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Believing the Black Witness and the power of YES

Two keynote speakers at the Sydney Writers’ Festival raised questions about the power of words to eradicate racism and build a more equitable future for Indigenous people in Australia.

Writer and journalist Amy McQuire, who gave the Annual PEN Sydney Lecture: Believing the Black Witness, is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman from Rockhampton in Central Queensland.

Her lecture probed similar issues to those she interrogates in Black Witness, her first non-fiction book (to be published in 2024), and in her award-winning essay, “The Act of Disappearing: On the silences that shroud the disappearances of Aboriginal women and girls” (published in Meanjin 81.4 Summer 2022).

“Amy McQuire’s devastating essay throws a piercing light on the silences that befall Indigenous women who ‘go missing’, disappear, fall through the cracks of police inaction and victim-blaming,” said Hilary McPhee (for whom the essay award was named).

McQuire said Black Witnesses had been silenced for two centuries, their accounts only accepted when legitimised by White people.

To begin telling the truth of this country, she said, we must support and adequately resource a black media that acts as an arm of advocacy for protest and that always re-centres the voice of the Black Witness.

Addressing racism in the media was often framed around the need for greater diversity, namely we needed more black journalists and people of colour in mainstream newsrooms, she said.

But that was not enough.

“In the mainstream media, black journalists are employed not to actively contest the violence of the state or even the media but to translate it into a mode most understandable to white Australia and, sometimes, that means not speaking of violence at all.

“This sanitation process often means that Aboriginal journalists are made to conceal the parts of their work that are most important to our communities because their role in the mainstream media is not set up to fight for our communities but rather to inform on them.”

Citing case after case in which the voice of the Black Witness was silenced or delegitimised, and showing many instances of how mainstream ways of doing journalism had let black people down, McQuire said a sovereign Black media and a truly independent and alternative media landscape would require the development of tools and methodologies to “speak to the violence continually perpetrated against our people”.

“A sovereign Black media would not be separated from activism,” she said. “It instead acts as an arm of activism. If we are not writing and working for the interests of Aboriginal people and families then there is no point in us being there.”

The deaths in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee and Lennie Casey, both of whom had died within an hour of being taken into police watch houses in the same week in Queensland, had failed to create any outrage or coverage, McQuire said, partly because police media had intimated Mulrunji died of natural causes, erasing any question of a perpetrator.

“There is nothing natural about dying in custody and yet the deaths of black men in custody are naturalised due to the questions that are not asked and the way the police assumptions and outright lies are swallowed and regurgitated onto the bottom of newspapers.

“A death in a watch house where police are supposed to be exercising a duty of care is only natural if over-surveillance, over-targeting and over-incarceration of black men is natural.

“Through processes of racialisation and criminalisation, black men in white justice systems are in turn naturalised and seen as part of the norm. So, the media report on it as if it is just a blip in the day’s cycle of crime reporting, which rests so heavily on police propaganda.”

Richard Flanagan said, “The Voice is the way we free our tongues. The voice matters to our literature.” Photo: Stephen Webb

Author Richard Flanagan, who won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, used his Closing Night Address at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to emphasise the poisonous power of racism and the importance of constitutional recognition of the Voice for Indigenous people to the Australian parliament.

Flanagan spoke of his concern for his friend, Wiradjuri presenter and journalist Stan Grant, who had recently resigned from the ABC due to the racism he’d encountered.

Flanagan also condemned the Murdoch media for what he believed “amounted to a campaign of race hate and racial division the only beneficiaries of which are the coalition parties as they now find themselves needing to win the NO vote in the hope it will stop an otherwise possibly inexorable slide to becoming a One Nation type minor party.

“All of this is camouflaged with talk of equality and concern for constitutional propriety by the Coalition. Thus Tony Abbott argued that the Voice will mean two classes of Australians [quote] ‘with the few given a special right to influence legislation over and above that accorded to the many’ [unquote], which sounded phoned in, and no more than a succinct description of the power the fossil fuel industry, the Murdoch family or the IPA have over the Liberal Party.”

Flanagan said that while he was meant to be addressing the festival theme by talking about future stories of Australia in general, he was really talking about one story in particular.

“The great question that our nation can answer later this year is the question of whether or not we support The Voice.”

He said the majority of Indigenous leaders were making the case for constitutional recognition, which they had created and which they needed.

“They are arguing for justice. They are arguing for a lessening of bureaucracy and the corruptions that afflict Indigenous lives. They are arguing for Aboriginal people to have some power over their own affairs. These arguments, practical and concrete, are why 80 per cent of Indigenous people support the Voice.”

If that beginning of justice and recognition for Aboriginal Australia did not occur, Flanagan said, there could be no justice any of us could trust.

“If we define Aboriginal people with hate, we will lose the power to define ourselves as something better and larger. If we cannot imagine ourselves and our democracy as something larger and better, we will shrink with our failure. And we will keep on shrinking, and shrinking.”

Flanagan said that while the Voice and constitutional recognition might seem to have nothing at all to do with literature, writers or writing, it had everything to do with “how we might dream ourselves anew”.

Such dreaming would involve writers no longer representing Australian reality solely through a European/Western prism, he said.

“Once we think we’re European or American or Western, we are as speechless as Lot’s wife when we confront our past. Struck dumb, with either the useless guilt of the Left or the offence and the bigotry and racism of the Right, and we become part of sustaining lie that cripples us all as a people.”

Flanagan said that to make a new start in creating dreams and stories we might “live better by” meant connecting to what was most powerful in this country: “This beautiful land and the people – all the people … a place of wonder and a source of strength. Not as a place of inexplicable violence but as a place that recognises the historical violence against the Aboriginal people as the great crime it was and remains.”

Given the challenges Australians would face in coming years, including extreme climate change and extreme injustice and inequality, he said, we needed, “as a people and as writers”, to discover and create new songlines, “to connect this world to the spirit world of our many countries that are Australia”.

“That is why the Voice comes to us now, not simply as being about a minor rejigging of our constitutional arrangements but as something infinitely larger. Something which non-Indigenous people have to confront not simply out of guilt or pity or goodwill or altruism but in an awareness of what, just now, confronts us as a nation. The extraordinary possibilities of saying ‘yes’ and the profound costs and saying ‘no’.

“The Voice is the question mark that now appears over our country and, by implication, our literature. For us to be secure, for us to prosper, the answer lies not in relentless exploitation nor more inequality, nor yet in reckless acts of external aggression to please larger countries.

“The answer lies in us, in our land and in the way we answer this great question later this year.

“I hope, I pray that our reply will be YES.”


The Sydney Writers’ Festival was held at Carriageworks and other venues from May 22 to May 28 and addressed the theme “Stories for the Future”.

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