book is also historical. It takes us back to Henry Lawson himself (thank god for ethical evolution — my evolutionary biases want me to think that such a person would be ashamed of his 1908 views if he were alive today) and the scandalous treatment of Australia’s first England-touring aboriginal cricket team (1868), treated as a joke and now forgotten, but by any objective standard deserving of highest longlived honours.

For those of you who may also share an interest in the new Alan Jones biography by Chris Masters (which I have also reviewed in LibraryThing), this is AJ’s contribution: “Well, some dunce who calls himself an Aboriginal activist has been petitioning the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, thank you very much, to have the word “nigger” removed. And, are you sitting down> Al 11-page judgment by this same outfit, most probably made up of freedom loving people from Cuba, the Middle East and the darkest despotic parts of Africa, have said the term was offensive and insulting.” (p.81)

Steven Hagan is justly proud of the history of this book. Its concept was suggested to him by a fellow aboriginal activist at Woodford Folk Festival (December 2005) along with the target date for its release: the Melbourne Commonwealth Games (March 2006)! The name of the publishing company created for it (Ngalga Warralu) is Killilli language for talk/stranger, to indicate talking with strangers.)

Since the publication of this book Steven Hagan has been awarded the Aboriginal Person of the Year award by NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee).

This book serves as part of Hagan’s work to promote cultural understanding and acceptance from both sides of the racial divide. One looks forward to it achieving a long shelf-life and wide reading audience.

  • Basil
    2012-04-22 13:40:02 UTC - 13:40 | Permalink

    I’m not sure what you mean by the 1868 team being treated as a joke. They were far from that, were popular and admired for their skill. Johnny Mullagh was outstanding. He has a claim to being Australia’s greatest all rounder. He is still a legend in the Western District of Victoria and has memorials and a museum there. He is a greatly respected person there. There is a strong argument that the popularity and sportsmanship of this team in England saved cricket which was in a parlous state at the time. This was a great team and as such attracted large crowds where-ever they went. That team was certainly not treated as a joke – its was too brilliant for that to happen – and I think it undermines the reputation of that team to say so with a throw away line. If you mean that team has not received from later generations the credit its deserves, I agree. It should have legendary status. My view is that all the players on that tour should be given retrospective Australian test numbers to recognize their outstanding success and what they did for cricket. Also there is case for at least 3 matches being given retrospective test status.

    • 2012-04-22 15:54:05 UTC - 15:54 | Permalink

      I don’t have a copy of the book now and can’t recall the newspaper clippings Stephen Hagan was using for his article. I can only assume there were some news reports, or at least one, that was very negative. But it is encouraging to hear that that could surely not have been the whole story. You might be able to contact Stephen Hagan at the University of Queensland to find out more.

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