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In Archie Roach we have a quintessential example of how powerful a voice can be | Larissa Behrendt

When Archie Roach released Charcoal Lane, the broader Australian community carried a large secret.

Archie’s first single, Took the Children Away, released in September 1990 off the now iconic album Charcoal Lane, came at a time when too many Australians still claimed to know nothing of the stolen generations. The many First Nations people who had been removed under the policy and who were living with the trauma of that time and the difficult readjustment to life were subsequently invisible to the nation.

They were suffering unacknowledged.

The song tells of the cruelty of the policy (“Teach them how to live they said / Humiliated them instead”). It speaks of the attempts of parents to keep their children (“My mother cried, ‘Go get their dad’ / He came running, fighting mad”). It captures the sense of dislocation and the need to belong (“As we grew up we felt alone / ‘Cause we were acting white / Yet feeling black”).

And importantly, it evokes a wish for the triumphant return back to families, of the Aboriginal community’s commitment to coming back together (“One sweet day all the children came back”). In this way, a song about one of the cruelest and most inhumane policies inflicted on Aboriginal people as part of the colonization process also contained a celebration of the resilience and strength of the Aboriginal community.

It wasn’t just the words; it was the chords. They evoked the feelings, the emotion deep in the heart. The music was as powerful as the lyrics.

Our greatest storytellers give us words to describe how we feel. They articulate our emotions. They provide us with a language. Archie Roach did that. More than the legacy of his songbook by him – the music and lyrics that will be their own eternal life by him – he gave us the gift of real human truth.

For many Aboriginal men and women, the song was a validation, capturing a lived experience and presenting it for the world to hear. It was also a call to the broader Australian community to finally acknowledge what had happened.

The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing them Home report was tabled in parliament in 1997. Its strength lay in the extensive first-hand accounts contained throughout the report, including from the families of those who were taken away. These haunting, powerful testimonies assisted in showing the depth of devastation caused by the policy and the systemic abuse in all its forms of the children who were taken.

Commissioned by the Keating government’s attorney general Michael Lavarch after extensive lobbying by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island advocates, most of them survivors of the policy, the Bringing them Home report was received by the Howard government who, in keeping with its broader agenda of rolling back Aboriginal rights (“the pendulum had swung too far,” John Howard had said on native title), sought to undermine the importance of the report.

This was done through a formal response that sought to once again remove the voices of the stolen generations’ survivors and their families by saying it was only one in 10 children who were taken away (a contested figure given the poor record-keeping) – an attempt to shift attention away from the stories back to the cold statistics. Other criticisms from the official government report included that the policy was done with the best of intentions, that it was incorrect to use the term “cultural genocide” and that child removal was a thing of the past.

All of these propositions have strong, evidence-based counter-arguments. And none of this ideologically driven rhetoric changed the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In this context of a formal government strategy that sought to write out the experience of the stolen generations, Took the Children Away took on additional significance. It continued, immovably, as an anthem for acknowledging the truth and for listening to the voices of those who were speaking it.

As the world’s oldest living culture, our tradition of storytelling goes back into deep time. Archie Roach was a modern-day storyteller cloaked in this tradition. As he now takes that final journey to be with his ancestors from him and his beloved Ruby Hunter, he leaves us with the gift of his generosity, his dignity from him in fighting for his truth from him.

Many observed the irony that, during a period when significant progress is being made on developing a Voice to parliament, we lost one of our greatest voices.

But in Archie Roach we have a quintessential example of how powerful and unwavering a voice can be. At a time when the nation needs truth-telling, Archie Roach has given us a bold example of the importance of speaking those stories of experience, not just for our healing, but to ensure real change.

At a time when we are talking about treaty, we have Archie Roach as one of our greatest ambassadors, a diplomat who could reach across the race divide and bring others with him.

  • Distinguished Prof Larissa Behrendt OA is the director of research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney. She is the author of three novels, most recently After Story.

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