By Alenka Csomor
Aunty Joyce on Truth telling during NAIDOC Week
There were sandflies and mudcrabs but no sting of racism on Joyce Summers’ island home.
Even when her family would leave Ukerebagh to journey to Kingaroy to ‘pull peanuts’ in the season, the Indigenous kids were embraced by the farming community.
“You know who lived in Kingaroy? Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He was a bit of a straight-lace, okay? I won’t say the other word,” she says of the longest-serving Queensland premier.
“But we went to a school where there was no discrimination. The teachers were good, the kids were good, the farmers were good. Everyone was quite okay with us.”
But the hurtful truth of mid-century Australia would catch up with a young Joyce soon enough on the southern doorstep of what would become Australia’s sixth-largest city, the Gold Coast.
Aunty Joyce Summers was born on Ukerebagh Island inside the mouth of the Tweed River. She shares her birthplace with the first Indigenous Australian to sit in federal parliament, Neville Bonner.
The river was her carefree playground. Across the channel in Tweed Heads, where local Indigenous families moved during World War II, was another matter.
Ukerebagh was an Aboriginal reserve. On the mainland, the Aboriginal Protection Board or the welfare department were watching.
“If we went to town we had to be immaculately dressed so that we didn’t draw attention to ourselves,” she says. “That didn’t click in our minds (at the time).
“But when I reached the age of 15 or 16, I found out there was a new world out there.
“We would go into town and that was where the racism was because we used to be roped off in the theatre. All us black people sat at the back and all the white people sat at the front.
“But you can either let racism get to you, or you don’t. It got to my brother because he took a little turn outside the theatre and he got himself barred. But we just made the most of a bad situation.”
Aunty Joyce was again trying to make the most of a bad situation in 1972 -- five years after Australia voted to count Indigenous people in the census. She was trying to put a roof over her family’s head.
“Do you know how hard it is to get accommodation if you’re a black woman, you’re single, and you’ve got five children?” she says.
“All I could do in the end was ring up and say, ‘You have a flat vacant. Will you let it to black people? If you won’t, I won’t waste your time or mine’. Because you get sick of getting the knockback. But you just keep on keeping on.
“If anyone doesn’t like you because you’re black, that’s their problem, not yours. If it affects your lifestyle, remember, it’s illegal. Racism is illegal.”
And here’s another home truth from the great-grandmother who graduated from university at 68 with a degree in Indigenous Studies.
“Let’s address terra nullius for starters,” she says.
“Is that truth or is it a lie? It’s a lie.
“Captain James Cook – he wasn’t a captain when he came out here, he was a lieutenant – he had specific instructions on what to do if he met with the inhabitants of the land and it was all completely ignored.
“So the colonisation or invasion of Australia, if you like, was based on a lie.
“Are people going to acknowledge that? Are people going to acknowledge the white Australia policy? There’s no reason for ignorance these days.”
The past – warts and all -- is celebrated by Aunty Joyce on behalf of her eight grandsons, four granddaughters, four great-grandaughters and one great-grandson.
“This morning I was putting together the genealogy that I’ve done for my daughter, who’s writing a book,” she says.
“My grandmother was removed from Charleville under the Aboriginal Protection Act and put into Barambah mission which is now Cherbourg.
“She experienced a lot of racism but she overcame all of that and she didn’t pass on what she experienced to any of us.
“Your life is what you make of it.”
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