My Place by Sally Morgan is an autobiographical account of three generations of Aboriginal women: Sally, her mother Gladys, and Sally’s grandmother, Daisy. Sally writes of her experiences growing up in suburban Perth during the 1950’s and 1960’s and her search for truth and identity after she discovers her Aboriginal heritage.
Although her mother and grandmother were Aboriginal, Sally and her siblings had a white father and they grew up ignorant of their Aboriginal background. Their mother told them they were Indian and didn’t speak about the past.
Bill, their father, had been a prisoner of war in Germany during WWII before he married Gladys and was a troubled man who sought relief in alcohol and frequently required hospitalisation. He didn’t want anything to do with his wife’s relatives and died when Sally was nine years of age.
My Place is written in a simple, vernacular style and although Sally is the main author, Gladys, her mother, Nan, and Nan’s brother, Arthur Corunna, all tell their individual stories in the book. As I was reading Arthur’s Story, it reminded me of Albert Fahey’s account in A Fortunate Life of growing up in the Australian bush in the early 1900’s. There are some close similarities in the way they were both treated as young impoverished boys working in the outback during the Depression years.
Sally was fifteen before she realised she was Aboriginal and tells of her shock at discovering that her Grandmother, Nan, was black and therefore she must be also. Things began to make sense now she had this knowledge but it also raised more questions than answers:
What did it really mean to be Aboriginal? I’d never lived off the land and been a hunter and a gatherer. I’d never participated in corroborees or heard stories of the Dreamtime. I hardly knew any Aboriginal people. What did it mean for someone like me?
I was often puzzled by the way Mum and Nan approached anyone in authority, it was as if they were frightened…why on earth would anyone be frightened of the government?
In 1982, Sally travelled to her grandmother’s birthplace in the Pilbara and began to piece together the past. As she unearthed her roots, her questions and probing helped to draw out her mother and grandmother’s memories that up until this time had been kept to themselves. Her Uncle Arthur was the first person to talk to Sally about the past. When he was about eleven or twelve years old he was taken from Corunna Downs in the Pilbara to the Swan Native and Half-Caste Mission near Perth:
One day I’d like to go back to Corunna Downs…
Aah, I wish I’d never left there. It was my home. Sometimes I wish I’d been born black as the ace of spades, then they’d never have took me. They only took half-castes.
…They told my mother and the others we’d be back soon. We wouldn’t be gone for long, they said…They didn’t realise they wouldn’t be seein’ us no more. I thought they wanted us educated so we could help run the station some day, I was wrong.
Bill had only been dead a short time when a Welfare lady came out to visit us. I was really frightened because I thought if she realised we were Aboriginal, she might have the children taken away. We only had two bedrooms and a sleepout and there were five children, as well as Mum and me.
This woman turned out to be a real bitch. She asked me all sorts of questions and walked through our house with her nose in the air like a real snob. She asked where we all slept, and when I told her Helen slept with me, she was absolutely furious. She said, ‘You are to get that child out of your bed, we will not stand for that. You work out something else, the children aren’t to be in the same room as you. I’ll come back and check to make sure you’ve got another bed.’
…I just agreed with everything she said. I didn’t want her to have any excuse to take the children off me.
It was after the visit from the Welfare lady that Mum and I decided we would definitely never tell the children they were Aboriginal.
I suppose, looking back now, it seems awful that we deprived them of that heritage, but we thought we were doing the right thing at the time.
In those days it was considered a privilege for a white man to want you, but if you had children, you weren’t allowed to keep them. You was only allowed to keep the black ones. They took the white ones off you ‘cause you weren’t considered fit to raise a child with white blood.
I tell you it made a wedge between the people. Some of the black men felt real low, and some of the native girls with a bit of white in them wouldn’t look at a black man. There I was stuck in the middle. Too black for the whites and too white for the blacks.
Something to be aware of and that stood out to me was the different spiritual beliefs of the three women. Gladys and Sally had some Christian influence in their lives but it became blended with what they had imbibed of their Aboriginal beliefs from their grandmother so that their spiritual lives were a mix of ideas and they explained some of their experiences using this admixture. Daisy, on the other hand had a greater respect for the dangers of meddling in the spiritual dimension:
Gladdie was silly in those days. always wantin’ to know her future. She didn’t know what she was meddlin’ with. You leave the spirits alone. You mess with them, you get burnt. She had her palm read, her tea-leaves read, I don’t know what she didn’t get read. I never went with her to any of these fortune-tellers. They give you a funny feeling inside. Blackfella know all ’bout spirits. We brought up with them. That’s where the white man’s stupid. He only believes what he can see. He needs to get educated. He’s only livin’ half a life.
How deprived we would have been
if we had been willing
to let things stay as they were.
We would have survived,
but not as a whole people.
We would never have known
My Place has been used in High Schools in Australia in Years 9 /10. It’s definitely a book for older students and I’d recommend it as a read aloud and discuss otherwise preview for language and mature themes.
Be aware that there is another book with the same name by Nadia Wheatley but it’s a children’s picture book that looks at the history of one particular piece of land in Sydney from 1788 to 1988 through the stories of the various children who have lived there.