Aboriginal Identity: Sally Morgan and My Place.

Sally Morgan could be seen as an Aboriginal ambassador, teaching indigenous Australians to feel pride in their identity rather than shame. Her biographical book My Place presented an Indigenous perspective of history and the storytelling mode of the book is deeply connected with Aboriginal identity. This particular format, though traditional for aboriginal history, is not conventional of traditional historiography. My Place received great accolade at the time of its release in 1987 and its importance is evident through its inclusion in school curriculums. Due to the book’s introduction of the ‘stolen generations’, it was somewhat controversial and some historians have critiqued Morgan and her writing. Keith Windschuttle claims the entire book is fabricated and that Sally Morgan is not even Aboriginal. In a less negative fashion than Windschuttle, Bain Attwood questions Sally Morgan’s choice to portray herself as Aboriginal when the discovery of her Aboriginality was so late in life. On July, 1987, The Sydney Morning Herald said that, “As for My Place, it deserves a place – among the classics of Australian biography.”

My Place: The Story

My Place is a biographical chronology of the life of Sally Morgan and reveals her discovery of Aboriginality in her heritage. The first section of the book begins as a chronology of Sally’s younger years, with general facts about school and home. Until age 15, Sally was unaware that she was Aboriginal and was encouraged to tell other kids at school she was Indian. After the discovery of her true heritage, Sally digs deeper and decides to write a book about it. She interviews her mother (Gladys), her grandmother (Daisy) and her great Uncle (Arthur). Through this research, Sally embarks on an emotional journey to learn about her family history. She learns, however, that it is not always the most pleasant. Through interviews with her family members, Sally discovers that her family had been apart of removal process in Australia. This meant that some Indigenous children were removed from their families to be raised in missions run by white, Anglo-Saxon people teaching the Indigenous children their Christian values. Her grandmother Daisy lived and worked with the Drake-Brockmans, a white family owning the Corunna-Downs Station. Sally Morgan presents a story that is relatable to both Indeigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. She presents a book/history that forces both white and indigenous Australians to assess the past whether or not a correct Aboriginal history has been told in Australia. Morgan also confronts the indigenous reader with the idea of learning their past and embracing indigenous identity, even if it is painful. On December 20, 1987, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article detailing Human Rights Commission awards presented to Indigenous writers, in which Sally Morgan was one of them for My Place. :The awards were established by the Commission to recognise personal endeavours which have promoted the understanding and public discussion of human rights issues in Australia.” My Place had been so influential that it affected the Human Rights Commission and understood that Indigenous issues that were still prevalent in Australian society at the time of its release in 1987.

Historiography

My Place acts as an indigenous account of history in Australia and provides it in a way that is injected with emotion. Typically in historiography, the aim of its writing is “objective and factual, to construct a narrative that is rational, cool and aspires towards achieving some truth.” (Damousi, The Emotions of History p. 28) Morgan, though, presents her history as though she is telling a story, which is connected to Aboriginal identity. More than often, Indigenous people do not tell their history through the reproduction of books but through oral history. Oral history causes the person telling the history/story, and the person listening, to engage more closely with each other and create a bond. “It is clear, when meeting with Aboriginal people, that despite or perhaps because of increasing levels of participation in western post-secondary education, oral tradition and story-telling are still central to aboriginal personal and community identity.” (Poff, The Importance of Story-Telling p. 27) The oral history Indigenous Australians see as a culturally and emotionally important way of telling history, is incorrect in the academic world where historiography is concerned.

Keith Windschuttle

Windschuttle contests the authenticity of My Place completely and denies the stolen generations ever occurred. He supports the Drake-Brockmans in their accusations of falsity towards My Place. “Rather than a tragedy of white racists stealing children and exploiting Aboriginality, the real Daisy’s story was one of fulfilment within white society.” (Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Vol 3, p. 320) . Not only does Windschuttle critique My Place and its authenticity, he goes further to question whether there is an Aboriginal heritage in the Corruna family at all. In a photo of Sally’s Grandmother Daisy, at the Drake-Brockman’s station, Windschuttle exclaims that Daisy is not Aboriginal. “Daisy’s Melanesian heritage is clearly visible in her thick fuzzy hair, unknown among Aboriginal people.” Whereas Morgan has worked so hard to make Indigenous Australians accept the past, people like Windschuttle are still around to deny anything ever happened to them. He preaches that Indigenous people should be thankful of white influence, rather than accuse them of anything, creating only more confusion for some Indigenous Australians struggling to create an identity.

Bain Attwood

Unlike Windschuttle, Attwood does not critique My Place with the same negativity.  His particular questions in regards to Sally Morgan are “why is it that Morgan has constructed herself in terms of being Aboriginal?… What is the unconscious (or conscious) problem that belief in her Aboriginality solves for Morgan, or what wishes or desires does this belief satisfy?” (Attwood, Portrait of and Aboriginal as an artist, p. 303) Whilst My Place has helped to construct Aboriginal identity for indigenous Australians other than Morgan, Attwood questions why this book has helped them do so. Identity is a construct and Aboriginal identity is one that Morgan has adopted late in life rather than being raised with it. “By comparison with other Aboriginal writers, then, one could argue that Morgan’s Aboriginality is forged through the creation of the text rather than the reverse.” (p. 303) I love My Place and think that it is a highly important book that presents an Aboriginal perspective of the past rather than just non-indigenous perspectives. However, I agree with Bain Atwood in saying that this book helped to create Sally Morgan’s identity, rather than a book being created as a result of her Aboriginal past. I wonder whether Morgan would hold the same views and identity if she had decided against writing a book of her family history. She does, though, embark on a journey of self-discovery, which can also shape a person’s identity further from what it already was.

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